Launched in the run-up to the French presidential elections, a daring exhibition in Paris is sparking dialogue about the origins and nature of racism, both in Europe and elsewhere.
Titled “Nous et les Autres: Des Préjugés aux Racisme” (Us and Them: From Prejudice to Racism), the exhibition’s aim is clear: to have visitors emerge with a changed perspective – especially in a climate of divisive politics that have created tensions ahead of the second and final round of the presidential elections on Sunday, May 7.
“We hope that visitors will leave different from how they entered,” says Bruno David, president of France’s National Museum of Natural History and of its anthropology branch the Musée de l’Homme, which is hosting the exhibition.
“That’s the objective. What we’re doing is in the tradition of the museum, a humanist tradition, asking questions of society,” he adds.
Many residents of France are in fact wondering how the country reached its current stage, with an extreme-right candidate again making it to the second round of French presidential elections.
Marine Le Pen, the former leader of the National Front party (she has temporarily stepped down from leading the party during the elections), won 21.5 percent of the votes in the first round, placing after independent candidate Emmanuel Macron (24 percent), and beating the candidates of the formerly mainstream conservative and socialist parties, François Fillon and Benoît Hamon.
Polls predict that Le Pen will lose in the second round – like her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 – and that Macron will be president. But she is still expected to garner around 40 percent of the vote, with her anti-immigration and anti-globalisation platform.
Xenophobia and using cultural differences to promote hatred and discrimination have especially caused concern among institutions with a commitment to human rights and equality, as the museum says it is.
“The first network of the Resistance [during World War II] was born here,” David said in an interview at the museum, which opened in 1937 and is located in the landmark buildings of the Trocadéro area, overlooking the Eiffel Tower. (An infamous visitor to the site was Adolf Hitler in 1940.)
“The exhibition is in line with our principles. It is not militant, because we’re a museum and our approach is scientific, but it is fairly courageous, especially during this time,” David told IPS.
Using photos, film, sculptures and installations in an interactive manner, the exhibition highlights how “differences” have been used throughout history to “imprison individuals in readymade representations and to divide them into categories”.
It stresses that “as soon as these ‘differences’ are organized into a hierarchy and essentialized, racism is alive and thrives.”
The curators have organized the display into three parts, focusing on the processes of categorization, on the historical development of institutional racism and on the current political and intellectual environment.
“It is natural to categorize,” says Evelyne Heyer, co-curator of the exhibition and a professor of genetic anthropology. “But it’s the moral value that we give to differences that determine if we’re racist or not. It makes no scientific sense to attribute a moral value to differences among people.”
Heyer says that based on genetic study, humans have fewer differences among them than breeds of dogs, for example, and that the “categorization of race is inappropriate to describe diversity”.
The exhibition attempts to give scientific answers to questions such as “if there are no races, why does human skin color vary,” and it presents information tracing the origins of mankind to the African continent.
Apart from the scientific aspect, the curators have put much emphasis on the historical and international facets of “racialization”, focusing for instance on Nazi Germany and the “exaltation of racial purity”; the treatment of the indigenous Ainu people in Japan; the divisions between Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda; and segregation in South Africa and the United States.
During the opening night, as people crowded in front of a screen showing footage of civil rights struggles in the United States, a Paris-based African American artist commented, “I remember that so well.”
When a French spectator responded, “But you don’t look that old”, the artist stated firmly: “I am. I was there,” and so a conversation began.
The curators are hoping that the exhibition will engender long-term dialogue across political divides, but in the end the conversation might only continue among the already converted, say some skeptics.
Still, for anyone wanting to learn more about the consequences of racism and discrimination, the exhibition presents a range of statistics.
It provides ample information, for instance, about the lack of access to employment for certain “groups” in France (job applicants with Muslim-sounding names often don’t receive responses to letters), as well as figures showing that the population most subjected to racism in the country are the Roma.
“Racism is difficult to measure, but many studies have been done on access to employment and on people’s views of those they consider different,” says historian and co-curator Carole Reynard-Paligot. “We want people to see these statistics and to ask questions.”
She said that she and her colleagues also wished to show the move from individuals’ racism to state racism, to examine how this developed and the part that colonization and slavery have played.
Throughout the exhibition, which runs until Jan. 8, 2018, the museum is organizing lectures, film screenings and other events. From May 10 to July 10, it is presenting works by photographers from French territories, Brazil, Africa and the United States in a show titled “Impressions Mémorielles”. This is to commemorate the French national day (May 10) of remembrance of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.
Meanwhile, other museums are also taking steps to counter the anti-immigration mindset. The Paris-based Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration (National Museum of the History of Immigration) has invited the population to visit its “Ciao Italia!” exhibition, either “before or after” they vote on Sunday.
This museum, which like the Musée de l’Homme has been controversial in the past because of its “colonialist” displays, says the Sunday free access will be an opportunity to learn about the story of Italian immigration to France from 1860 to 1960.
It will also be a chance to “discover … the numerous contributions of immigrants to French society”, the museum adds.