Monday, 8 May 2017


On a day when the independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron beat his far-right opponent to win the French presidential elections, a museum in the Trocadéro area of Paris was packed with young visitors - a symbol of the results.

They had come to see “Nous et les Autres: Des Préjugés aux Racisme” (Us and Them: From Prejudice to Racism), a daring exhibition - for France - that has been prompting dialogue about the origins and nature of racism, both in Europe and elsewhere.

From the exhibition: how do we categorize others?
Launched in the run-up to the vote, and under the patronage of UNESCO, the exhibition’s aim has been clear from the outset: to have visitors emerge with a changed perspective - especially in a climate of divisive politics.

“We hope that visitors will leave different from how they entered,” said 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 told journalists during the opening at the end of March.

Many observers have been wondering how France reached the stage of having an extreme-right candidate again making it to the second round of presidential elections, as happened in 2002.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front party (she temporarily stepped down from leading the party during the elections), won 34.3 percent of the votes in the final round on May 7, against Macron's 65.7 percent. She had campaigned on a blistering anti-immigration and anti-globalization platform.

Views similar to hers, seen as promoting division and fear of the “other”, 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 Palais de Chaillot, overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

“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,” he continued.

Using photos, film, sculptures and installations in an interactive manner, the exhibition highlights how “differences” have been used throughout history to “imprison individuals in ready-made representations and to divide them into categories”.

Museum workers set up the exhibits.
It stresses that “as soon as these ‘differences’ are organized into a hierarchy and essentialized, racism is alive and thrives”. 

The curators have arranged the display into three parts, focusing on what they call the processes of "categorization", as well as 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”.

A panel at "Nous et les Autres".
The exhibition attempts to give scientific answers to questions such as “if there are no races, why does human skin colour vary” and it presents information tracing the origins of humankind 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.

As on election day, the exhibits have sparked sober discussion. During the opening night, for instance, 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 entrance to the exhibition.
The curators are hoping that the exhibition will prompt long-term dialogue across political divides, but in the end the conversation might only continue among the already converted, say some skeptics, who also wonder about the display's target audience: who exactly is "us" or "them"?

Still, for anyone wanting to learn more about the consequences of racism and discrimination, the exhibition presents a range of statistics.

It provides information, for instance, about the lack of access to employment for certain “groups” in France (job applicants with “North-African-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.

 A view from the exhibition: how to live together?
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 a group of photographers from French territories, Brazil, Africa and the United States in a show titled “Impressions Mémorielles”. This is in observance of the French national day (May 10) of remembrance of slavery, the transatlantic slave trade and abolition.

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) invited the population to visit its “Ciao Italia!” exhibition, either “before or after” they voted.

This museum, which like the Musée de l’Homme has been controversial in the past because of its “colonialist” displays, said that the Sunday free access would be an opportunity to learn about the story of Italian immigration to France from 1860 to 1960.

It was also a chance to “discover ... the numerous contributions of immigrants to French society”, the museum added. - A.M.

For an earlier version of this article, please see the Inter Press Service (IPS) site: