In 1931, the Palais de la porte Doree was constructed for the International Colonial Exhibition that was held in the same year. The Palais was meant to house the Museum of the Colonies, which recounted the imperialistic aims of the westernized world. Since then, the Palais has undergone numerous transitions before evolving into the current Museum of Immigration History. The building still houses the Tropical Aquarium in its basement, which has existed in the space since the 1931 origins of the site. The 1931 International Colonial Exhibition was advertised as an event that would allow visitors to travel "Round the world in a single day" by walking around the Bois de Vincennes and the Palais de la porte Doree in an attempt to project the wealth and dominance that a country gained by practicing colonization. The Palais provided a history of past colonization and attempted to legitimize the practice by demonstrating the superiority of Western culture over their subjects by showing peoples from colonies across the world in their traditional garb along with art, pictures, and films from these areas.
Similar to earlier Exposition Universelles, the International Colonial Exhibition acted as an opportunity for France to demonstrate the country's political dominance on international scale. However, in 1931 rather than portraying this sentiment through technological innovation, France asserted her cultural superiority by displaying the peoples of her conquests in the equivalent of a human zoo. Over eight million visitors came to the International Colonial Exhibition and were able to experience foreign cultures first-hand, which might have never been possible otherwise. The exhibition garnered support for the subjugation of colonial peoples due to the great deal of exposure to the world the event provided to all those who visited and the sense that the colonies were better off with the aid of the mother country. Colonization seemed righteous, as France other Western nations were providing beneficial resources to primitive people and were receiving wealth in return.
Following the closure of the 1931 International Colonial Exhibition, the Palais de la porte Doree transitioned to initially house the Museum of French Overseas Dominion, which mainly focused on the arts of colonial nations and their representations. The functions of the museum continually changed to reflect the public reception of colonialism. As the acceptance of justifications for dominions throughout the world changed, so did the popularity and success of the museum. For this reason, the exhibition space housed in the museum has changed numerous times since its construction in 1931. As French and other Western countries have shrunk their dominions, the function of the museum evolved.
Today, the Palais de la porte Doree houses the Museum of the History of Immigration with a permanent exhibition that traces how immigration has changed through the years, an exhibition that solely narrates the evolution of the uses of the building, and a temporary exhibition that showed the alteration of the representations of immigrant through photography. While much of the information about the history of immigration was provided solely in French, the overall message of the exhibition seemed to relay that moving to a new country causes unimaginable emotional difficulties. The discrimination against immigrants furthers these issues as well. Through this permanent exhibition the curators at the Palais de la porte Doree seem to be attempting to mend the dark past of the building with present day beliefs on immigration and colonization. This effort appears to be well received and attracted numerous visitors, tourists and locals alike, to learn more about the present and past challenges faced by immigrants.
While much has changed within the building and in the neighboring Bois de Vincennes, one space that has remained constant in the Palais de la porte Doree is the aquarium housed in the basement of the building. Just as in 1931, the space is filled with aquatic creatures meant to attract and educate visitors. While the space was still crowded when I visited the museum, I felt that the aquarium had done little to evolve since its 1931 creation. The exotic animals have surely changed, but the amount of space they were provided in their enclosures seemed inhumane. Much like people were subjugated in the International Colonial Exhibition, the animals that live in the aquarium of the Palais de le porte Doree appear to be mistreated due to overcrowding. The animals were all relegated to the basement of the building, and their care seemed almost like an afterthought, as there were no employees monitoring the area to ensure that visitors did not mistreat the animals. While the Palais acts as if they have progressed from the Colonial Exhibition, the aquarium feels hauntingly similar with animals taking the place of people on display in their enclosures.
While much has changed since the 1931 International Colonial Exhibtion, the physical structure of the building and the spaces that surround it remain the same. The Bois de Vincennes still attracts hundreds of visitors a day, and while these people no longer see humans in exhibition spaces, they do enjoy leisure in the places where these events occurred. The Palais de la porte Doree has attempted to reconcile its storied past with the present but still represents the ideals of the 1931 International Colonial Exhibition. Though the meaning of this site has changed drastically over the years, the sentiments of French dominance from the exhibition remain. The physical structure of the building creates a lasting legacy and constant reminder of the country's inescapable past.