During the 1937 Exposition Universelle, a sense of optimism existed throughout the entire event following the recovery from World War I and a belief that following peace would be lasting. Many felt that the exhibition was a part of a "dawning of good times to come," and this led to the 1937 Exposition Universelle being one of the largest World's Fairs to ever be held (Mattie 180). This exhibition was one of the final great displays of the Third Republic prior to France's defeat in World War II. While the 1937 exposition was extremely similar to those held in previous years, the event was largely nationalistic and focused on modernism as well as rural life and regionalism (Peer 2). Through this display, France attempted to reconcile the innovative and rural elements of its national identity.
The Palais de Tokyo was inaugurated for the 1937 Exposition international des arts et techniques de la vie moderne on the former Quai de Tokio (now Avenue de New York), the street for which the building was named. From the inception of the space, the building was meant to house two separate museums, the Musee d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris in the east wing and the Musee national d'art moderne in the west wing ("The Site"). While the Musee d'art modern de la Ville de Paris has been housed in the east wing since the creation of the space, the west wing has changed uses and functions multiple times following the creation of the building. The west wing of the building is now referred to as the Palais de Tokyo, while the east wing retains its original moniker.
Because of the time around which this building was constructed, the Palais de Tokyo has seen the rise and fall of the French republic, all while housing various displays of artistic expression. The storied past of this building remains visible throughout the museum, and evidence of its former uses exist in the interior and exterior of the space. In 1938, the collections of the Musee du Luxembourg and the Jeu de Paume were relocated to the west wing of the building, which provided a space for displaying international and French contemporary art.
During World War II, some of these artworks were removed from the building in order to protect them from the possibility of German acquisition, and in 1941, the basements of both wings of the museum were used for the storage of acquired Jewish goods ("The Site"). Housed in the east wing were the clothes and other personal items that were pillaged from Jewish citizens, while the west wing held the furniture, including hundreds of pianos taken from Jewish homes. While the website for the museum mentions these occurrences, any commemoration of the storage of the goods of hundreds of Jewish citizens goes unnoticed during a traditional visit to the building. More information about the building's origins as a part of the World's Fair was available to the observer than its role in the storage of Jewish goods, which suggests that the site would like to project the splendor of France while ignoring the darker aspects of the building's history. The downplaying of the Palais de Tokyo's role in the Holocaust seems similar to how France continues to project the country's brightest moments to the world, as they had in all of the previous Exposition Universelles.
Since World War II, the exhibits and uses of the Palais de Tokyo have changed numerous times, from housing the future collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Musee Picasso to holding multiple cinematic ventures ("The Site"). Traces of these former functions still remain in the museum today, suggesting the storied past of the building and reflecting a changing audience over time.
Today, the Palais de Tokyo serves as Europe's largest contemporary art exhibition spaces, and its unique interior reflects the innovative art scene that continuously graces the museum space. Through the Palais de Tokyo, contemporary artists have the opportunity to display their work on widely recognized scale, much like individuals would have at the Exposition Universelles. These artists are on the forefront of their field and continue to push the narrative of contemporary art forwards. The lasting legacy of the 1937 exposition continues to effect art today, as the space still allows for experimentation and innovation to take place.
One of the current exhibitions in the Palais de Tokyo displays destroyed Soviet statues that once stood in front of the Palais de Chaillot in the 1937 World's Fair, which suggest the lasting legacy of these events and the spaces where they took place as representative of the most popular and modern events of the day. These statues were once highly regarded as on the forefront of political modernity, but years later they were buried and broken following World War II. Their path back to the Palais de Tokyo emphasizes the relevance of the Exposition Universelles throughout time, as both the building and these statues are important markers in the development of the international world.