The opening of France's new Immigration Museum last month was well noted in the press - less so by the great and the good, with Sarkozy and his immigration minister deciding not to attend.
What I find interesting is that this is a museum which tries to address concepts and experiences. The whole concept of 'being French', for instance. France has always had a strong centralising, classicising culture; a strong tradition of linguistic correctness, style, a canon of work. (Braudel, a historian whose work I find particularly interesting, comments that this can be set against a very strong regional and local trend - the 'terroir' - so it's not only immigration that challenges this centralised Frenchness, it's the tendency of individual French people to identify as Savoyards, Provencals, Bretons, or Burgundians... but I digreess.)
So immigration challenges the core of French culture; the unified, single-language, single-system, statist view of culture. The view that says whatever your origins, you are 'French' - where in England we say 'black Briton', 'British Muslim', in French the phrase is 'd'origine Martiniquaise', 'd'origine Algérienne'. You are only of that nationality by origin - you are French by essence.
Now how does a museum go about addressing these issues? Museums are truly great at showing you things. One of my favourites; a study room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entirely full of ushabtis (tiny Egyptian tomb figures). Another; the cases of Tanagra figurines in the British Museum. You learn something about that country and that period by seeing them, but the focus is on the things themselves. The same with art galleries; you might actually get some good ideas about Van Gogh by, for instance, lining up one of his pictures with photographs of the landscape, or of contemporary interiors in real life, but what the gallery is about is showing you things. You're then in charge of the experience.
Now the museum of immigration can certainly put together a number of things. At danger of stereotyping; a kora for Senegal, tea glasses for North Africa, Chopin's piano for the French Poles, a Torah for the Jewish community (though whether you can call French or English Jews 'immigrants' - or indeed whether you can spot a 'typical' Jewish experience when Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities had such different histories). Things.
But actually those things don't tell you anything about the immigrant experience. Perhaps it's only art work that can do that. An installation of insidious voices for instance. Accounts of their lives, taken from immigrants of different generations and origins. (To its credit, this museum has tried to do that by engraving their words on the glass of some of the cases.)
So I suspect this museum, for all its honesty and integrity, rather fails. Because it's difficult to square the requirement for scholarly integrity - which has always been based on showing things -with the need to admit experiences.