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How can a museum of the colonizer project imagine futures that can heal the marks of the brutal colonial history it wishes to narrate?

  • Jun 09 2022
  • Daniela Labra
    is a curator, cultural critic and educator. She is a founder of the art studies platform, and lives between Berlin and Rio de Janeiro.

This essay arises from a curatorial research visit to the Museum of the New World in La Rochelle in March 2022 with the project Atravessar. Together with the curator Elise Girardot and the artists Erwan Venn from Bretagne and Gê Viana from São Luís do Maranhão, Brasil, we spent 27 days in the city of Bordeaux and researched the triangular trade between France, Africa and the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries. This experience, while still in decantation, examined the many traumatic implications of French colonization of non-European territories that still pulsate in the present of non-white populations around the world.

The Museum of the New World is mainly dedicated to the first phase of French colonial expansionism between 1554 and 1830, and was inaugurated in 1982 by the former mayor of La Rochelle Michel Crépeau. According to its website, the museum "illustrates the relations that France, particularly La Rochelle, has had with the Americas since the 16th century. The city was one of the main ports of trade and emigration to the New World: New France, the West Indies...".[1] The mansion that houses the museum is itself a relic of that historical moment. Built in the 18th century in the Parisian style, the Hôtel Fleuriau is named after its former owner, Aimé-Benjamin Fleuriau, who resided there between 1772 and 1774 and was enriched by his plantation in Santo Domingo. Like other essential port cities,[2] La Rochelle flourished from the colonial triangular trade of the 17th and 18th centuries, which took place as follows: ships with supplies for the settlers in Africa sailed from different French ports and emptied their cargo when they finally arrived at shore. The cellars of the ships were left free to accommodate up to four hundred kidnapped Black people. These enslaved people were then sent to the Americas and the Caribbean to be traded. When the ships were unloaded in the colonies of the “New World”, they lastly received the raw materials extracted by the labor of slaves, and were transported back to Europe.[3] The consumption and processing of the products taken from the colonial plantations supplied material goods to the white French population and provided them with opportunities for employment. Thus, the confectioner to the shipyard owners, the tailors to the chambermaids and everyone ranging from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, were all directly dependent on the triangular trade that relied on the technology of navigation and the exploitation of slave labour in their colonies. At the height of its power, the French Colonial Empire occupied 66 populated territories on every continent. Today, the French Republic still maintains authority over dominions such as Guyana and Martinique.

According to an institutional presentation text, the Museum of the New World was hailed for its originality at the time of its inauguration in the 1980s. It presented an insight into a part of La Rochelle and French history, which remain barely discussed to this day. The museum was the first to talk about the colonial past of the French port cities, and exposed the elements linked to its trade of enslaved people in the West Indian colonies. Was the violence of the historical period a taboo until then? There would be no surprise to learn that yes, it was.

The Museum's collection has a large cutout of allegorical paintings of different colonial schools and styles. They portray naval scenes, landscapes of the New World, plantations, natives, aristocrats and soldiers. There are also engravings, maps and tapestry. The collection also holds a series of photographs evoking Brazil, Canada and Louisiana, such as the 267 beautiful photogravures taken by the American photographer Edward Curtis, covering the study of over 80 Native American tribes across the western half of North America.

The collection brings together domestic objects ranging from porcelain, wallpapers and clocks, with natural motifs that illustrate enslaved men and women working on plantations. It is worth mentioning that slaves from Africa and the Americas were acquired by their European masters who accounted them as ‘chattels’ in their cash books, family estates and inheritances. 

The collection on display occupies over three floors in thematic nuclei, which are divided into rooms whose names indicate the subject and historical period being treated. One of these rooms hosts short-term exhibitions and contemporary proposals connected with the “brave” story of French colonialism. On the floor that narrates part of the triangular trade, the spaces have names such as “Room 1: The Discovery”, “Room 2: La Rochelle, Port City”, “Room 3: The Slave Trade”, “Room 4: Colonial Productions” and “Room 5: The Abolition of Slavery”. Anachronistic terminologies such as ‘discovery’ and ‘slaves’ are normalized; they create unease especially now, when a critical revision of the Western colonial historical narrative is taking place. Several words that are used today in the institutional communication of the New World Museum are careless, especially in the context of the descendants of the subjugated peoples who are portrayed within its walls.

Although varied, the New World Museum's collection has works of stylistic prominence and relevance for documenting customs of a historical period which cause unease. One of them is the oil on canvas La Mascarade nuptiale (The bridal masquerade), which was painted by the Portuguese painter José Conrado Roza in 1788, and acquired by the Museum in 1983. The celebrated 18th-century Portuguese school painting was a wedding gift commissioned by the Portuguese queen Maria the First to one of her faithful servants. The scene represents the extent of the Luso colonial empire by depicting a "parody of a marriage between two dwarves from Angola accompanied by other Brazilian or Mozambican dwarves and an Amazonian Indian sent as a gift to the court in Lisbon.”[4] The subject of dwarves was particularly in fashion at the time amongst domestic masters of the European aristocracy. The exception in the painting is the character of Syriac, a 12-year-old teenager who stands out due to the depigmentation of his skin. In the Museum's exhibiting room, one video describing the scene accompanies the painting. It is narrated jocularly and sweetly by a female voice that ignores the violence behind that representation. When examining the collection of the New World Museum, many uncomfortable questions arise: how can the perpetrators of historical abuses still narrate their past through allegorical images and representations of usurpation and extractivism?[5] How backward is the colonizing logic that exposes the subjugation of others as part of a story of their so-called discoveries, conquests, enrichment and glories? How can we continue to passively accept the old representation of human beings as dehumanized bodies and merchandise, and why should we continue to believe in this heroic and one-sided narrative of the facts?

French colonial imperialist pride still resides spectrally in the halls of the Hôtel Fleuriau that belonged to a former plantation lord. Even with pieces relevant to their style, artistic quality and historical record, the collection of the museum is an accumulation of the painful stories of those who are descendants of the enslaved and exploited people from fertile and plundered lands that were part of the so-called New World. There are barely any testimonies of enslaved people or natives inside the museum. We find just a few institutional notes on historical reparation for the rampant acts of the colonizer.

In any case, the abundance of different pieces illustrating dominated people embarrasses the consciences connected to the anti-colonial critiques that have occupied the cultural debate for the past fifty years. Those pieces represent the inhuman barbarities motivated by white supremacy and its messages of Christian catechesis, acculturation and the European demonstration of invading power, which are disturbingly naturalized by the alibi that ‘these matters belong to the past.’ 

In my analyses of contemporary art and culture, I often comment that I do not believe in the possibility of decolonizing a traditional museum, since the origin of this kind of institution is by its very nature colonialist and Eurocentric. In order to decolonize the New World Museum, we would have to start by changing its name, which is impregnated with exoticism and the arrogance of the conqueror. A critical contextualisation of the colonial ethic would also be necessary, and would allow more honest approaches to its problematic collection that was stockpiled as chronicles of exploitation. Establishing other institutional models, which should not even be called museums, will show the way out with a proper movement of decolonization. However, this alternative is already a reality in several countries and spaces that see a new world where colonial barbaric history is supplanted by ecologies of care, spiritual rescue and cultural reparations in perspectives of solidarity and justice.

    [2] The main French ports which dominated the colonial trade were Bordeaux, Nantes, Marseille, Rouen-Le Havre, La Rochelle and Bayonne.
    [3] Among the key products were sugar, tobacco, cocoa, coffee, indigo and cotton.
    [4] Conseil des Musées, La Mascarade nuptiale
    [5] The term ‘extractivism’ has been used in the last few years by anti-colonial activists, thinkers and artists from Latin American countries and Brazil (and worldwide). The word was borrowed from mining industry extractivist processes that cause major eco-social imbalances and damages.

    José Conrado Rozas.
    Masquerade Nuptiale. Oil on Canvas, 1788
    Photo: Max Roy
    Courtesy: Museé du Noveau Monde La Rochelle



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