Exhibition ‘Paris-Londres, Music Migrations (1962-1989)’: music at the service of a multicultural world

The exhibition Paris-Londres, Music Migrations (1962-1989) is currently on display at the Musée National de L’Histoire de L’Immigration in Paris. In terms of contents, it draws a parallel between how Paris and London were reshaped into multicultural capitals in the late 20th century as a result of post-colonial immigration. In order to reveal a great deal about the issues brought about by the migration, dislocation and acculturation of generations of post-colonial immigrants to these countries, curators have used the lens of popular music specifically by illustrating how migrants have used music to express their joys, hopes and aspirations, and to fight against racism. Overall, the exhibition illustrates how genres of popular music have intersected and developed to build up the multicultural musical expression we know today, thereby depicting popular music as a contextually situated platform for cultural exchange.The exhibition excels in many respects. The fact that it illustrates the development of multicultural popular music as a result of immigration movements not only in reference to one metropolis but by interposing circumstances from both Paris and London, an approach that could easily have resulted in confusion and disinterest, is remarkable. The idea stems from the understanding that despite being distinct urban contexts, Paris and London display parallels with regard to their migratory movements, in that both cities were emerging from their previous condition of metropoles of empires and the musical practices of both were strongly enriched and nurtured by the insights brought by numerous migratory movements in the post-colonial periods.

The exhibition’s subject is furthermore timely in a world witnessing an unprecedented increase in the number of refugees and other migrants entering Europe. It accordingly depicts Paris as a pluralistic city engaged in intensifying discussion about the issues of migration, and is striking as an example of the practice of a responsive museum, eager to strive for social inclusion and the building of communities.

Some aspects, nonetheless, have struck my attention in a less positive way. In fact, I found the extent of the narrative very difficult to cope with. The exhibition is already very detailed in terms of the quantity and diversity of exhibits deemed interesting and in terms of their accompanying texts, and so this should have been taken into account when devising the overall length. Although each text alone tends to be brief, as is to be expected for a museum exhibition, the whole collection of texts and exhibits constitutes a long journey, which clearly exceeds the time deemed reasonable for museum-goers to sustain their interest and for their visit to be comfortable and memorable. Moreover, although the exhibition is effective in illustrating how popular music has been an instrument in building and portraying a globalized, multicultural world, it comes up short in expanding on how popular music genres such as reggae, punk, ska, rai, afrobeat or rap have intersected and unfolded. The texts in this section became very dense, similar to the text of a book on the subject, which people might be reading in another context. In fact, in mentioning a profusion of musical genre names, influences and terms, which in themselves might mean nothing to a lay reader, they ended up being very difficult to follow, thereby inviting museum-goers to skip the sequence.

In terms of signifying options, i.e. the type of displays that have been chosen to embody the story, contrariwise, the exhibition is outstanding. The curators have been eager to experiment with a wide range of resources such as photos, videos, posters, instruments, songs, costumes, fanzines and artworks, totalling over 600 in number, which have come from musicians’ private collections, the Victoria and Albert Museum and productions by Jean-Paul Gaultier. These were disposed in several distinct arrangements, constituting a wide range of opportunities to prove that communication can go well beyond the written word.

As a closing comment, I think it would be very interesting to conduct research with museum-goers with the aim of finding out the extent to which they have captured the idea that, beyond being a product for momentary aesthetic pleasure, music is a fundamental resource to help us connect with our own lives and communities, and to fuel social and political movements.

Until 5th January 2020
Musée National de L’Histoire de L’Immigration, Paris


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