Sunday, 15 June 2014

MEMORIES OF DISSERTATIONS PAST: THE FRENCH POST-COLONIAL AND ITS MUSEUMS

BY: IRINA MIHALACHE

This post is inspired by a beautiful and exciting annual ceremony also known as Convocation. On Thursday, June 12, I put on my doctoral robes yet again, stepped on the stage at University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall and witnessed (with immense pride) the graduating MMSt class transitioning from students to alumni. It is difficult to describe the immense energy in the room (enforced occasionally by parents yelling “that is my son!” and graduates jumping – literally – out of joy). This thrilling event brought back a few memories of my own, tied to my own Convocation and to what preceded it or made it possible – the doctoral route and its most precious outcome, the dissertation itself.

A funny story before I invite you to a brief journey to Paris. I left Romania when I was 18 to study in the US, then in Canada. Because of this, my mother was never able to attend any of the typical events and celebrations which are characteristic to one’s university years – parents’ weekends, awards ceremonies, convocations, etc. She was, however, able to attend my doctoral Convocation at Carleton University and was given the important task of documenting the event. Due to nerves and emotions, she forgot to take pictures during the event so up to this day, I possess only eight pictures from the special day, all from the moments leading to the grand event. So, happy to share one of the precious eight images with you below.

Credit: Irina D. Mihalache (my mother & I), Ottawa, 2011

Jumping from my convocation to my dissertation (and from Ottawa to Paris), I would like to share with you a few ideas which I developed as I was writing my dissertation and which inform very much my current thoughts about museums but also my teaching. My dissertation allowed to me to engage very closely with a post-colonial cultural institution in Paris, the Institute du Monde Arabe (IMA).

Institute du Monde Arabe
Credit: Irina D. Mihalache, 2009, Paris

Institute du Monde Arabe
Credit: Irina D. Mihalache, 2009, Paris

In my dissertation, I wanted to tell three stories about cultural institutions, colonialism and memory. My dissertation was primarily interested in how IMA talks about France’s colonial past. First, I argued that museums are not monolithic machines for the formation of citizens, something that I often invite my students to consider. Second, I claimed that post-colonial French cultural policies, including the decision to build the IMA, carry the legacy of colonial systems of knowledge and regimes of visual display. I traced back the roots of contemporary French cultural politics to the 19th century colonial exhibitions organized by the French colonial government. Third, I discuss how memories of colonialism and of past colonial encounters exist in the most unexpected spaces within cultural institutions (such as restaurants and their menus). 
  
Le Zyriab restaurant
  Le Zyriab restaurant 

So, my dissertation looked at three different spaces within the IMA: the permanent museum and a series of blockbuster exhibitions; the IMA’s official magazine, Qantara; and the haute cuisine Lebanese restaurant, El Zyriab. I argued that, overall, colonial stories are silenced within the formal spaces of display but become more prominent within the spaces of the everyday, such as the restaurant. What I wanted to do primarily was to locate colonial contacts and colonial memories within the complex network of spaces at the IMA.

My findings pointed out towards the absence of colonial stories from the more formal spaces of display, especially the permanent collection of the museum. The pages of Qantara constitute a perfect rendition of the ambiguous relation France has with its colonial past. While certain articles are openly critical of colonialism and its effects on post-colonial France, the majority of accounts celebrate the colonial contact for what it allowed Western scholars to discover about the cultural and intellectual development of the Arab world. Surprisingly, I found that the space where colonial contacts were best represented through the composition of dishes, the vocabulary used to describe the foods and the overall culinary and cooking philosophy of the restaurant. So if you ever wondered where I developed my passion for food in museums, this is where everything started. So take a few moments and browse the menus of the three restaurants in the museum because they will tell you more than you can ever hope to know about the museum itself. Enjoy!

Le Zyriab restaurant
Le Zyriab restaurant 
http://www.imarabe.org/preparer-ma-visite/restaurants/restaurant-panoramique 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences Irina; I really enjoyed it. In particular, I am delighted to now understand the origins of your passion for food within culture. What a wonderful way to explore a living culture. I too feel that many museums feel frozen in time, but by experiencing food culture (and other active practices like dance, music, and storytelling), people may better understand or engage with authentic elements of culture. I definitely felt that when I visited Japan many moons ago, I was exposed to cultural practices more through dinning experiences than typical tourist activities (this was especially exciting when cooking food yourself at a restaurant—check out okonomiyaki). :)

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