The Porte Dorée Palace was built for the International Exposition of 1931: its first vocation was to be a museum of the colonies to represent the territories, the history of colonial conquest and its effect on the arts. The former function hall and the reception halls of Marshall Lyautey, General Curator of the exposition, and Paul Reynaud, Minister of the Colonies still reflect this past today.

The Palace then changed attributions several times, while maintaining the Tropical Aquarium that had been there since 1931, to finally house the Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration in 2007. 

Vue aérienne de l’Exposition coloniale de 1931

Vue aérienne de l’Exposition coloniale de 1931 avec, au centre, le Palais des Colonies © Roger Viollet

Inaugurated on 6 May 1931, the Colonial Exposition attempted to promote an image of Imperial France at the zenith of its power. Taking the form of an immense popular show, a veritable city within the city, the exposition stretched over a length of 1,200 meters, with 10 kilometers of sign-posted paths. It was part of the tradition of the Universal Expositions of the 19th century devoted to the promotion of the power of the European nations. Dedicated exclusively to the colonies, it took place from May to November 1931 and attracted almost 8 million visitors for 33 million tickets sold. 

“Around the World in One Day”

The exposition stretched from the Porte Dorée metro station (formerly Picpus) over the whole of the Bois de Vincennes. The Palace of the Colonies, the only construction built to last after the event was over, comprised an overview of the exposition, presenting the history of the French Empire, its territories, the colonies’ contributions to France, as well as those of France to the colonies.

G. Goor, plan de l’Exposition coloniale de 1931

G. Goor, détail du plan de l’Exposition coloniale exposé dans la Cité des informations, 1931. Le tableau est actuellement exposé au Palais de la Porte Dorée. Photo : Lorenzö

The exposition aimed to give the French people the feeling of strolling through a country that was not limited to its metropolitan borders. Invited to “take a trip around the world in one day”, the visitor could discover each of the French possessions inside pavilions inspired by native architecture. For example, Indochina was represented by a pavilion copying the spectacular dimensions of the Cambodian temple of Angkor Vat. The pavilion of French West Africa was inspired by the architecture of the great Djenné mosque in Mali.

Affiche de l’Exposition coloniale, Victor Jean Desmeures

Affiche de l’Exposition coloniale, Victor Jean Desmeures © Musée national de l’histoire et des cultures de l’immigration

To enliven the event and make it even more attractive, various activities were proposed to the visitors.  Dance performances were one of the most popular attractions. In each section, the inhabitants of the colonies animated these reconstituted villages. Artisans worked in front of the public and others kept souvenir stands. Even if the bias of the exposition de 1931 was not to make fun of the colonials, as was the case of former colonial expositions, it still meant exhibiting men and women to affirm France’s power over them. 

Exotic, excessive and fascinating, the exposition was disembodied at night under the play of light and illuminated fountains, to prolong the dream of travel and the call of an idealized paradise.

Through this idealized vision of the colonial world, the imperial ideology of the period promoting the superiority of the West can also be discerned. Colonization was said to pacify the colonies and benefit their technological, economic, intellectual and human development. 

On the other hand, the less glorious aspects were ignored. This is what the counter-exposition entitled “The Truth About the Colonies” tried to denounce. Among its participants were the surrealists, a group of artists and intellectuals, among them Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard and André Breton. 

The Vestiges of the Colonial Exposition 

The Colonial Exposition left a durable mark on the urbanism of Eastern Paris. The buildings were not supposed to last and the Porte Dorée neighborhood had to be equipped to receive the public: avenue Daumesnil and boulevard Carnot were widened, the metro line extended, the Soult and Poniatowski boulevards transformed into two-lane streets and various changes were made in the Bois de Vincennes park.

The present metro line 8 was extended to the former Porte de Picpus to reach the Colonial Exposition. The new station was called “Porte Dorée”, evoking the edge of the woods of Vincennes.

Statue de Léon Drivier sur les marches du musée permanent des Colonies lors de l’inauguration de l’Exposition coloniale, 1931

Statue de Léon Drivier sur les marches du musée permanent des Colonies lors de l’inauguration de l’Exposition coloniale, 1931. Photographie Henri Manuel / Musée national de l'histoire de l'immigration, Palais de la Porte Dorée, Paris.

The statue of Athena by Léon Drivier that overlooks the Porte Dorée fountain today, was originally on the steps of the Palace. Goddess of arts, industry and war, this 5-metre-high statue, coiffed with a Gallic helmet symbolized colonial and imperial France. After the Colonial Exposition it was moved to place Edouard Renard at the Porte Dorée. 

Located on the edge of the Daumesnil Lake in a compound of 8,000 m2, the Buddhist temple in the Bois de Vincennes is one of the vestiges of the Colonial Exposition: the former Togo pavilion and the former Cameroon pavilion that was restored in 1977 and transformed into a pagoda. 

Inaugurated in 1934, the zoo situated to the northeast of the Daumesnil Lake is the successor to a small temporary zoo created to show exotic animals for the Colonial Exposition. 

Finally, at the other end of the Bois de Vincennes, we find the vestiges of another place of remembrance in the garden of tropical agronomy that accommodated the first Paris Colonial Exposition in 1907, and then received the so-called “native” troops during World War I.

Le pavillon de l’AOF et son architecture “soudanaise”

Le pavillon de l’AOF et son architecture “soudanaise” © Musée national de l’histoire et des cultures de l’immigration

Vue du temple d’Angkor Vat de nuit.

Vue du temple d’Angkor Vat de nuit. Collection particulière. © DR

From 6 May to 5 October 2008, the first temporary exhibition was devoted to the situation of foreign and colonial immigrants in metropolitan France in 1931, Les étrangers au temps de l’Exposition coloniale