On the outskirts of the Bois de Vincennes, at the eastern edges of the city, lies a garden of ghosts. You wouldn’t know it, however; few travel guides will send you here, and even once you alight at the suburban Nogent-sur-Marne RER station, it’s still easy to miss. This remnant of history is tucked away down an unassuming side street; you have to be looking for it to find it. But once you do, your vision of early-twentieth century Paris will never be the same.
I first heard about the Jardin d’Agronomie tropicale (or the Garden of Tropical Agronomy) from this great blog post by Messy Nessy Chic in 2012. Without doing much background research, I added it to my list as a curious, semi-abandoned site to visit one day. It wasn’t until I finally made it there for the first time in January of 2020 (which should give you an idea of how long that list is) that I realised this was a crucial site for French history and memory.
The Jardin d’Agronomie tropicale was first opened in 1899 as a Jardin d’Essai; a kind of agricultural laboratory in which French scientists planted experimental crops to be used in the colonies of the then-enormous French Empire. There were banana, coffee, rubber, bamboo and other plantations (though only the bamboo seems to have survived today).
But the site was soon to become a far more ostentatious ode to colonialism, when the Jardin d’Essai was transformed into a ‘Village Colonial’ for the 1907 International Colonial Exhibition. A collection of garish architectural features were constructed, each to imitate an ‘exotic’ foreign culture of the Empire. There was a Congolese Palace, Moroccan and Tunisian Pavillions, and Cambodian, Madagascan and Kanak (native New Caledonian) ‘villages’. These were filled not only with imported camels and elephants, but with people; indigenous peoples from the colonies in question were transported to Paris to play the role of exotic ‘natives’ in the market places and huts of the Village Colonial, for white Parisians to ogle. It was what can only be described as a human zoo.
After the 1907 Exhibition, the site was transformed yet again into a military hospital and accommodation for colonial soldiers who fought for France in World War I. Monuments to these soldiers still punctuate the garden, alongside racist statues glorifying the colonial project. Then for many years, the garden was abandoned, the structures left to decay. There were fires and vandalism whose traces remain.
In 2006, the site reopened to the public as the Jardin d’Agronomie tropicale, with shiny new signs but little to no restoration of the site itself.
Today, the Jardin d’Agronomie tropicale is a site of layers of colonial violence. It is a sombering, even haunting site to visit. By comparison with the many other locations around the city that were home to International Exhibitions, such as the Champ de Mars, the Grand Palais or the Palais de la Porte Dorée, the Jardin d’Agronomie tropicale is degraded, neglected, almost forgotten.
I will be speaking about the Jardin d’Agronomie tropicale, and its suspension somewhere between memory and forgetting, at the Postcolonial Realms of Memory conference this month. The talk will take place online at the Winthrop-King Institute for Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, October 7 2021 at 10am US Eastern Daylight Time. Registration is free and Musées de Paris readers are welcome to attend; just register here.
Join me to talk about memory and violence, and how some places can become so connected to a disturbing history that they’re locked in a state of eternal ruination, deemed as unsuitable for destruction as they are for repair.
xx la Muséophile
Le Jardin d’Agronomie tropicale René Dumont, 45bis avenue de la Belle-Gabrielle 75012 Paris, RER: Nogent-sur-Marne (line A)
Opening hours: Every day from 9.30am to 8pm