Tuesday 16 July 2013


My trip to Marseille a couple of weeks ago was centred around a visit to the new MuCEM: Musee des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Mediterranee.  Long name aside, this is a museum devoted to the Mediterranean: people, places, culture.

You can approach the museum from several directions and several levels, but I would recommend crossing one of the metal bridges that connect the MuCEM complex with the surrounding area.  What a fantastic way of priming visitors for the museum visit, evoking the idea of crossing cultures, crossing continents, crossing the sea ... as well as nodding to the working history of the port.

I landed at Fort St Jean, a historic fortress with lots of cool, dark spaces, many of them featuring interpretation about the site.  There is also a temporary exhibition space, a shop, a cafe and terraced seating.

Oh, and amazing views -

- not least of the new museum building, which, I may as well tell you now, I fell completely in love with.

Designed by Algerian/French architect Rudy Ricciotti, the building is a cube of glass and metal overlaid with a skin of cobwebby concrete.  I know that's an oxymoron but the structure manages to be both delicate and industrial.

The play of light in, through and around the concrete super-structure is beautiful and particularly apt, given the strong, pure light Marseille enjoys for much of the year.

And of course the light creates lovely dappled effects.

Most of these photos were taken from the rooftop terrace (you can enter from the roof or the ground), complete with chairs and sunloungers for enjoying the view.

You then follow a ramp down and around the building (think ziggurat) with glimpses into different spaces and offices - what would normally be behind the scenes is very much on view.

So far, so magnificent.  But on the ground floor the problems began.  Poor orientation led to many confused visitors wandering around looking for somewhere to start.  Though there is no prescribed route, most people seemed to choose to visit the two permanent galleries first (dedicated to the culture/s of the Mediterranean).  These, I'm afraid to say, I found disappointing.  Little reference to the stunning architecture, bland exhibition design and often quite generic content.

The exhibition was themed around four 'singularities' of the Mediterranean: 'the birth of agriculture and invention of gods', 'Jerusalem - thrice-blessed city', 'citizens and citizenship' and 'beyond the known world'.  For me the problem was that the narrative veered uncomfortably between wide generalisations and odd specifics - and that the objects very often didn't support the narrative.

There were a couple of honorable exceptions - for example a display about bread and breadmaking, which included these beautiful moulds from all over the Mediterranean:

I also liked these talking heads within the citizenship area - a mixture of ancient, modern and virtual portrait busts.

The final area - 'beyond the known world' - was, perhaps, my favourite as it seemed to be more truly focused on issues of Mediterranean culture and identity.  I also fully acknowledge that my disappointment was largely because what I was hoping to find (exhibitions engaging with what Mediterranean culture and identity were, are, might be; exploring links and connections between Mediterranean cultures) wasn't present.  That's not to say that others wouldn't be delighted with the content, though I still think the exhibition design is distinctly underwhelming.

But I did take a few encouraging things away.  First, the museum felt somewhat underripe - it had only opened a few weeks before I visited.  So it is very possible that the exhibitions will develop and mature - and that the collections will do likewise.  I note that the museum plans to change the permanent exhibition every 3-5 years, which may also account for the temporary feel.

I would still recommend a visit to the MuCEM.  Even if I might be tempted next time to skip the exhibition and get my dose of Mediterranean culture by enjoying an aperitif on the roof.

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