Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM)

Maria Àngels Roque

Anthropologist. Head of Cultures and Civil Society. European Institute of the Mediterranean

On the occasion of the European Capital of Culture 2013, Marseilles, the second city of France in terms of demography and a mixture of many cultures, took the opportunity to become the capital of the Mediterranean. The Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean, between the sky and the earth, floating at the entrance of the Vieux Port, is conceived as a major conceptual work for the Mediterranean. As the historian Fernand Braudel wonders: “What is the Mediterranean? Thousands of things at the same time; it is not a landscape but many landscapes; it is not a sea, but a succession of seas; it is not a civilization, but civilizations enriching each other.”

There had never been a museum in the world on Mediterranean cultures, so fertile because of the history and the civilizations that have passed through this sea. The place chosen to build the MuCEM is the Fort Saint-Jean, connected to the former J4 pier of Marseilles port in the axis of the Vieux Port de la Joliette. A total of 44,000 m2 divided into three spaces: the J4 building, the heart of the museum; the Fort Saint-Jean, an open space for the city; and the Centre for Conservation and Resources. 

The MuCEM does not define itself as belonging to the East or West, but rather asserts its Mediterranean nature. Its lace façades and or lattices simulate the reverberation of the nearby sea, under the sunlight, or rather, the illumination designed for this purpose by Yann Kersalé. The Fort Saint-Jean is linked to the new J4 by a 135 metre long footbridge and a second 70 metre bypass above the port and the level ground area of the church of Saint-Laurent in the working class neighbourhood of Le Panier. This ensures continuity in the urban layout between the oldest part of the city and the new cultural venues along the coastal boulevard.

The three spaces that make up the MuCEM have different characteristics and purposes. The building designed by Rudy Riccioti and Roland Carta on the J4 pier has a spectacular and innovative architecture. This building provides all the functions of a modern museum with large exhibition rooms and reception areas, an auditorium, a bookshop and a restaurant. The Fort Saint-Jean has been restored for visits and to create an exhibition space to display the collections of popular and traditional arts, such as in the current exhibition A Time for Leisure. This familiarity and closeness opens it to the public. Access to the exterior areas, such as the 12,000 m2 Garden of Migration, designed by landscape architects and conceived as a book open to the seasons, is free. We can learn the names of the plants and their healing function and also walk around a site that reveals the exceptional location of the Fort Saint-Jean in relation to Marseilles.

With its 1,600 m2, the Gallery of the Mediterranean, on the first level of the building, introduces visitors to the main stages of the history of the civilizations in the Mediterranean basin. This thematic gallery will be transformed every 3 to 5 years. At present, it houses a recreation of four themes 1) Invention of agriculture, emergence of gods; 2) Jerusalem, the city of three faiths, dealing with the birth of the emergence of the three monotheisms; 3) Citizenship and human rights with the Acropolis of Athens; and 4) Beyond the known world, which shows the region of Sagres, Portugal, where the caravels to the India route started off.

Level 2 has a surface area of 2,000 m2 for temporary exhibitions. The flexibility of the rooms, between 300 m2 and 2,000 m2, means each exhibition has the space it needs. In my opinion, the temporary exhibitions have greater conceptual interest than the Gallery because they deal with the great issues of civilization. I am going to focus on those held after the inauguration of the museum and which ended on 6 February 2014: The Black and the Blue. A Mediterranean Dream and At the Bazaar of Gender. Feminine-Masculine in the Mediterranean. Later, I will refer to the current exhibitions, which will end in mid-2015:

  • The Black and the Blue. A Mediterranean Dream shows the representations of the Mediterranean from the 18th century to the present and was curated by Thierry Fabre, a cultural activist specialised in the subject and who stated: “The exhibition aims at inverting the views, going through to the other side of the mirror, and capturing other stories and other accounts.” Two paintings introduce it: Goya’s The Disasters of War, as representation of the black, wars, colonialism and the mafia, and Bleu II, Miró’s blue full of positivism. For this interesting approach, the museum also shows extraordinary works, paintings, photographs and sculptures from museums around the world, manuscripts and rare books, newspapers and unseen images from archives that reveal the diversity of the representations of the Mediterranean. Strait, the work by the Moroccan Yto Berrada, in which the sea becomes a Moroccan cemetery, features a recurrent reality in the Mediterranean, while Pistoletto’s table-mirror, a silhouette of the sea surrounded by different chairs, seeks to recreate a Mediterranean parliament with its different voices. 
  • At the Bazaar of Gender. Feminine-Masculine in the Mediterranean, by the curator Denis Chevallier, is an exhibition with a fresh view combining long-lasting anthropological elements and very new elements from different cultures. The exhibition is based on the idea that gender can be approached as a large market (a bazaar) with endless options but where, finally, individuals move around according to their habits and cultural models. The image of the exhibition by the Seville artist Pilar Albarracín welcomes visitors on the glass façade of the museum. The works by other women artists breathe life into this bazaar: from Louise Bourgeois to the graffiti by the Egyptian Mira Shihadeh against sexual abuse to the pop version of the veil by Hassan Hajjaj used as consumer propaganda.
  • Food. Produce – Eat – Consume. Adelina Von Fürstenberg, the curator of this attractive exhibition that can be visited until March 2015, explains how the perspective of the guest artists feeds culture, traditions and creativity to understand the values linked to food in our contemporary society. The guest artists come from the five continents and represent different geographical areas and generations. Along with the aesthetic elements, rituals and ceremonies, these artists are sensitive to issues directly or indirectly related to food. Thus, their works speak of the consequences of climate change, the poisoning of agricultural products, unequal distribution of food… All this helps to reflect the main challenges of our contemporary society shown with great originality, such as sustainable development, immigration, religious differences, human rights and gender inequality. 
  • History Zero can be seen from 20 November 2014 to 13 April 2015. This exhibition, conceived by the artist Stefanos Tsivopoulos for the Venice Biennale 2013, is made up of three fiction films that take place in Athens, as well as a documentary space for which the artist has worked with researchers who seek examples of alternative coins, used simultaneously to the official coins. Curated by Jean-Roch Bouiller, this project questions the place of money in today’s Greek society and, more broadly, in capitalist societies shaken by a crisis that clearly shows the social inequalities. In his work Tsivopoulos also highlights the role of money in individual destinies and in the relations between people. 

With a budget of 19 million euros, Bruno Suzzarelli, President of MuCEM, stated in the inauguration: “This centre can also be seen as a place that links the collections of the past and the reflection on the future of the Mediterranean. It is an example of the new generation of museums for the 21st century. We will ask contemporary artists to capture the different approaches of scientists, historians, anthropologists and sociologists. Open to the light, open to the sea, open to all artistic and cultural expressions of the Mediterranean basin.” We hope that the crisis will not be too hard on this great Mediterranean museum.