x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

New French national museum explores Mediterranean culture

The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations in Marseille will open on Friday with collection of objects unique to the museum world.

The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations building was designed by the Algerian-born architect Rudy Ricciotti. A walkway connects it to Fort Saint Jean. Courtesy Mucem
The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations building was designed by the Algerian-born architect Rudy Ricciotti. A walkway connects it to Fort Saint Jean. Courtesy Mucem

This year, the oldest city in France has cast off its bad boy reputation: Marseille is bathing in the glow of its status as the European Capital of Culture.

A dynamic programme of events, from festivals to street theatre, exhibitions and open-air concerts - as well as the unveiling of major new city landmarks - have punctuated the life of France's second-largest city.

On Friday, a new national museum - the first outside of Paris - opens over three different sites across the city. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (Mucem) is dedicated to the cultures of the Mediterranean.

"Situating the museum in Marseille was a symbolic choice," says Zeev Gourarier, the Mucem's scientific director and general curator of heritage. Arguably France's most diverse city, Marseille has been shaped by centuries of immigration from North Africa. The new museum will chart the flow of the events, lives and religions that have shaped the shore. The institution not only aims to represent the past, Gourarier says, but also to become a place of meeting, debate, discussion and research.

"We aim to reach out to all members of the public, the old, the young as well as those who are not in the habit of visiting museums. There are installations by contemporary artists; there are concerts and film screenings. We're reaching out to schools across Marseille. There is a puppet show for our youngest visitors, while students and researchers will have access to the nearby Centre for Conservation and Resources, which houses all of the reserve collections as well as its documentary collections, library and scientific archives."

Ten years in the planning, the €190 million (Dh907m) institution has a collection of works that will be displayed in rotating exhibitions alongside temporary shows.

The basis of the museum's collection dates back to 1884, when a room about France was opened at the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadero in Paris. In 1937, this room was expanded into the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, which closed in 2005.

"Back then, ethnography was the museum's founding discipline," Gourarier says. "Today we have a comparative and multidisciplinary approach that encompasses all the social sciences. And our remit is Mediterranean civilisations in the plural. Pieces in our collection come from Greece, Israel, Syria and even further abroad."

Two-thirds of the museum's collection come from the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires; another major contribution comes from Paris' Musée de l'Homme.

Over the past 10 years the Mucem has instituted an innovative acquisition policy, resulting in unexpected pieces. They include one of Edith Piaf's stage costumes, the mixing console from Pink Floyd and a 17th-century model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as well as several thousand musical scores, phonograms, audiovisual recordings and paper archives.

Gourarier curates the museum's 1,600-square-metre Mediterranean Gallery. "The Mediterranean is a geographical entity as opposed to a political concept like Europe and represents a world culture that embraces Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Just as it covers a geographic area that goes beyond those countries bordering the Mediterranean, so does its history unfurl - from prehistory to contemporary issues such as human rights or the Arab Spring," he says.

"We have a collection of objects that are unique to the museum world. There are paintings, prints and sculpture alongside furniture, tools, vehicles, jewellery, boutique decorations, clothing, textiles as well as a collection of fairground art, carousels and puppets. In the Mediterranean Gallery, the display is organised on a thematic basis. We explore the area through ideas of identity, memory, religion and art as well as 10,000 years of history.

"It's an enormous and complex subject that I chose to explore through four major topics: the birth of the gods and the invention of agriculture; Jerusalem, a holy city, three revelations; the invention of the citizen and the development of democracy; and the discoveries that have shaped the development of the Mediterranean."

Situated on the J4 pier at the northern edge of Marseille's Old Port, the main Mucem building was designed by the Algerian-born architect Rudy Ricciotti. Enveloped by an intricate black concrete lacework exterior, the interior holds a series of complex spaces linked by ramps and supported by twisted black columns. There is a restaurant, brasserie, picnic area, children's area, auditorium and bookshop, while the well-known Marseille-based Michelin-starred chef Gérald Passédat oversees on-site catering.

A walkway connects the Mucem to Marseille's 12th-century Fort Saint Jean, a promenade and the Jardin des Migrations. A second footbridge joins Fort Saint Jean to the Saint Laurent Church in Marseille's famous Panier district.



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