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History of the collections

More than hundred-year-old collections in a 21st century museum

Formed over 130 years ago, the MuCEM’s collections are the direct heirs of the Ethnographic Museum at Trocadero Palace in Paris (1878-1936) and the two museums that succeeded it beginning in 1936, the Museum of Man and the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions (MNATP).


Up until the 1960s, the MNATP’s collections were essentially built around the idea of a rural, pre-industrial France in mid-transformation. The museum, then directed by Georges Henri Rivière, worked to collect testaments to the social life (religion, body-related practices, rites of passage, etc.) and the material culture (agriculture, crafts, rural architecture and furniture, food and so on) of a disappearing rural world.


Beginning in the 1970s, when it moved to its site in the Bois de Boulogne (1972), the museum’s acquisitions policy opened up to new domains like urban crafts and trade. At the same time, the museum gradually expanded its collections, which are a reference in Europe for unusual domains like circus and carnival arts, as well as popular prints from the 16th to the 18th centuries.


In the 1990s and 2000s, the acquisitions made via surveys enabled the exploration of innovative fields of acquisition in the contemporary world: industrial heritage, hospital care, the birth and development of rock ‘n’ roll, tags and graffiti, AIDS, olive oil, cooking and more, all themes addressed from a comparative angle between France and abroad, and from a perspective of the gradual enlargement of the museum’s area of expertise to encompass Europe and the Mediterranean. This new openness reached a major turning point in 2005 with the arrival of a deposit of European collections from the Museum of Man (close to 30,000 pieces).


Also in the early 2000s, an acquisitions policy firmly oriented toward North Africa and the Near East began to develop. A large number of objects, including some remarkable pieces, was acquired as a result, from Iran, Syria, Turkey and the Maghreb.


Establishment of the MuCEM in Marseille entailed the relocation of all of the collections from Paris. This provided an opportunity to perform a comprehensive stock-taking of the collections, with a verification of the inventory and the state of conservation of the items, which were then weighed, measured, dusted, photographed and packed. The data from these actions were then fed into the museum’s collections database. This was a vast project that took more than eight years (and 140 articulated lorries), ending in 2013 and 2014 with the redeployment of the collections in the MuCEM’s exhibition rooms and at the Centre for Conservation and Resources.


Today, the MuCEM manages a composite collection that is original in the world of museums, grouping highly diverse objects together, with paintings, engravings and sculptures rubbing elbows with furniture, clothing and stage costumes, vehicles, jewellery, shop décors and objects made of the most unexpected materials, like figurative loaves of bread, paintings made of hair and even a lard mock-up. In total, more than 250,000 objects, 130,000 engravings, drawings, posters and paintings, 450,000 photographs, 140,000 postcards, 150,000 books and journals, documentation associated with the collections, and hundreds of linear metres of paper, sound and audiovisual archives document the civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean.