A museum for the Mediterranean
Based in Marseille, the MuCEM confirms its status as the only major museum dedicated to the Mediterranean region.
Suspended between sky and water, floating at the entrance to the Vieux Port in Marseille, the MuCEM is building new bridges. In its very location, facing the open sea, this museum is a major project for the Mediterranean, reshaping its future and forming a meeting point for its two shores.
This is the first time that a museum has been devoted to the cultures of the Mediterranean: the MuCEM is unique in that it retraces, analyses and sheds light on, in a single dynamic and a single place, the ancient foundations of this fertile cradle of civilization, as well as the tensions that have been a feature right up to the present day. It is a place of knowledge and exchange centred on the issues of the past, the present and the future.
The first museum dedicated to the cultures of the Mediterranean, the MuCEM is one of a kind.
It was the result of the transformation of a large museum of social history – the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires created in 1937 in Paris – and the first time in France that a museum had been moved from Paris to the regions. Opened in Marseille in June 2013, the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) is a symbol of the importance and rebirth of Marseille: it has joined the circle of the 50 most visited museums in the world.
One museum, three sites
The MuCEM comprises three sites that together cover nearly nearly 45,000 m2. Located by the sea, at the entrance to the Vieux Port, the J4 building – the emblematic, striking edifice by Rudy Ricciotti – and the Fort Saint Jean – a historic monument that has been completely restored – embody perfectly, with their two footbridges, the aim of forging a link between the two shores of the Mediterranean. They house the large exhibitions and events that make up the museum’s artistic and cultural programme. The Centre de Conservation et de Ressources, located in the city centre, in the Belle de Mai neighbourhood, is home to the museum’s collections. These unique holdings enable the MuCEM to propose a rich array of cultural offerings.
A cultural complex
The MuCEM is interested in the contemporary aspects of the civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. Its aim is to help visitors gain a better understanding of the world they live in. Its collections comprise a million works of art and objects, an exceptional treasure that is showcased in an ambitious programme of permanent and temporary exhibitions. A 21st-century museum, it forms a veritable cultural complex that has a vast historic span stretching from the Neolithic period to the present day, drawing on all the disciplines of the human and social sciences, bringing together art from both shores of the Mediterranean.
A crossroads in the Mediterranean
Its aim is to showcase the heritage of the Mediterranean, to foster new exchanges in the Mediterranean region, and also, during the current period of upheaval, to help to lay the foundations for the Mediterranean world of tomorrow. From its base in Marseille, the emblematic city of cultural diversity, the MuCEM seeks to play a key role in improving cohesion by becoming one of the places, on a national and international level, where it will be possible to acquire a better understanding of the Mediterranean region. Directly facing the open sea, the MuCEM's very location makes it a major development for the Mediterranean, redefining its horizon to create a place where its two shores unite. Never before has a museum been exclusively dedicated to the cultures of the Mediterranean, despite their richness and diversity in terms of history and civilisation.
DISPLAYING THE COLLECTIONS AT THE MUCEM
Several exhibition spaces, from the J4 to the Fort Saint Jean and the CCR, bear witness to the MuCEM’s desire to provide a fresh perspective on its collections.
The Galerie de la Méditerranée
The ground floor of the J4 building is home to the MuCEM’s semi-permanent display: the Galerie de la Méditerranée (the Mediterranean Gallery) presents the distinctive features of the Mediterranean world, while giving visitors a sense of the museum’s the uniqueness. The interdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary display presents a wide variety of objects and works of art, some of which are from the MuCEM’s collections.
The display puts into perspective the four characteristics of civilizations, presented as ‘singularities’ of Mediterranean societies, divided into two large sections: ‘Agriculture and the gods’ and ‘Monotheistic religions, citizenship and sea voyages’. They attempt to cover the entire Mediterranean, from the Neolithic period to the present day, in an area of 1,600 m2.
Everyday objects rub shoulders with objets d’art, bearing witness to different practices and beliefs past and present. A large number of graphic works, drawings, prints, canvases, icons and paintings under glass are presented as elements from and illustrations of social realities.
The displays change according to acquisitions and the rotation of works that are short-term or long-term loans. The most fragile items are only displayed for brief periods of three to six months.
The Galerie de la Méditerranée has to be changed every three to five years.
The Galerie d’Actualité
The ‘Topical Gallery’ in the Fort Saint Jean consists of different spaces all devoted to recent developments at the MuCEM (donations, enrichment of the collections, restorations, current research, etc.). The Galerie d’Actualité therefore might display objects acquired through survey-collections relating to AIDs, a collection of jewellery just restored by the teams at the CCR or a theatre of Sicilian marionettes recently acquired by the museum. The objects are presented as part of thematic ‘exhibition dossiers’ (centred on a social issue, a material, a technique, etc.) and are regularly renewed.
‘Cartes blanches’ at the CCR
The Centre de Conservation et de Ressources at the MuCEM (CCR) has a 110-m2 room used for the presentation of atypical, experimental or innovative exhibitions. They are created by external curators who are given carte blanche to offer a new (or even unconventional) perspective on the MuCEM’s collections. The guest curators are chosen from among prominent figures in the cultural sector (exhibition curators and artistic directors, as well as architects, artists, collectors, choreographers and writers, etc.). They are invited to offer their own vision of the collection, by exploring the MuCEM’s collections and choosing an original slant. Thus, in 2015, the curator Damien Airault created his exhibition ‘The Nail’ based on the thousands of nails inventoried in the collections.
FROM GREAT GO-BETWEENS TO CROSS-PERSPECTIVES AND MYTHOLOGIES
The MuCEM’s aim is to organise regular large temporary exhibitions on aspects of the civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. While these tackle varied thematic themes, they always attempt to shed light on our understanding of the contemporary world.
The second floor in the J4 is used for the MuCEM’s large temporary exhibitions. Their aim is to attract a broad range of visitors by exploring social issues, presenting collections and capturing the imagination. The programme’s themes and approaches are varied, drawing on various disciplines of the social sciences. To ensure coherence, the programme is organised around three ‘axes’ in which each exhibition is presented as an independent episode in an editorial series.
1/ The great go-betweens: between art and society.
The MuCEM’s exhibitions showcase the works of designers, artists and sculptures, as well as photographers, draughtsmen, graffiti artists and tattoo artists. However, that does not mean that the MuCEM sees itself as a fine arts or contemporary art museum: it is interested in works of art in the same way that takes into account works of popular art, that is to say by presenting them as expressions of the societies that produced them. At the MuCEM, the artist is thus regarded as a go-between linking the world he lives in with his vision of it. This is exemplified by the large exhibition devoted to ‘Picasso and Popular Art’ in 2016.
From the Neolithic period to the present day, the Mediterranean region has never been an enclosed world. On the contrary, it developed into a hub of exchanges where three continents meet. Consequently, to showcase the Mediterranean is not merely to contemplate it from the inside, but also to compare it with the cities, societies and civilizations that developed in parallel with it.
Exhibitions like ‘Migrations Divines’ (2015) and ‘Voyages en mer des Indes’ (2017) forcefully illustrate this approach based on an interconnected history.
The primary aim of the MuCEM’s programme is to mount exhibitions that permit a better understanding of the world around us. However, if the museum explores the contemporary world, it is by exploring in depth its permanent features and the changes taking place in our societies. Thus, in the wake of the pioneering articles that Roland Barthes wrote about wrestling, fashion, Martians and other Mythologies of his time, the MuCEM covers the big social issues of our time through such exhibitions as ‘Au Bazar du genre’ (2013), ‘Le Monde à l’envers’ (2014), ‘Lieux Saints Partagés’ (2015), ‘Ordures !’ (2017), ‘Football, ombres et lumières’ (2017). Each one is rooted in current affairs, offering a journey through contemporary mythologies.
A new phenomenon in the history of museums of social history these exhibitions, prepared over several years, mobilising large teams of specialists and exploring new heritages (in particular through ‘survey-collections’) have captured the imagination of the general public as well as provoking considerable media interest.
Contemporary art at the Fort Saint Jean
A 21st-century museum, the MuCEM has a particular focus on contemporary art, which feeds all of the exhibitions it organises, while also being showcased in specific events. Thus, in the Fort Saint Jean, the Georges-Henri Rivière building regularly hosts exhibitions devoted to Mediterranean contemporary art (for example, ‘Traces, fragments d’une Tunisie contemporaine’), while the chapel (with its 10-metre-high ceilings) forms an excellent setting for the presentation of works and installations, resonating with the objects in the collection.
THE MUCEM AS CULTURAL CENTRE
As a complement to its programme of exhibitions, the MuCEM proposes a rich programme of lectures, performances, concerts and film screenings. The aim is to be a veritable cultural centre open to the major issues and international questions facing the civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean.
– REGULAR SERIES
The Germaine Tillion auditorium (in the J4) offers regular annual or bi-annual series of lectures, discussions, shows and films.
‘Pensées du monde’ (lectures) invites renowned international figures to reflect on the major issues of our times: ‘Civilisation et barbarie’ (2014), ‘La peur : raisons et déraisons’ (2015), ‘L’avenir des frontières’ (2016), etc.
‘Le temps des archives’ (discussions) is an opportunity to explore, in the presence of a few guests and important witnesses, key moments, as well as ‘small mythologies’ from the 20th century, with the aid of audio-visual archives from the INA’s collection (in partnership with France Culture).
‘Le grand livre des passages. Littératures’ (literary events) compares a great author from the past with a great contemporary writer. These innovative events combine readings, screenings of archive images and discussions.
‘Objets déplacés’ (performances) invites artists of international renown to create a work inspired by one or several objects from the MuCEM’s collections. These performances are presented in various spaces in the museum (auditorium, walkways, forum, etc.).
‘Le rendez-vous des cinémathèques’ (film screenings) offers encounters and screenings in partnership with film libraries in Europe and the Mediterranean region.
Finally, the MuCEM screens a regular programme of feature films and documentaries, through major partnerships with the FID – Festival International de Cinéma, the Films Femmes Méditerranée festival, the Festival International du Film Ethnographique and Primed.
LES TEMPS FORTS
Above and beyond the regular series, the artistic and cultural programme is punctuated by thematic ‘temps forts’ (‘high points’) that shed a unique light on an exhibition, a current affairs issue or a region of the world.
Exploring an exhibition. The programme regularly features events linked to the MuCEM’s major exhibitions, which they explore in greater depth, ranging across different disciplines and featuring discussions and debates, performances, readings and film screenings. This was the case, for example, for the exhibitions ‘Le Monde à l’envers’ (2014, with the ‘Rire, dérision et transgression’ programme), J’aime les panoramas (2015, with the ‘Qu’est-ce que voir ?’ programme) and ‘Made in Algeria’ (2016, with the ‘Algérie, la Carte et le territoire’ programme).
Exploring a contemporary issue. A 21st-century museum, the MuCEM offers moments of reflection on our times, bringing together big personalities around important issues. ‘Le bonheur, quel bonheur ? in 2015, for example, was a big hit with the public, particularly the discussions with Edgar Morin and Pierre Rabhi. This approach was continued in 2016 with ‘Mais où va la France ? Regards d’ici et d’ailleurs’.
Exploring a country or a region of the world. This approach attempts to shed light on a particular country or region without ducking sensitive questions and the complexities of history. An equally important aim is to showcase contemporary art scenes in different countries. Examples have been ‘Syrie, patrimoine(s) en péril’ (2014), ‘Alger-Marseille, allers et retours’ (2014), ‘Arménie, connaissance et reconnaissance’ (2015) and ‘Beyrouth’ (2016).
The MuCEM also organises a programme of open-air events in the Place d’Armes at the Fort Saint Jean, as well as regular ‘temps forts’ programmes that have become annual events. The ‘Marseille Résonance’ programme in September evokes the imaginary worlds, inventions and creations of Marseille. It is followed by an event devoted to hip-hop culture in the Mediterranean region.
Finally, the museum remains open and flexible in its programming, enabling it to respond to an issue or major event that has suddenly cropped up in current affairs. This was demonstrated, for example, by the special evening organised following the terrorist attack of January 2015, ‘Pour Charlie, la liberté et la peur’, which brought together several thousand people on 13 January 2015.
Tous au MuCEM!
In addition to its various cultural offerings, the MuCEM also participates in big national events (‘Nuit des musees’, ‘Journées du patrimoine’ and ‘Rendez-vous aux jardins’, for example), as well as festive interludes, which give the museum a chance to adopt a fresh approach (‘plan B’, ‘Mémoires de la Belle’). The MuCEM’s programme is supplemented by activities aimed at specific sections of the public:
– School students, with tours and film screenings (45,000 schoolchildren per year) and a dozen specific projects annually, aimed at encouraging young people to engage with the museum.
– Students and 18–30-year-olds, with the ‘Nuits vernies’, festive openings of new exhibitions.
– Young people and families, with a dedicated space (‘l’Odyssée des enfants’) open free of charge and without interruption at weekends and during school holidays; a programme of permanent activities, and a special programme during school holidays.
– Members of the public who normally have little contact with culture, with participatory projects organised around new exhibitions: ‘Mix Food’ in 2014 which brought together 1,000 people from four neighbourhoods of Marseille around the exhibition ‘Food’ (collection of objects and recipes, communal meals) and ‘Panora’mixtes’ in 2015 which offered residents of the Frais-Vallon neighbourhood the chance to prepare the exhibition ‘J’aime le panoramas’, and in particular to work with an artist to create a work that was shown in the exhibition.
– And also: free visitor leaflets for each exhibition in French and English, mediators posted in every exhibition room, the translation into sign language of debates and lectures, subtitled films, tickets for performances given to associations working with the deprived, etc. These many schemes ensure maximum access to the museum’s programme.
Developed in partnership between the State, the City of Marseille, the Département of Bouches-du-Rhône and the Region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, MuCEM is the first actual relocation of a national museum from Paris to a large regional capital. Its collections, consisting of nearly one million works, objects and documents have been transported to Marseille in their entirety.