A Touch of France: MuCEM, the pride of Marseille

Mathilde RAIVE, journalist

MuCEM, the pride of Marseille

by M. Raive, France

Like a majestic black vessel poised between land and sea, the Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) stands at the entrance to the port of Marseille. A perfect square girded by concrete latticework redolent of Islamic mashrabiyas, MuCEM was inaugurated in June 2013, one of the few provincial museums opened in France in recent times. Designed by Rudy Ricciotti, a 62-year-old Algerian-born French architect, MuCEM draws visitors from around the world. From Marseille too, because this cultural institution is also a place where locals can stroll along walkways between the historic quarter of the upper part of town and the waterfront, taking ownership as it were of their Mediterranean port and city, founded in 600 BC by Greeks from Phocaea (Anatolia in present-day Turkey). Through its focus on society, MuCEM has from its inauguration curated high-level and thought-provoking exhibitions from sundry collections of popular art (250 000 objects and hundreds of thousands of documents) inherited from the former Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris: great artworks and archaeological treasures, contemporary art alongside 19th-century agricultural tools, traditional costumes from all over Europe, a fine collection of merrygo- rounds, and their wooden horses. Through a multidisciplinary dialogue between cultures and continents, MuCEM challenges us, questions us, and shows us how art is part of life.

Medicographia. 2015;37:210-220 (see French abstract on page 220)

Rarely has a contemporary building helped a townspeople take ownership of their city like the Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) in Marseille. Inaugurated in June 2013, architect Rudy Ricciotti’s creation at the entrance to the port was the centerpiece of the celebrations that year when Marseille was designated European Capital of Culture. Wrapped in concrete latticework, this remarkable building, with breathtaking views across the azure of the Mediterranean, is reason enough for a stroll along its 115-meter footbridge over its encircling moats and beyond. MuCEM rose to its challenge from the outset: to attract lovers of art and architecture from around the world, but also to appeal to those for whom cultural institutions are an alien world.

France’s newest museum

What is the measure of MuCEM’s success? We need look no further than visitor numbers. In the first year after its opening, it welcomed some 950 000 visitors to its collections and exhibition rooms. Outside, over 2.8 million promenaders flocked to the inclined gangways that run around the museum and on to the metal footbridge that spans the waves and joins MuCEM to the Mediterranean garden of the Fort Saint-Jean high above the port. Numbers that outstripped expectations three-fold. MuCEM, the latest museum in France and the only one inaugurated in the provinces for many years, is already riding high among the world’s most visited museums.

Overlooking the Mediterranean, the waterfront site blends with brio into its setting, refining it the while, such that once again it is becoming the cynosure of the Department of the Bouches-du-Rhône. To the point that for the title of the symbol of Marseille it rivals the Catholic basilica Notre-Dame-dela- Garde, which for centuries has kept watch majestically over the city from its outcrop 150 meters above the port. Like a “Good Mother,” as it is known, the church has, since the Middles Ages, watched over Marseille’s sailors and fishermen. Expanded in the mid-19th century, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde today stands on the site of the original small medieval chapel. The Neo-Byzantine and Romanesque styles of the church, with its square bell tower surmounted by a belfry topped by a statue of the Madonna and Child over 11 meters high, its copper gilded with gold leaf gleaming in the sunlight, contrast sharply with the harmonious and matte blacks and grays of the MuCEM. As if this crossroads of anthropology, history, archaeology, art history, and contemporary art did not wish to cast a shadow over the blue waters of the Mediterranean. MuCEM seems to hover between sea and sky. A square and sober block, enveloped by a veil of openwork concrete evocative of Islamic mashrabiyas, MuCEM’s main building (15 000 m2) has become a waterfront extension of the city on the pier from where, until decolonization, travelers from around the world came and went: jazz arrived here from the United States in the 1920s, and a decade later artists and writers fled Nazism in the other direction.

MuCEM and its rich historical setting are so stately that they seem to have become the quintessential setting for a Sunday stroll for many of Marseille’s folk, drawn as they have been since its opening by affection for this contemporary vessel, where they see, as its designer Rudy Ricciotti puts it, “the know-how of those who built it, the work of the stonemasons, engineers, site foremen, and journeymen.

”Though MuCEM“speaks to the heart of the people of Marseille,” as Ricciotti proudly relates, its attraction extends beyond the city limits. Some 85% of the visitors are French, and it is true that half of these are from the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, but the remaining 15% are from overseas: Germany (20%), Belgium (12%), Italy (11%), Switzerland (10%), and the United States (6%). Visitors even come to Marseille with the express purpose of discovering this architectural feat.

As a great museum focused on societal issues, MuCEM houses collections transferred from the erstwhile Musée national des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris, created in 1937. Ethnography was MuCEM’s founding discipline, but its vocation has greater scope. Standing on the north shore of the Mediterranean, it serves as a cultural city open to the human sciences and to art in all its guises, by bringing together what is known as world culture, in a crosscutting dialogue between the arts, cultures, and continents, between Europe, the Americas, Africa, and the Orient. By promoting exchanges between the two shores of the Mediterranean, MuCEM fulfills its calling, suggestive of the Tower of Babel or of a casbah (North African fortress) to be climbed so as to gaze across to other horizons.

How is it possible to remain untouched by the sensuous delights of this building open to the high seas at the entrance to the Old Port? By the melding of sight and touch, of odors from the sea, the taste of iodine on whistling winds from afar. Even before it was completed, Rudy Ricciotti noted that “with its aerial walkways, MuCEM conjures up the ascension of a ziggurat, a Mesopotamian terraced temple. Its membranes of dark concrete openwork evoke ties with a distant Orientalism. The south and west frontages, the sun-drenched roof open to the public, are wrapped in a black concrete mashrabiya, while the seawater circulates in the moats under the gangways, the smell of iodine intensified by the mistral.”

Rudy Ricciotti,
the architect of MuCEM (2013). © IBO/SIPA.

A visionary proud of his Mediterranean roots

Born in Algeria in 1952 to parents of Italian origin, raised in Provence, Rudy Ricciotti graduated from the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Marseille and is today resident in Bandol (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region). Winner of the 2006 Grand Prix national de l’architecture (“Grand National Prize of Architecture”), Ricciotti is a visionary proud of his Mediterranean roots. He loves materials rooted in the earth and in the lives of men and women. Son of a stonemason, he knows that construction is a task for men and women who dream of defying the gods and eternity. Fascinated by the “secrets transmitted by site foremen or by skilled artisans,” his enthusiasm for concrete knows no bounds. It is, he feels, a “royalty-free material easy to make from sand and cementanywhere on the planet.” Ricciotti loves the idea of working with concrete, which is neither “a scarce earth” nor a “speculative product.” He also lauds its complexity: “Concrete is a Mephistophelian asset, but we can make a pact with it. No one owns concrete. Nor am I a concreting architect. I don’t work concrete; it works me.” Ricciotti is a respected professional, but draws barbs from some who see in his creations, with their organic curves, the work of a mannerist, an architect out of step with the minimalism in vogue in contemporary architecture. In his own fashion, Ricciotti counters by decrying the “sensory autism” and “minimalist Salafism” of some of his more illustrious peers. He has no time for minimalism and argues for the “demuseumification” of museums.

Gateway to the Mediterranean: MuCEM and Fort Saint-Jean, in the old harbor of Marseille, linked by a pedestrian bridge. In the
background, Sainte-Marie-Majeure Cathedral. © Tim White/SOPA RF/4Corners Images/SOPA/Corbis.

Main entrance to MuCEM, at dusk. © Marc Dozier/Corbis

Wooden painted Sicilian handcart, 19th century, from Palermo. © Karim ADDA/Demotix/Corbis.

Display of traditional beekeeping items, early 20th century. © MuCEM. Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/image MuCEM.

Wooden horse from a merry-go-round, sculpted and
painted in Gustave Bayol’s (1859-1931) workshop in Avignon.
© RMN-Grand Palais/MuCEM/Hervé Jézequel.

Sixty-two–key “orchestrophone,” dated around 1880, by the
Limonaire Frères company, street organ and fairground organ builders.
© MuCEM. Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/image MuCEM.

The footbridge between the roof terrace of MuCEM and the garden of the restored Fort Saint-Jean links the revamped Boulevard du Littoral to the Panier district, the historical site of the Greek colony Massalia founded in 600 BC. A former military complex with 12th-century foundations and the square mid–15th-century Tower of René I, King of Provence, the Fort Saint-Jean was constructed in the 17th century on the site of the commandery of Saint John of Jerusalem by order of Louis XIV, to strengthen the city’s arsenal. After three centuries of military duty, the Fort Saint- Jean was severely damaged in 1944 by an accidental explosion when used by the German occupiers as an ordnance depot. A listed building since 1964, under the guardianship of the Ministry of Culture, the Fort Saint-Jean from 1970 to 2005 housed the Department for Underwater and Undersea Archaeological Research.

Field work in the French Alps, before the
advent of mechanization.
© MuCEM. Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/image MuCEM.

Blue II, by Joan Miró, part of “The Black and the Blue” temporary exhibition at MuCEM in June 2013. The painting is part of a set of three (Triptych Blue I, II, III) now at the Georges Pompidou Museum in Paris. The Triptych was completed in March 1961 in Palma de
Mallorca. © Claude Paris/AP/SIPA.

Fully restored to current building code standards, the Fort Saint-Jean is now open to the public for the first time, having always served as a military site, except during the French Revolution, when it was used as a prison for Philippe Egalité (name taken by Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans) and two of his sons, together with twenty or so Jacobins (members of the revolutionary Jacobin Club). Henceforth, visitors can explore the Tower of René I, the Salle du Corps de Garde (guardhouse room), the Officers’ Gallery, and the Saint-Jean Chapel, and discover there some of the collections inherited from the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires or deposited by the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Within the Fort Saint-Jean, the visitor enters a world of fairgrounds and leisure activities, through a giant model of a circus with its sawdust-strewn ring, menagerie, and gallery, funfair attractions, fairground amusements and costumes, and everyday objects evoking the ages of life.

Before reaching the footbridge to the pier, a “garden of migrations” planted with white oaks, holm oaks, orange trees, myrtle, herbs, and spices has been created to illustrate, in fifteen botanical landscapes, the melding of Mediterranean cultures. The history of Marseille illustrated by the Fort Saint-Jean and the contemporary world of MuCEM are now entwined by this bridge suspended above the moats. The two sites, ancient and modern, linked by the two interwoven inclines, seem indivisible, like past and future.

Access to MuCEM along the Fort Saint-Jean footbridge, which links it to the upper slopes of town, leads to the museum roof terrace fitted out as a solarium, with a gourmet restaurant run by Gérald Passédat, a master of the herbs and vegetables of Marseille and of the fish and seafood of the Mediterranean. This terra firma overhang of a terrace juts into the sea in the shape of a perfect square 72 meters by 72. Within it, separated by winding stairs and open-air walkways, stands a smaller square, this one 52 meters by 52, holding the heart of the museum: the exhibition area and conference rooms.

Gallery of the Mediterranean

MuCEM’s permanent exhibition, the 1600 m2 Gallery of the Mediterranean, uses everyday objects together with artworks to illustrate practices and beliefs representative of civilizations from the Neolithic era onwards. Four themes are covered. First, there is the birth of agriculture some 10 000 years agoand the emergence in early societies of belief in divinities who governed the success or failure of crops. The second theme is the rise of monotheistic beliefs, illustrated by the example of Jerusalem, which became a holy site for the three main religions of the eastern Mediterranean: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The third theme relates to citizens and responsibility in Mediterranean and European societies, the notion of citizenship, from Athenian democracy to present-day human rights. The fourth and last theme is an invitation to venture beyond the known world, to undertake a voyage illustrated by instruments used in maritime exploration, nautical charts, luxurious and exotic treasures that tell the story of man’s exploration of the Mediterranean and points east.

Real or virtual? Sun shining through the signature concrete latticework of MuCEM on a terrace. © Guillaume Horcajuelo/epa/Corbis.

Temporary exhibitions

This fascination with the Mediterranean was pursued further in MuCEM’s inaugural exhibition: The Black and the Blue, A Mediterranean Dream. The black of Francisco Goya, the blue of Joan Miró. An exhibition that displayed, as the MuCEM website put it: “The Enlightenment and its shadows, like two sides of one world, a response to the very idea of civilization, created in the 18th century.” In his Disasters of War, a set of eighty etchings and aquatints, Goya revealed, in the words of André Malraux, “what, in man, aspires to destroy him.” Miró’s world, in contrast, was the sundrenched island of Majorca, where blue was the color of his dreams. Mediterranean blue, a symbol, an icon of man’s desire to seek within himself his own origins. The exhibition invited visitors to travel through time from the world of Goya (1746-1828) to the here and now, to recount, to dream, while never forgetting history’s dark side, for, as Walter Benjamin remarked, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

Currently, one of MuCEM’s temporary exhibitions is Such a Sweet Moment by the French photographer Raymond Depardon and his use of color from the 1950s until now. Always present, color took on a certain dominance in Depardon’s work from the 2000s: he moved away from reportage in a quest for truth and happiness through rediscovery of the light and colors of South America, Africa, and the United States, and a new Mediterranean element entered his work. In the words of French philosopher Clément Rosset, Depardon is now seeking “the sweetness of reality.”

Another temporary exhibition, History Zero by Greek artist Stefanos Tsivopoulos, is an installation originally commissioned for the 55th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia, in 2013. History Zero casts an eye over how we value money and its role in human relationships. Against the backdrop of the 7th year of recession in Greece, Tsivopoulos believes that the Greek economic crisis “has to do with […] the way we perceive or approach value,” and how this perception “has been contested by different cultures, communities, and societies.” He illustrates his ideas with archival material on currencies and exchanges—from barter, shell money and trade beads, and the gift economy to the emergence of money, banking, microfinance, mobile money, and bitcoins—and a film that tells the intertwined stories of three people in Athens. Wandering the streets, an African immigrant searches for scrap metal to sell. An artist seeks inspiration in the cityscape by randomly recording street scenes with his iPad. Alone in a museum-like house, an elderly art collector afflicted by dementia spends her time folding euro banknotes into origami flowers. These acquire new value when the young immigrant happens across them in a bin, while his “treasure”—the trolley laden with scrap metal—serves to inspire the artist.

Through its permanent and temporary exhibitions, MuCEM spurs us to reflect, to be moved, to admire, and to question. Is this not the purpose of a museum seeking its place in today’s world?