All Concept, No Knickers: a Trip to Marseille’s Mucem

Mucem: Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, Marseille, France

Sometimes, when you see that there is a really hyped museum, you can’t help but be carried away by the idea that it’s going to be great.  Then, when you’re somewhat disappointed, you walk away feeling kinda grumpy.  And, if you’re me, you remember your grandmother’s phrase describing the entirely superficial impressiveness of a person or situation by saying they were ‘all fur coat, no knickers.’

That is totally Mucem.  It has a very pretty fur coat that’s striking – which totally hides the fact that underneath, it’s lacking the most basic form of panties.

The museum opened in 2013 during the city’s time as the European Capital of Culture.  Its purpose is to look at European and Mediterranean civilizations – the clue is in the name – and it takes an ‘interdisciplinary’ approach in looking at the way the cultures interacted in the Med.  Nice idea – great idea, actually.  Much needed.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t really deliver.  At least I don’t think so.  Apparently everyone else loves it.

I do appreciate that the building complex is impressive.  It’s at the tip of Marseille’s harbour, attached to the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean.  The fort was revamped as part of the project and is linked to the new museum by footbridges.  There’s not much to see around the Fort, except some views over the city and sea, but there are exhibition spaces.  And it’s probably a nice spot to hang out, since there are some park-like sections with some neat planting.

We started at the Fort, got bored, then went over to the Mucem building.  It was designed by Rudy Ricciotti and Roland Carta and is basically a lattice covered box.  Again there are exhibitions on the top two floors (which when I went were not interesting to me) and on the ground floor is the permanent collection.  The main reception area feels a bit like a grim Barbican/Royal Festival Hall.  It was bustling with people visiting the cafe and shop and there were an awful lot of folk who seemed to be wandering aimlessly, searching for something to engage them.

There are two permanent exhibitions, ‘Ruralities’, which is continuing until March 2020, and ‘Connectivities’ which finishes in December 2021.  ‘Ruralities’ looks at farming in the Mediterranean through the centuries.  There are some interesting objects on show, but for once I walked through almost as quickly as other visitors.  It felt like we were in some underfunded municipal museum which had collected moderately interesting farming equipment, not some major initiative which gets tons of visitors every year.

It was ‘Connectivities’ that really got my goat.  Oh boy.  Luckily I don’t have the energy to deal with this the way I wanted to when I was walking round, but I will mention two things.  The exhibition says that it looks at the major port cities of the Mediterranean in the 16th/17th centuries.  You’d think that this would be a fascinating subject, very suited to this museum’s purpose.  But no.  What it felt like we got was a random bunch of items which were sitting in storage, and which could be used to broadly fit into the context of the cities of Istanbul, Venice, Genoa, Algiers, Seville and Lisbon – each of them fascinating.

So because I’m half Turkish, I am going to talk about their display on Istanbul and state that I found it… annoying.

First of all, let’s address the information board.  There was one.  The bulk of the writing was in French.  Fine.  Then there was a ‘translation’ into English.  Fine.  Then, because they’re an inclusive and thoughtful organisation, they had a ‘translation’ into Turkish: two lines which tell us that Sultan Mehmet II captured Constantinople and changed its name to Istanbul and that Süleyman engaged in cultural activities.  Admittedly, that’s all that’s basically in the French, but there’s something really stupid about having a Turkish section of text which doesn’t replicate the French text exactly.  Why do it at all?  Do it properly or don’t do it at all.

MUCEM, Marseille, France

Frustrating text at Mucem, Marseille, France

Oh, and spell Istanbul right in the Turkish title.

Then there is the display.  A random selection, not particularly illuminating and giving no insight into how Istanbul was connected with the other port cities through trade, culture and migration – all fascinating, and topical, subjects that deserve serious study.

There were some moderately interesting objects on show, and I get that they were trying to tell stories – but they used more words than objects to do so.  Since this is a museum, that seems like the wrong way round to do things. However, I suppose this superficial skimming of history was to appeal to children and people who don’t usually go to museums.  Fair enough.  But frustrating.

According to their website, Mucem’s collection stems from a 19th century ethnological museum.  It owns almost a million objects – photographs, poster and other works – and is actively acquiring more.  I’m not sure why.  I mean, the idea that they are amassing an interesting array of items, and have this grand building, but are only doing somewhat sparse exhibitions kind of makes having such a rich collection a bit pointless.  I get that this approach is one that a lot of older museums have, and due to lack of money and space they have to rotate their collections, but when you build something from scratch, why do it like that?  Yes, it’s good to have exhibitions to keep people visiting even when they’ve been before, but there’s something annoying about not having a fully permanent set of exhibition rooms which show off the collections.  I mean, as it is, most of the really interesting objects were loaned by other museums.

All in all, it was a frustrating experience for me and my fellow Chickpeas.  Perhaps you’ll love it – but make sure you really are going to get your money’s worth by checking what’s on before you go.

So In Summary

Unless you intend to take advantage of visiting all the exhibitions on show, I’d say you can give this a skip.  If you only want to see the building, you can do that for free and just wander round.  Be warned – it’s a sprawling place, connected by walkways and stairways.

Further Information

The museum has a website in English and many other major languages, which makes a nice change: www.mucem.org

You can get to Mucem either on ground level, by the road, or you can get there via St John’s Fort, to which is linked via bridges.  If you’re not interested in looking round the fort – and there’s not much to see there – then don’t bother walking uphill.

The building next door is the Villa Méditerranée, which is also home to exhibitions and events and whatnot.  Like Mucem, I think its main source of interest is in its architecture.

How To Get There

The museum is at the end of the harbour in Marseille, and is easy to get to using public transport or by walking.  For information about the transport, there’s a pretty good website: www.rtm.fr

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