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Mucem, showing the beauty of Marseilles

At the mouth of Marseille’s old port, against the blue of the Mediterranean, sits a mysterious dark cube draped in a giant concrete net — an audacious new architectural emblem for a port city desperate to shake off its stereotypes as the French capital of Kalashnikovs, gang wars, drug-smuggling, political corruption and football mania.

After more than a decade of delays and political wrangling, French president Francois Hollande opened Mucem, France’s new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations in June.

The €191-million project is the first museum in the world dedicated to Mediterranean civilisations and culture, and the first standalone French “national museum” ever to be located outside the centralised cultural grandeur of Paris.

Inside Mucem

The museum is not just the centrepiece of Marseille’s 2013 stint as the European capital of culture. It aims to attract 10-million visitors this year, despite the bad press over six gangland gun deaths and one fatal stabbing since January and various sleaze investigations, including a popular local Socialist MP recently given a jail sentence for buying votes.

Marseille won the capital of culture tag because it argued that the real cultural questions facing Europe today were “migration, racism, gender relations, religion, ecology”.

Mucem is a celebration of a cosmopolitan, ethnically mixed city, proud that its housing estates did not erupt in riots like the Paris suburbs in 2005. But although it doesn’t have the ghettos of Paris, it has more unemployment and poverty.

For years, as the symbolic Mucem project snaked its way through the highest levels of the French state, from the Socialist government of 2000 that conceived it as a return of national culture to the provinces, to Nicolas Sarkozy who saw it as a symbol of his ill-fated political “Mediterranean union”, the question has been, what would actually be displayed inside?

The museum inherited a vast collection from Paris’s old Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, an ethnographic and folklore museum once known as the “Louvre of the people”. But there was a fear that the era of what Le Monde scathingly described as “hanging folk objects from nylon string” needed to be reinvented.

Curators argued that Mucem, far from delivering platitudes about sun and sea, would use modern museum design to tackle all the uncomfortable truths, violent histories and cultural exchanges of a region stretching from Spain to Israel and back via the southern Balkans, Turkey and North Africa.

The permanent exhibition traced a line from rural European farming to religion in Jerusalem and issues of human rights.

Exhibitions

The key temporary exhibition, Le Noir et le Bleu (The Black and the Blue), traced the Mediterranean dream and nightmare from Napoleon in Egypt and Miro paintings, to the Italian mafia and bloodshed in Beirut and Sarajevo. A second exhibition traced the history of gender in the Mediterranean.

Bruno Suzzarelli, the museum’s director, said: “The Mediterranean for me is a meeting point . . . but it’s also a type of conflict. This museum will allow different ideas of the Mediterranean to meet.”

Central to the rebelliousness of the project was the building’s provocative designer, Rudy Ricciotti, the enfant terrible of French architecture. Born in Algeria, the French architect said he carried the Mediterranean curse of perpetual travel, “a fracture which never heals”.

The museum is built on Marseille’s disused pier, where migrants often had their first glimpse of the city, and a rooftop walkway links it to the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, open to the public for the first time.

Ricciotti described his building full of dappled, fragmented light as a “vertical kasbah”, an “architecture of resistance against imperialist mythology”. He said it would restore calm to Marseille after the city had taken a whipping in the national media in recent years.

The architect said: “The whole world directs hatred at Marseille, it’s like a kind of Quasimodo, it takes hit after hit and just smiles back, it doesn’t understand the hatred so it just replies with an enigmatic stare. Culture is an element of peacemaking.”

— © Guardian News & Media 2013

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