The Many Faces of the Mediterranean Museum

Nicknamed the “Chicago of France,” the former nerve center of the French Connection has seen its reputation tarnished by gang warfare and deadly political paralysis. In its search for a new identity, Marseille has placed culture at the heart of the city. A highly effective strategy.
© Lisa Ricciotti/MUCEM

Marseille is the second most populous French city (1.7 million inhabitants including its surrounding area) and was long known for its exuberance and excess. However, this image slowly took a turn for the worse following the decolonization of Algeria in the 1960s. In an effort to restore the city to its former glory, the Euroméditerranée urban renewal project was launched in the mid-1990s. The city’s 148-acre waterfront saw the launch of the Cité de la Méditerranée program, designed to renovate and build housing units and public facilities. All that was missing was a link between the city’s golden past and its newly reclaimed modernity. With this in mind, and to give a culture-focused face to this new Marseille, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, the MUCEM, was inaugurated in 2013.

Boasting a classical aspect with cubic geometry and a horizontal form, and a modern aspect through the technical feats required to produce and assemble its concrete lattice, the MUCEM is a tribute to the ancient city of Massalia. Founded in 600 B.C. by Greek sailors, the present-day Marseille now welcomes supertankers and giant cruise ships. Rudy Ricciotti, the French architect behind the museum, wanted this homage to Mediterranean civilizations to be “a true waterfront feature” and “to connect with the sky, the sea, the salt, and the wind.” His wish has certainly come true. Set on an ancient pier at the entrance of the Vieux Port, this sculptural, mineral square encased within a charcoal-gray net is reminiscent of an imposing underwater rock and magnifies the light reflecting off the sea in a thrilling spectacle!

© Lisa Ricciotti/MUCEM
© Lisa Ricciotti/MUCEM

A Walking Museum

Renowned for its daring shows – from Art Brut master Jean Dubuffet in 2019 to the kitsch, pop creations by Jeff Koons contrasted with the museum’s finest artifacts in 2021 – the MUCEM houses the collections of the former Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris. Photos, sculptures, prints, posters, and day-to-day objects depict life in societies spread across the Mediterranean Sea, which was the birthplace of countless civilizations. Going beyond its role as a museum, Rudy Ricciotti’s building also offers a stunning stroll outside the exhibition spaces. “Much like in a ziggurat [a Mesopotamian pyramid],” said the architect to French newspaper Le Monde, “visitors will wander around the museum, along ramps up to the roof, caught between the air, sky, sun, sea spray, and salty breeze.” On the terrace, deckchairs offer a chance to stop and take in the breathtaking views over the Vieux Port, the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica, the sea, and the Frioul archipelago. Le Môle Passedat, the museum’s panoramic restaurant headed up by Marseille-born chef Gérald Passedat, offers a medley of Mediterranean cuisines.

Surrounded by water with the sea stretching to the horizon, the edifice resembles an ocean liner anchored to dry land by two incredibly delicate concrete footbridges. One leads to the Fort Saint-Jean, built in the 17th century to protect the city and establish Louis XIV’s royal authority. The other, beginning at the fort, links the MUCEM to Le Panier, the oldest part of the city dating back to its time as a Greek colony. Within minutes, visitors will reach the narrow alleyways and jumbled houses perched on steep streets in this neighborhood built around the charmingly Provencal Place de Lenche – most likely the former Greek agora. The highlight of this area is La Vieille Charité, a 17th-century almshouse built according to plans by sculptor and architect Pierre Puget and originally used to welcome children and the elderly in need following a royal decree in 1640. Today, its three floors of galleries surround a chapel topped with an impressive oval dome inspired by the Italian Baroque style, creating a truly extraordinary exhibition space. In 2021, featuring 180 works by more than 80 artists, the Surrealism in American Art exhibition was a storming success.

© Florian Wehde

Urban Exploration

More adventurous visitors can start at the MUCEM and take the GR2013, a new type of hiking path with sections snaking over the Saint-Jean footbridge and along the building created by Rudy Ricciotti. Launched by a group of artists and hiking enthusiasts, and designed to be an “open-air museum” in which “the route is the exhibition,” this marked-out “metropolitan walkway” crosses the neighborhoods nestled on the hillside around Notre-Dame de la Garde. An ideal way to discover another side of Marseille, from the city hall on the Vieux Port to the Prado beaches at the entrance to the Calanques National Park.

This may be the end of Marseille’s cultural Middle Ages and the start of its artistic Renaissance. Currently emerging from a long period of turmoil, the 2013 European Capital of Culture has been reborn. More than 1.2 million visitors, including almost 25% from abroad, flock to the MUCEM every year, making it one of the world’s top 30 most visited museums. Rudy Ricciotti, the son of a pied-noir family who fled Algeria and the man behind this “vertical kasbah,” designed it to be a symbol joining the Mediterranean coasts. Today, he is batting away clichés, moving past divisions, and bringing people together. The very purpose of art!

The French Connection

During the 1960s, more than 80% of the heroin circulating in the United States came from Marseille! The city’s Corsican gangsters had chemists processing opium imported from Turkey before delivering the famously pure white powder to crime families in New York. Overdoses shot into the thousands, and President Richard Nixon promised to wipe out this scourge. In talks with Georges Pompidou, he demanded that the French do everything in their power to stop the dealers and shut down the illegal labs. It took France some ten years to eradicate this multinational narcotics ring – an effort detailed by Robin Moore in his 1969 book The French Connection, which was made into a film by William Friedkin two years later.


Article published in the February 2022 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.