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Marseille museum a bridge between Mediterranean cultures

The Museum of Civilisations from Europe and the Mediterranean, which opens Friday in Marseille, aims to represent European and Mediterranean cultures of both past and present.

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The square building sheathed in a layer of glimmering concrete faces the sea, a footbridge connecting it to the nearby 12th-century monument known as the Fort Saint-Jean.

The structure designed by prestigious architect Rudy Ricciotti will house Marseille’s latest and highly buzzed-about attraction: The Museum of Civilisations from Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM), set to open on June 7.

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The first national museum exclusively located outside the French capital, MuCEM will first mark its entrance into the spotlight with an inaugural ceremony on Tuesday, presided over by President François Hollande.

On the ground floor, the museum’s permanent collection sets the tone; though there are historical artifacts on display, they are organized by theme (agriculture, religion) and, above all, are interspersed with references to the present.

In the room dedicated to citizenship and human rights, ancient busts are set alongside an exhibit called “the wall of expression”, which consists of a giant screen showing footage of women today discussing freedom of expression in their respective countries (among them Egyptian blogger Shahinaz Abdel Salam and Tunisian physicist Faouzia Charfi).

‘Moving mental maps’

“Our main message concerns contemporary societal issues,” explained Bruno Suzzarelli, the museum’s president.

That initiative can entail tackling controversial subjects, as proven by some of MuCEM’s first temporary exhibits. One called “At the Gender Bazaar: Feminine-Masculine in the Mediterranean” (until January 6, 2014) examines various facets of masculinity and femininity in Mediterranean countries.

Most of the museum’s second floor is taken up by the very beautiful exhibition “Black and Blue: A Mediterranean Dream” (until January 6, 2014). Translated into both Arabic and English, it takes visitors on a visual journey from the 18th century to today, covering periods and themes such as colonisation, tourism, and war.

Standing before 20th century Spanish artist Joan Miro’s painting “Blue II”, the exhibit’s curator, Thierry Fabre, explained that the colour blue symbolised “the stubborn determination of these civilizations to dream, despite the chaos and violence” that surrounded them.

“By going to see how history is perceived in other countries, ‘on the other side’,” he continued, “we can try to move our mental maps”. Following that logic, Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt is presented through the eyes of prominent Egyptian scholar Al-Gabarti, whereas the colonial rule over Algeria is represented from the perspective of anti-colonialist scholar and leader Abdelkader El Djezairi.

Partnership with Morocco

Placed at the end of the exhibit, a contemporary work by Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto – a table cut into the shape of the Mediterranean Sea – suggests the possibility of one, unified Mediterranean world. As a whole, though, “Black and Blue: A Mediterranean Dream” never pushes the idea of a single identity spanning different cultures and geographical locations.

“It wouldn’t make sense, since the Mediterranean is composed of different places,” Fabre said. “But we’re showing that beyond all the antagonism between various countries that we see in the news, there are deep ties and intense exchanges that exist between these places.”

MuCEM hopes to maintain and cultivate these exchanges through partnerships with countries on the other side of the Mediterranean. “The tumult from the Arab revolutions makes things a bit tricky, but there is real potential,” Suzzarelli affirmed.

MuCEM’s president accompanied Hollande on his first official state visit to Morocco in April, where he signed an agreement with the country’s National Foundation of Museums to host an exhibit on the bronze statues of Volubilis, a partly excavated Roman city in northern Morocco.

The exhibit is planned for Spring 2014.

MuCEM opens in Marseille
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