MuCEM Marseille latticework facadeThe MuCEM (Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée, or the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) is Marseille's most dramatic new museum.

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But the MuCEM has turned out to be much more than a mere museum. Sitting on the J4 Esplanade, it, and the adjacent Fort Saint Jean, form a series of interlocking public spaces with stupendous panoramic views of the sea and the city, from the Cathedral and commercial port on one side to the Old Port and Notre Dame de la Garde on the other.

Also in this area to the north of Old Port: the Musée Regards de Provence, the Villa Méditerranée, the Tour Panorama and the FRAC PACA. It's difficult to think of another city which has acquired so many new art-oriented spaces in such close proximity and so short a time.

Best of all, you don't have to pay to see it. While there is a charge for the exhibitions, access is free to the gardens, cafes and restaurants, open-air theatre and scenic strolls.

These areas are usually packed with locals as well as tourists on sunny weekends and visitor numbers have vastly exceeded predictions. And now that the MuCEM has been awarded a much-coveted top, three-star rating in the Michelin Travel Guide, its popularity is only likely to grow and grow.

Its architect, Rudy Ricciotti was born in Algeria, trained in Marseille and Geneva and remains based in Provence, where he also created the equally bold - if much smaller scale - Pavillon Noir in Aix.

For the MuCEM Ricciotti has imagined a breathtaking design with a double façade. The main building, with its glass windows, is wrapped in an intricate black concrete mashrabiya lacework screen that creates a North African feel.

Inside the MuCEM MarseilleThe building changes colours constantly depending on the weather and the time of day and, viewed from the inside, the sun streaming through the screen creates beautiful dappled effects of light and shade. In theory it also offers some protection from the wind as well as the sun.

A long ramp, pictured, runs all round the MuCEM between the latticework screen and the main building from the ground level to the roof terrace.

You can go up or down this while the museum is open without entering the exhibitions. Both the MuCEM and - more surprisingly - the mediaeval Fort Saint Jean are wheelchair- and pushchair-friendly and, in fact, are well-equipped for a range of handicaps: click here for more details.

A high walkway above the water connects the MuCEM to the adjacent Fort Saint Jean, a fortress dating back to the late twelfth century, Its rich history complements MuCEM's sharp modernity.

View of Notre Dame and Fort Saint Nicolas from Fort Saint Jean MarseilleInitially occupied by the Military Order of the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John, which originated its name, the site was co-opted by King Louis XIV in 1660.

A second fort, Saint Nicolas, was built at the same time on the other side of the Old Port, and in both cases the purpose was not so much to protect the city from invaders as to deter local uprisings against the authorities.

Pictured: The Old Port, Notre Dame de la Garde and Fort Saint Nicolas viewed from the Fort Saint Jean.

As well as these military facilities, the Fort Saint Jean incorporated the Knights' hospice and a phallic watchtower which had been constructed in the 15th century by King René I of Provence.

MuCEM and Fort Saint Jean Marseille aerial viewClosed to the public for centuries, the Fort Saint Jean has now been restored and transformed into additional exhibition spaces alongside a promenade and a dry garden of Mediterranean plants, the Jardin des Migrations, landscaped to evoke the successive waves of immigrants to Marseille.

It also provides a spectacular setting for outdoor concerts, film screenings and other shows in summer.

You can wander around the compound of the Fort among its lovely old buildings, again without going inside, and enjoy a series of views of the sea and the city, each more remarkable than the last, or simply relax in the gardens and seating area.

A second footbridge links the Fort Saint Jean to Saint Laurent Church in the Panier (Marseille's Old Town). It has to be said that these walkways aren't things of great beauty - but they do look reassuringly solid.

If you suffer from vertigo or prefer to remain on firm ground, you don't need to use these walkways. The Fort Saint Jean can also be accessed by steps and the MuCEM has its ramp as well as the usual stairs and lifts / elevators. Pictured: an aerial view of the whole complex.

But what's inside these vast new spaces? The MuCEM and the Fort Saint Jean host permanent and temporary exhibitions from an enormous collection totalling a million works. Around three-quarters of these come from the former Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions) in Paris, which closed down in 2005.

The MuCEM Marseille by nightAdditional artefacts have been acquired from other museums, including the Musée de l'Homme (Museum of Mankind) or newly purchased by the MuCEM itself.

It's not an entirely smooth match. The Musée national des arts et traditions populaires was ethnographic in focus and concentrated on French history and artefacts.

By contrast the MuCEM is shaped by a broad range of disciplines: archeology, art history, sociology and political sciences, among others. And its remit is Mediterranean Civilisations in the plural. Its pieces come from Greece, Israel, Syria and even further abroad.

The eclectic mix includes documents, paintings, prints and sculptures, furniture, tools, vehicles, reliquaries, jewellery, traditional clothing, textiles, fairground art, bull-fighting paraphernalia, Edith Piaf's stage costume and even Pink Floyd's mixing console.

These are displayed in rotation on the ground floor of the MuCEM and in spaces in the Fort Saint Jean. Those works not on show are stored in yet another new building, the Centre de Conservation des Ressources (the CCR) in the nearby Belle de Mai district. Parts of the CCR are open to the public too.

The MuCEM's cavernous lobby area leads, on the ground floor, to a permanent exhibition on the Mediterranean. It focusses on four elements that, supposedly, make this area distinctive: the development of agriculture and gods, the mix of religions, the evolution of democracy and the exploration of the wider world.

Ground-floor gallery the the MuCEM MarseilleItems on show range from a ploughshare to a guillotine, plus works of art including an exquisite scale model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem inlaid with mother of pearl.

The main signage is in English, French and Spanish, though individual exhibits are labelled in French only. Pictured: the agricultural gallery on the ground floor of the MuCEM.

The upper floors of the MuCEM are given over to temporary shows. The biggest recent ones (both ended) were J'aime les Panoramas, about our cultural fascination with panoramic views, and a mammoth show dedicated to Pablo Picasso. Click here to read our review

 

 

It has to be said that the MuCEM's own collection is a little short of show-stopping artefacts. The exhibitions are very much concept-led, with heavy use of multi-media, and their impact depends on the quality of that concept.

The rooftop restaurant at the MuCEM MarseilleAside from its exhibition spaces, the MuCEM and Fort Saint Jean house an auditorium, two bookshops and a children's zone, a picnic area, snack bar, brasserie and restaurant.

Gérard Passédat, who holds three Michelin stars for Le petit Nice, his own restaurant on the other side of Marseille, oversees the catering, with his former sous-chef Philippe Moreno running the show on the spot. Pictured: the MuCEM's rooftop restaurant.

Insider tip for the MuCEM MarseilleIn common with many French museums, the MuCEM offers free admission to its galleries on the first Sunday of each month. Arrive early, though, to beat the crowds.

Website for the MuCEM Marseille. Note that the English-language section of this site is often not very up-to-date, so it's best to consult the French-language area if you can.

How to get there: The MuCEM sits to the north of the Old Port, just beyond the Fort Saint Jean, on the spur of land known as the J4 Esplanade. It's right next to the Villa Méditerranée near the Cathedral.

You can walk there in five-ten minutes from the Old Port. Alternatively, take bus 82, 60 or 49. The museum is a somewhat further walk from the nearest metro (Vieux Port or Joliette) or tram (République/Dames or Joliette) stops.

 

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