Amphorae at the Musee d'Histoire de MarseilleMarseille is France's oldest city, and its rich, long history has a worthy showcase in this newly renovated museum, one of the best in town. logoClick here to book a hotel in Marseille

In 1967 the district behind the Bourse (Chamber of Commerce) was being redeveloped. During the work, many remarkable discoveries revealed the vast extent of Marseille's ancient port.

Among them were a Greek necropolis and ramparts, a quay, a paved Roman road, a freshwater basin and, a little further north, an early Christian basilica.

The mayor at the time, Gaston Defferre, wanted to bulldoze the lot to make way for his big project, a multi-storey car-park! Fortunately reason prevailed and extensive excavations followed, France's most ambitious urban archeological dig to date.

An open-air Jardin des Vestiges was created on the archeological site to present these ruins and the Musée d'Histoire (Museum of Marseille History) opened in the adjacent new Centre Bourse shopping mall in 1983.

Pictured: the Jardin des Vestiges, surrounded by modern buildings. The Musée d'Histoire de Marseille is on the right.

Jardin des Vestiges and Musee d'Histoire de MarseilleThe original museum soon proved far too small to house the collection. Closed for several years for complete renovation, it finally reopened in 2013. And it proved well worth the wait.

If you have previously visited the museum before the facelift, forget those dark, dusty and cramped premises. The architect in charge of the redesign, Roland Carta, has somehow managed to make the low-ceilinged space seem airy and luminous with an open-plan layout and strategic use of mezzanines.

Much larger than it looks from the outside, the new Musée d'Histoire has been enormously expanded and the permanent collection now covers 3,500 square metres / 37,670 square feet, spread over four levels.

Musee d'Histoire de MarseillePictured: the lowest level of the museum viewed from the mezzanine. The large windows look out on to the Jardin des Vestiges.

The other indoor spaces include temporary exhibition rooms, an auditorium and an education centre. Along with the outdoor Jardin des Vestiges, they make this the largest history museum in France and one of the largest in Europe.

Another advantage is that the Musée d'Histoire de Marseille is right in the centre of town, a few steps from both the Canebière and the Old Port. In fact the Grand-Rue (Main Street) of ancient Marseille leads straight from it to the MuCEM, the city's flagship new museum of Mediterranean civilisations which opened in 2013.

Insider tip for the Musee d'Histoire de MarseilleYou can walk - in about 15 minutes - along this, the oldest road in France, between Marseille's two main museums. A leaflet is available at the museums outlining a self-guided tour of the many notable historical landmarks along the route and a free smartphone app provides additional commentary.

In some respects the Musée d'Histoire de Marseille is the very opposite of the MuCEM. The architecture of the MuCEM is spectacular but many of its recent exhibitions haven't lived up to the dramatic exterior.

The Musée d'Histoire de Marseille, on the other hand, looks kitsch from the outside. But inside is a series of treasures, all sourced from the immediate area and brilliantly displayed. You could easily spend half a day in this fascinating collection.

After a prologue commemorating prehistoric culture in the region's Cosquer caves, Marseille's history is presented in 13 "sequences" or episodes. Each is organised around a key object, supported by many more displays in tall glass showcases.

Virtually the first thing you see is a flotilla of six enormous Greek and Roman ships, which were discovered in the ancient port in 1974 but were too large to be displayed in the former museum. Their remains, reconstructed on beds of white pebbles, now hold pride of place in the opening rooms of the new museum.

Ancient ship in the Musee d'Histoire de MarseilleAs you can see, the boats - one of which is pictured - have understandably disintegrated somewhat over the centuries, but models enable you to get a sense what they once looked like. It's the largest collection of ancient ships in the world.

Further on, you can view the fifth century Malaval basilica, with early Christian tombs that shed fresh light on the practice of anointing the dead with holy oils.

The collection as a whole is a varied mix of artefacts, archeological fragments, maps and - in the more modern rooms - textiles, paintings, photographs and films: the 19th and 20th centuries, which there was no space to accommodate before, now get detailed play.

Plan Lavastre model of Marseille at the Musee d'Histoire de MarseilleAt regular intervals, large-scale maquettes - including the famous 8 square metre / 86 square foot Plan Lavastre of Marseille during the uprising of 1848 - show the huge changes to the city's layout across the centuries with a special focus on its development as a port. Pictured: detail from the Plan Lavastre.

Around 4,000 items are on display - and even this represents only a small proportion of the museum's total collection of some 50000 objects, which is only likely to increase as more sites are excavated around the city.

These objects will eventually go on view, either in temporary exhibitions, rotated in the permanent galleries or sent out on loan to other museums.

The multimedia supports have been thoughtfully designed too. Each episode is briefly introduced by a real or fictional figure from the relevant period.

They range from the Greek explorer Pytheas and Julius Caeser (who conquered Marseille in 49 BC) to the Marseille-born architect Pierre Paul Puget or Edmund Dantès, the hero of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Mont Cristo.

Then follows a short filmed lecture by an expert in the field; these are in French only at the moment, though a very good multilingual audioguide is available, as well as a detailled English-language booklet (free with your ticket). There are explanatory panels in English, French and Italian throughout the museum.

Children's circuit at the Musee d'Histoire de MarseilleThere is also (rather limited) signage in braille and some exhibits can be touched. It goes without saying that the entire space is wheelchair-accessible.

A parallel circuit for children, pictured, offers fun little educational games: for example, they're invited to play dice like the ancients or build a small-scale model of Le Corbusier's Radiant City using the architect's modular apartments.

Closed to the public for some time because of damage caused by vagrants and vandals, the Jardin des Vestiges can now be visited again too: it's currently being completely renovated.

Second Insider tip for the Musee d'Histoire de MarseilleLike many museums in France, the Musée d'Histoire de Marseille offers free admission on the first Sunday of each month.

Where: Musée d'Histoire de Marseille, square Belsunce, 13001 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 55 36 00. Website for the Musée d'Histoire de Marseille

How to get there: Metro line 1 (stop Vieux Port) or tram lines 2 or 3 (stop Belsunce Alcazar).

The Musée d'Histoire de Marseille is located in the Centre Bourse shopping mall, just off the Old Port and the Canebière. Access is either from a path leading up alongside the Jardin des Vestiges from the rue Henri Barbusse or through the shopping mall itself.

In the mall the way in is just by the information point on the bottom floor, Level 0, and is deliberately designed to look a little like an entrance to another shop.

You can't miss it, though: there's a giant, rusty anchor in front of it! This was retrieved from the wreck of the Grand Saint Antoine, the ship that in 1720 bought the plague to Southern Provence and claimed nearly 100,000 lives - one of the darker episodes in Marseille's history.

Photo credits: all images © SJ for Marvellous Provence.



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