Fresh from its tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2013, Marseille is once again recognised on a European scale.
Opened only in June 2013 as part of the programme of events celebrating Marseille’s European Capital of Culture status, the city’s national Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (better known as MuCEM) has been given the ultimate accolade of 2015 European Museum of the Year, thus cementing its position as one of France’s and indeed Europe’s most important cultural institutions.
Dedicated to celebrating the Mediterranean as the birthplace of civilisations and a crossroads of both European and Arab cultures, MuCEM was awarded this distinguished title by the Culture Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), who described the museum as “a new and innovative concept, in a breath-taking site with outstanding architecture, which perfectly fulfils all the criteria of the Council of Europe Museum Prize”. Indeed, MuCEM was also praised for its efforts in “attracting a wide public with an impressive programme of educational visits, debates with artists, seminars, festivals and concerts”.
Described in its own words as “an iconic site, symbol of the marriage between Marseille and the Mediterranean”, MuCEM sits at the Fort Saint-Jean and J4 pier of the city’s commercial port (connected via a 115 metre-long footbridge), at the junction of Marseille’s Vieux Port and La Joliette, serving as the gateway to the city. Indeed, the site of Fort Saint-Jean bears testimony to Marseille’s civil and military history, with Greek and Roman ruins, a 12th-century chapel, a 15th-century medieval tower and the Tour de Fanal, erected in the 17th-century to light up the entrance to the harbour.
The J4 pier meanwhile has an important historical prominence, for it was here that travellers from around the world arrived in and departed from Marseille. It is said that the J4 pier welcomed jazz to Marseille in 1920, whilst it also saw artists and writers threatened by the Nazi regime quit Marseille for the United States at the outbreak of World War II.
Inside, the museum aims to reflect the characteristics of the Mediterranean as defined by its global influences, from Christianity and the Latin culture of the Americas to the expansive influences of the Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox worlds. Its result? A melting pot of all geographical aspects and social sciences, including anthropology, political science, sociology, history, archaeology and art history.
The winner among 42 shortlisted candidates, MuCEM fought off stiff competition for the title, beating a wide range of museums showcasing a wealth of diverse subject matter from across Europe. These included the likes of Antwerp’s Red Star Line Museum, the Fram Museum in Oslo, Munich’s State Museum of Egyptian Art, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva and Titanic Belfast. Also shortlisted were Amsterdam’s Dutch Resistance Museum and Rijksmuseum, the National Football Museum in Manchester, the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens and the Museum for Architectural Drawing (Tchoban Foundation) in Berlin.
Awarded annually since 1977, previous winners of this outstanding accolade have included the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul (2014), Glasgow’s Riverside Museum: Scotland’s Museum of Transport and Travel (2013), the Salzburg Museum in Salzburg (2009), the Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn (2007), CosmoCaixa in Barcelona (2006), London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (2003), the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin (2002) and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (2000).
So whether it’s a city break in Marseille or a relaxing break in the South of France, a visit to Marseille’s MuCEM is a tick-box essential.