Even though it’s one of the easiest countries to get to from London, I have spent many years avoiding France based on the bad time I had in Paris over a decade ago (it was nothing terrible, like getting robbed or assaulted, more just a few unpleasant experiences and one or two potentially scary ones that I managed to get myself out of before anything happened). But Paris is not France any more than London is Britain (big cities tend to be more like each other rather than representative of the rest of the country), so I figured it was about time I gave it another chance. Why I decided to go to the south of France in the middle of July knowing how much I hate heat and sun is another matter altogether…let’s just say I took a temporary leave of my senses and convinced myself it wouldn’t be all that bad.
Turns out I was very, very wrong. The sun was unbelievably hot and horrible and strong, as I learned about three seconds after leaving Marseille airport. Therefore, as usual, museums would prove my salvation on this trip – even the ones that weren’t air conditioned were at least out of the sun! We spent the first night of our trip in Marseille (which also happened to be the day of the World Cup Final that France was playing in – yep, this trip was really not well thought through), and the one museum I really wanted to see there was Mucem, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, so we slathered on the sunscreen and headed out into the merciless glare outside.
The Mucem is a fairly new museum, having only opened in 2013, and they have a complete English version of their website, so I was sure they would have English translations in the museum and the all-important air conditioning, and I was partly right (fortunately, I was entirely right about the air conditioning, which was the thing I cared about most at the time). Admission was €9.50, which included all of the exhibitions except for the temporary immersive experience, as we would learn later on. The Mucem is spread over two sites (actually, according to their website there’s a third one I didn’t know about, but it sounds like it is primarily for storage and conservation) which are connected by an elevated footbridge, so we were initially pretty confused about where to enter, and ended up circling the Saint Jean site before we spotted an entrance at the J4 building (the one covered in metal webbing), and believe me, I could have done without the extra time in the sun. Even once we got into the J4 building, we were a little unsure about where to begin, as the lobby area provided entrance to quite a few different galleries, but in the end we found our way to “Ruralities,” which appeared to be the first gallery chronologically.
This was about the history of agriculture in the Mediterranean region, and I’m sure it was quite interesting, but unfortunately only the main signage had English translations. All the object labels and smaller signs were only in French, which is certainly their prerogative, but I didn’t have much idea of what was going on as a result (I did take seven years of French between high school and university, but thanks to a series of terrible teachers, my French was never that great, and is now very very rusty indeed). I would say probably 80% of the signage in the permanent galleries is in French only, and they do offer English audio guides, but they cost extra and I didn’t know how much English was inside before going in, so we declined them. There were still some pretty great objects to look at however, particularly the collection of shaped gingerbread hiding in the back of the exhibition, and “Jesus of the Grapes.”
From here we moved on to “Connectivities,” the other permanent exhibition, which profiled six different historical port cities around the Mediterranean, and four modern cities (including Marseille), and the history of trade between them. Again, I think I would have enjoyed this quite a bit had I been able to read more of it, but there were interesting artefacts nonetheless, even though I wasn’t always completely sure what I was looking at. It did crack me up that in the sections on foreign cities, like Venice and Seville, they translated the summaries (like three sentences) into the language of that region (e.g. Italian and Spanish), but literally nothing else in the museum was in those languages. It was like they thought foreign visitors would be pleased that they could read three sentences in the museum. It somehow seemed like more of an insult than just not bothering at all.
We then headed upstairs in the J4 building to view the two main temporary art exhibitions: “Gold” and Ai Weiwei’s “Fan-Tan,” the latter of which Marcus was quite excited about, so we went in there first. “Fan-Tan” had English translations on everything, which was much appreciated, and probably why I ended up enjoying this exhibition the most. Ai Weiwei did an exhibition here because Marseille was where his father first landed on his way over from China to attend university in Paris, so he felt a certain connection with the city, and the exhibition was meant to be loosely themed around his father, who was a poet. The centrepiece was “Colored House,” which dominated the first room of the exhibition, but there were cases lining the walls to show off smaller pieces of work, and a chandelier and sculptures of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac in the last room. I think most of the pieces here were older works, but Ai Weiwei did create two artworks made of Marseille soap specifically for it (which were honestly just meh, because soap). I’m not convinced about the “everyday” objects molded out of jade series (like the anal beads, though really, I’m not judging if that’s your thing, but I feel relatively confident that there aren’t many people who use anal beads on a quotidian basis), but I quite liked the death mask of his father (which was one of the few pieces that was obviously tied to his father. There were also old racist French cartoons showing how the Chinese were portrayed at the time his father was living in France), the Marcel Duchamp inspired shoes that were impossible to walk in, and his re-creation in Lego of the time he broke an ancient Chinese pot.
“Gold” was back to mostly French again, and I’m not the keenest on gold jewellery or anything anyway, but the giant nude sculptures cast in gold were pretty good, as was the giant gold thumb. After finishing up with this, we wandered outside to the ramps that looped around the building that would ultimately take us to the footbridge over to Saint Jean Fort (which may not be for acrophobics, though I’m not overly keen on heights and I was fine with it). The walkways around the building and the footbridge were probably one of the coolest parts of the experience (not literally; the footbridge was boiling, as you might expect an exposed surface made of metal to be), because you could view the sea and the port from in between the metal webbing, and the footbridge had great views of the city as well.
We were a little worried by the time we made it to Fort Saint Jean (which was built in 1660 by Louis XIV, and was used as a fort and prison through the Second World War), because it looked like there were a few exhibitions here as well and we wanted to grab dinner and get back to the hotel before the football ended in case of any craziness (it wasn’t as full on as Paris looked, but there were people driving around sitting on top of their cars waving French flags and honking their horns until like four in the morning, so it was probably for the best that we weren’t out), and it was already around five (the museum is open until eight pm). Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), one of the exhibitions advertised in the catalogue wasn’t opening until a few days after our visit, and the immersive one wasn’t included in our ticket price (despite what the guy working there claimed, though if they were just going to immersively speak French to us, I wasn’t that bothered about it anyway since I wouldn’t understand most of it), so the only thing that was open to us was “Love from A to Z” which I thought was quite cute, despite it being almost entirely in French. I could easily figure out what thing was representing each letter, and some of the objects, like the miniature version of a love triangle and the French version of what appeared to be a Mystery Date style game, were downright adorable.
I was reluctant to leave this air conditioned gallery to go try to find food (we just ended up at a dingy small supermarket inside a mall that had almost nothing on its shelves (not even bread!) because it was Sunday and July and barely anything else was open, plus we were in a hurry), but needs must, so we made a brief trip back down through the museum gardens and out onto the cruel shadeless streets. I definitely appreciated the air conditioning in the museum, and I enjoyed what I was able to understand, but due to my lack of language skills (which is admittedly my own fault), I don’t feel I was able to get the most out of this museum. It’s a neat concept, and the buildings themselves are really cool, but I think I was hoping for a little more from such a new museum. 3/5, but I did really like “Fan-Tan,” and if you can understand French, you’ll probably like Mucem a lot!