MuCEM, together with the renovation of the waterfront, was supposed to be the centerpiece of Marseille’s reboot into the new century when it was named European Capital of Culture for 2013. The historically gritty port’s moment in the sun to look up … a transformation of sorts. The museum is built on reclaimed land at the entrance to Vieux Port next to the site of the 17th-century Fort Saint-Jean.
Now that the fanfare has subsided, it seems as though the waterfront rehab has achieved little to invigorate and MuCEM not able to create the pull it was intended to. Visiting MuCEM is a tortuous pilgrimage from beginning to end. So unintuitively discrete is the main gate, I found myself circling around the grandiose structure wanting an entry. Experience inside the dim, low-ceilinged structure is even more wanting.
As you enter the security gate and stand in the lobby, there’s no architectural or design cue that helps lead one to any particular direction – you are lost before you started. Meander in and out of bookshop, cafe and permanent exhibition space, you struggle yourself up an escalator tucked away in back corner.
Navigation doesn’t get easier as you climb the 1st and 2nd floor temporary exhibition space. Walkways that lead to abrupt corners which are dead ends with blocking tapes. Heavy glass doors with unintuitive door handles that won’t open (why does exhibition space need doors?). Claustrophobic exhibition space adds to the confusion – stunted by low ceilings, corridors endlessly circle ensuring to tire the exhibition goers.
As unhelpful is the access and allocation of space, the most unintuitive about MuCEM is that you cannot see the Mediterranean. Once inside this shrine for Mediterranean history and culture, you’re completely disconnected from the environs it’s supposed to define… The latticework shell encasing the concrete and glass cube prohibitively obstructs the panorama out to the ocean, corniche and Fort St.-Jean.
As I climb the ramps and plunge into another corner staircase which doesn’t connect to anywhere, I pause to dispel any lingering doubts that this architect’s experiment does little to add to our understanding of the history of our civilizations.
MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée)
7 Promenade Robert Laffont – 13002 Marseille
Hours 1100- 1900 (summer 2000, winter 1800), Fri until 2200 (May 2-Oct 31)
Permanent & temporary exhibition – eur 12 / concession eur 5 / family eur 15 (up to 5 children w/ 2 adults)