It’s like when out sailing: pass up a favourable wind, and you get nowhere. Launched 13 years ago, France’s project to open a museum of European and Mediterranean culture, its first national museum outside of Paris, was held up by vacillations between the capital and Marseille, where the museum was to be housed. The concrete reason for the founding of such a museum was already evident. The mouldering Ethnological Museum in Paris, which had first opened in 1936, was to be shut down and its vast holdings transferred to the southern city. A location was chosen at the port under the old Fort Saint-Jean, and Rudy Ricciotti from the south of France had come out the winner of the architectural competition.

Other worries

Marseille had other worries: the social tensions between its northern and southern districts and the social needs of the inhabitants, 15 per cent of whom lived below the poverty line. The project fell into slumber until five years ago, when the naming of Marseille-Provence as the 2013 European Capital of Culture unleashed a veritable building fever. A race began, pitting the Marseille of drug smugglers, mafia lords, and black markets against a Marseille of cultural projects, urban renewal, and gentrification.

A contact point with North Africa and the only French city that does not shunt the underprivileged elements of its population into banlieues, Marseille is just discovering the economic driving force of culture. The Longchamp Palais and the Musée Borély have been newly renovated and reopened as art museums, the Old Port was radically redesigned by Norman Foster, and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM), which opened at the beginning of June, has been joined by the “Villa Méditerranée”, initiated by the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.

Groundbreaking architecture

Ricciotti’s impressive concrete cube, draped under a black concrete net, can be approached from the lofty old town district of “Panier” via two long rooftop walkways, or from below alongside the quay. On either approach, the building proves its quality. It is one of the most successful museum buildings in Europe in recent years. With its almost four thousand square metres of exhibition space and its breathtaking views of the Fort and the old town, the building is a museum, an attraction, and a new city landmark all at the same time.

However, the inherited collection has not made the MuCEM’s task easy. Ethnographic museums are a discontinued model of the 19th century, and the MuCEM wants to be a new type of civilisation museum. How to bring that about with the inherited potpourri of half a million tools, ritual objects, pieces of furniture, costumes, posters, and again as many photos is, with such a geographically expansive focus, not yet clear.

Europe’s birthplace?

What is certain is that the emphasis must lie on the links between Europe and the Mediterranean. Thierry Fabre, programme director at MuCEM, has pleaded for no front lines to be drawn between a northern and southern Europe: the vision of a “Latin Empire”, which philosopher Giorgio Agamben recently tossed into the debate, was mostly taken by the north as a declaration of war. According to Fabre, Europe has a natural orientation towards the Mediterranean, which, however, has become historically fossilised after Goethe, Napoleon’s Egypt campaign, and the fashion of Orientalism. Fabre detests the “blahblah about the Mediterranean”, the talk of the “cradle of civilization”. The revival of that orientation was not something directed against the north, but has much to do with the self-assertion of a too-often disregarded peculiarity. For Fabre, the Mediterranean is a “narrative identity” of shared stories and mental images that remains very powerful – he knows of no such narrative around the Atlantic, the Baltic, or even the Caribbean Sea.

The democratic awakening in the countries of North Africa, with the political instability that comes with it, confirms for Fabre that the wind is blowing once again from the south. From the first Mediterranean dreams of the early Socialists, among them Saint-Simon, to Nietzsche’s enthusiasm for Bizet’s Carmen and Picasso’s sun worship, it is claimed that in the MuCEM, with somewhat arbitrary selections, a new cultural horizon has opened on the southern border of Europe, whose distance must now be closed and politically consolidated. The MuCEM’s contribution will depend on how far it can jump beyond the shadow of its vaguely defined purpose. The 350,000 visitors who have passed through its corridors since its opening are an unexpected success, but not an argument. Marseille and its museum do however have the possibility of a future astride a crucial fault line in Europe ahead of them, but they are not the only ones with a say.