Seen from the water Fort Saint Jean dominates the view of the harbour as it has for more than six centuries. Founded in the 13th century as the headquarters of the Hospitaliers de Saint Jean de Jérusalem, an order of crusading knights, the fort was reinforced to protect the port of Marseilles, first by Roi René of Provence, later by order of Louis XIV of France.
Sitting low to the water alongside the fort a rectangular, dark building looks unexceptional from a distance. In a closer view the building, linked to the fort by a narrow footbridge, reveals itself as a strikingly modern construction, massive but strangely insubstantial at the same time. The fort no longer defends the port of Marseille. Together with its modern neighbour the building now hosts the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée or Mucem a ‘museum of society’ that looks back on the cultural history of the region, explores its variety today and reflects on possible futures.
The recent building works in and around the fort are only the latest stage in a long series of adaptations and alterations. Over the centuries damage due to war or fire have led to additional rebuilding, most recently in 1944 when the weapons stores of the occupying forces were exploded by allied bombardment during the liberation of Marseille. Mucem today is a patchwork of old and new, expertly stitched together.
The exhibitions in the various Mucem galleries could keep the earnest visitor busy for a week. There’s a taste of the variety on offer here. If it’s a fine day there are plenty of reasons to stay outdoors including ethnobotanical gardens, a variety of cafés, quiet terraces in sun and shade, and spectacular sea views.
Here’s a last look back towards the open sea just before closing time.
(Click to enlarge the image or to view the galleries)