Behind the scenes of the Mucem

A visit to the archives of the Musée de Culture Européenne et de la Mediterranée

Blue sky and sunshine on the terrace of the building designed by Corine Vezzoni that houses the Mucem archives. Photo credit: Emmanuel Guy.


Stepping in from the sunshine last Friday afternoon, students from the course Cultural Pluralism arrived in the cool interior of the Mucem archives. They were greeted by curator Frédéric Mougenot, a veritable walking encyclopedia when it comes to the history of the collection and details on many the objects therein.

With origins in the 19th century, this collection features examples of French folk art and artifacts of provincial life, displayed as a counterpart to the colonial items shown at the Musée de l’Homme, intended to emphasize the extent and variety of the French empire. Under the direction of Georges-Henri Riviere, the collection was broadened, and today includes European and Mediterranean objects, demonstrating the interconnectedness of France with the surrounding continent.

One example of the museum’s wide-ranging activity is a survey from 1942. Teams of researchers were sent into the field to study the houses and lifestyles of provincial France. Detailed sketches, exact blueprints, and data on family life were collected into an extensive dossier, which todays preserves a slice of time when France was in the midst of conflict and on the verge of a major post-war transition of widespread modernization.

Through material culture and objects from daily life, the collection demonstrates the circulation of ideas, objects, and culture amongst these spheres.

“Don’t ask me what the Mediterranean is,” Frédéric stipulated, “It is a questions we face every day, and we are still figuring it out.”

Courtyard featuring a contemporary sculpture and hundreds of hard ceramic balls used for polishing bathtubs and toilets. Photo credit: Forrest Pelsue

The facilities housing the archives include part of an old tobacco warehouse, an appropriate situation as the tobacco trade was one of many pieces connecting France to the Mediterranean regions. Before we got to see the actual artifacts, Frederic led us out onto the terrace, where we were quickly blinded by the afternoon sun on the whitewashed walls and floor. The curator explained how the modern building plays with light and dark, public and preserved: a bright exterior concealing “secret treasures” hidden within the cool, dim interior. Inside, 16 storage rooms are individually adjusted to conserve different materials: a room for paper, for leather, for feathers, for ceramics and wood and metal, etc.



Upon entering the main storage room, after our eyes had readjusted to the reduced light, we were immediately struck by the display of an ornate nativity scene next to a ruddy alter. The nativity scene comes from Poland, where annual competitions encourage both professionals and amateurs to construct extravagant displays. The alter was constructed for an exhibition, where it ended up being claimed by practicing devotees, who added candles and offerings. Tradition allows for those whose prayers have gone unanswered to break their idol’s statue, and two examples are seen here.

Moving among the endless rows of shelves and cabinets, you never knew what you were going to find next: woven cradles stacked across from butter stamps, bone-filled reliquaries adjacent to Jewish pottery, wooden animals carved for a carousel, a graffitied skate-ramp, a drawer of fake flowers, an antique bed cabinet.

Some examples of literal masterpieces, produced by an apprentice to prove they are worthy of becoming a professional. On the left, a carpenter’s finely crafted model, and on the right, a blacksmith demonstrating their ability to work with a variety of metals and forms. Photo credit: Forrest Pelsue.

Seeing these objects, even sorted and stored, we could feel their histories, their tangible connection to the lives of people far and near, medieval or contemporary. It was an inspiring experience of the possibilities of design and craft to represent and preserve the people who lived around these objects, and today their stories live through them.

Forrest Pelsue

April 23, 2017