Saturday, November 2, 2013
Marseille, MuCEM and the New Mediterraneanism
MuCEM--Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations
A Mediterranean Map
Plato once said that the Mediterranean was a giant pond upon which many frogs croak. Yet the nature of a pond is that it is, par excellence, a stable ecosystem that embodies unity in diversity sustaining many species that, through mutual interactions, stabilize the pond's biological richness. As we see from the sort of Dadaist map above, the Mediterranean Sea is one of the few places on earth that can at once be both provincial in its insular geographic isolation and cosmopolitan in its easy seafaring routes of commerce. From time to time, the Mediterranean hosted a unified local in global culture: we can think of the Hellenistic Era in the Greek Eastern Mediterranean, the Roman Empire that politically united all shores of the Mediterranean and, more recently, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy's attempt to form a Mediterranean Union as an alternative partnership to the EU, inclusive of the North African and the Eastern Mediterranean nations.
But, often what may fail politically or economically may succeed, in small part culturally. Hence the recent opening this past year of the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM) in Marseille. I can't tell in words just how remarkable this museum is! Architecturally it resembles a dense forest of trees and brush, as if to remind us of the ecological diversity of Mediterranean woods. The museum offers not only a permanent collection of Mediterranean cultural artifact, ranging from the Neolithic to the present era, but also, in a special exhibition entitled, "The Black and the Blue: A Mediterranean Dream", shows us the cyclical attempts to create a culturally unified Mediterranean ever since the late 1700's. As we sadly know, such attempts have fallen victim to the political colonialism and academic orientalism that essentialized those living in the eastern and southern Mediterranean as "others"--either to demean or to appropriate from.
But this current incarnation of Mediterraneanism, as reflected in MuCEM's philosophy, lifts up a creative and compelling hope that Plato's characterization of the Mediterranean as a frog laden pond rings true. The Mediterranean has always been a paradox between the hybrid and the isolated, between islands and ports of call. The city of Marseille, itself, now is as ethnically diverse as my home stomping grounds of Oakland, CA. The markets are filled with Senegalese, Tunisians, Moroccans, Lebanese and Armenians. Let us look to MuCEM as a new forest of cultural reconciliation.