People don’t really come to Marseille for its museums, an observation that will almost certainly be borne out by the lack of fellow museum-goers if you venture into a few yourself. Nonetheless, there are those few who feel that a museum or two is good for the soul and that maybe it’s a little shallow to visit somewhere without taking a glance at the local art and history. For those who won’t be content without passing through a museum or two, here are my reviews of a couple I visited.
2 rue de la Charité, Marseille (off rue de la République)
€1.80 permanent exhibits, €2.80 more for special exhibits
This is actually a group of museums housed in a historic building complex. "Old Charity" was the crowning achievement of royal architect Pierre Puget, completed in 1745 to house the poor. It consists of three stories of rooms lined with arcades set around a rectangular courtyard, in the center of which sits a Baroque-style chapel with a dome. Later it was used to shelter the elderly and orphans. On the verge of being demolished in the middle of the last century, it instead was designated as an historic site and the museums were moved in. Nowadays, the chapel is strangely barren and scarcely lit except for its dome.
The two permanent exhibits here are the Musee d’Archéologie Mediterranee and the Musee d’Arts Africains, Oceaniens et Amerindiens. Each is entered via a door from the courtyard, runs through several rooms, and spits you back out into a different section of the courtyard. Inside, you’ll find case after case of artifacts and art objects, many under-labeled. Of these two museums, I liked the archaeological museum better, perhaps due in part to the fantastic lion mosaic near the entrance. The special exhibit during my visit was Baroque-period paintings by women artists, involving an awful lot of flowers and ruffled ladies. I suggest evaluating before buying your ticket whether you’re interested enough in the special exhibit to spring for the extra cash.
My verdict: Not all that exciting.
Musee d’Histoire de Marseille and Jardin des Vestiges
Lower floor of Centre Bourse Shopping Center, Place Belsunce, Marseille
This must be the only serious museum I’ve ever encountered located in a shopping mall. Marseille has been an important port and trading center for at least 2500 years, and the Centre Bourse is built on top of a portion of the old Greek port of Massilia, renamed Massalia when the Romans took over management. The stone remains of the ancient port can be found in the Jardin des Vestiges, entered from the Musee d’Histoire. The "garden of vestiges" can be seen from the west side of the Centre Bourse through the fence, if you’re too cheap or too busy to spring for the museum. If Greek and Roman artifacts interest you, the items excavated from the former floor of the port are displayed in the museum in dimly lit glass cases. Much of it is pretty basic – Greek and Roman coins, shards of pottery and suchlike, mostly not labeled well enough for you to really understand what you’re looking at.
The museum’s real claim to fame is the mostly intact remains of a sunken Roman merchant ship, complete with its clay jars of olive oil and preserved fish. Lucky for us the ancient Romans didn’t have dive recovery teams! I found the ship pretty impressive, although it was primarily labeled in French and therefore not adequately explained for a monoglot.
My verdict: Inexpensive, quick, and conveniently located about three blocks from the Vieux Port, this one is worthwhile if you’re interested in the ship. Otherwise, it’s "skippable".