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France's biggest Mediterranean city - Marseilles - is going to become European Capital of Culture in 2013. For this occasion, a new museum of European and Mediterranean culture (MuCEM) is being built. The project follows a long history of museum initiatives on the part of French presidents. French politicians know best that apart from being places for people to spend their free time, the primary role of museums is to act as ideological platforms for political discourses, and centres for collective memory. Recently, French Minister of the Interior Claude Gueant said in a meeting with students that all civilisations are "not of equal value." Seems like a good moment to ask ourselves how different cultures are represented in European museums and what that tell us about our perception of our countries' identities and values.
Chris Marker and Alain Resnais approached this subject in their classic documentary Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die) (1953), in which they proposed a critical look at the "primitive art" exhibitions of the no longer existing Parisian Musée de l’Homme, the Musée du Congo Belge in Belgium and the British Museum. Marker's and Resnais' critique is directed at the modes of exhibiting and perceiving non-western art, which keeps their documentary relevant even today. Their film was an early step towards modern post-colonial studies.
The symbolic and political value of museums has been visible in Europe since the French revolution triggered the creation of national museums by turning the Louvre into a national museum. After that, many countries followed the trend of opening private collections to the public. From the beginning, they faced the challenge of creating sites for a common and unifying understanding of history, which was especially urgent for instance in the cases of German and Italian unification in the 1800s. As powerful political instruments, national museums were and still are often initiated by country leaders and France is a perfect example of a country that has systematically followed this tradition for centuries. Just take the most recent French history: the Centre Pompidou was initiated by Georges Pompidou. Valery Giscard d’Estaing committed himself to the development of Musée d’Orsay. Jacques Chirac opened the Musée du Quai Branly and now it appears to be Sarkozy's turn to build up the MuCEM as his project.