Exodus Stations #5

Interview with Édouard de Laubrie (Head of the 'Agriculture and Alimentation' section at the Mucem, Marseille)

March 2019 Mucem, Marseille
Topic: A visit of the «Ruralités» permanent exhibition at Mucem with the curator Édouard de Laubrie Image credits: Édouard de Laubrie

Édouard de Laubrie: This exhibition was inaugurated at the opening of the Mucem in 2013 and has been open since then as a semi-permanent exhibition. The exhibition is dedicated to agriculture in the Mediterranean around the main themes of cereals, wine and olive trees. We also have a space dedicated to irrigation and ovine transhumance. The difficulty of this exhibition was to present in a synthetic way the evolution of agriculture in the Mediterranean basin from the Neolithic period until close to the contemporary period. In curating the exhibition, I had two particular difficulties: the first was working with a small space of 550 square meters. Secondly the Mucem collections are mostly ethnographic. I have acquired the largest part of the objects included here in the field. As you might know, the predecessor of Mucem is the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris, which was dedicated exclusively to French ethnology and whose objects are now in Mucem’s reserves. I worked at the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires before working at Mucem. In 2002 the Mucem project was initiated and I was commissioned to do the first prospective fieldwork in 2002, when I went, for example, to different regions in Greece. The paradox of Mucem is to create exhibitions about the Mediterranean with few Mediterranean objects. This is also the reason why realising this exhibition has permitted us to acquire objects for the exhibition, that will also constitute the Mediterranean collections of the museum. One of the first objects I acquired was this big hydraulic wheel which comes from Fayoum, Egypt.

Marta Jecu : How did you organise your fieldwork campaigns?

Édouard de Laubrie : What I usually do is a collaboration with colleagues in different regions that help me localise objects. I acquire objects that are still in use or whose use was recently stopped. Mostafa Gad, director of the High Institute of Popular Arts in Cairo, helped me to find the hydraulic wheel in Cairo. This system has been replaced by motor pumps and it is very difficult today to find a wooden waterwheel still powered by a mule.
There was also the opportunity to create models for the exhibition and collections. Here you can see a model of a system of subterranean draining waters which is situated in Morocco and I visited this site with Thierry Ruf, researcher from Research Institute for Development. We took photos and created this model by Denis Delpalillo in 2015, the first model of a draining system in Morocco kept in a museum in France, especially for this exhibition.
Most of the objects that I have acquired for this exhibition date from the 20th and 21th centuries, but the typology of object dates is older. This object is an alembic for making raki from grapes, and it comes from Crete, and I acquired it in collaboration with Christophe Vallianos and Louiza Karapidaki who are ethnologists and museographers. Today we still find in Greece these types of objects, but it is becoming more and more rare because, since the economic crises in Greece, the Greek government is recovering copper from old stills and giving the people new ones, which allows the state to control production, and people pay taxes for the production of alcohol. This is therefore a type of heritage that is disappearing. We also have objects from Georgia.

Marta Jecu:… although Georgia is not neighbouring the Mediterranean?

É.d.L. : I have included objects from this region since it is culturally close to the Mediterranean. This is the place where the domestication of wine was first attested (6th millennium BC) and after that it came to the Mediterranean. I have worked with Merab Mikeladze from the National Museum of Georgia at Tbilisi. I collected original items for the wine-making process like this big jar, and we created this model of an ancient cellar with underground jars for the grape vinification process.We have also products made from raw materials, for example from olives we have oil for consumption, systems of lighting, and cosmetics. I also wanted to show uses of wheat flour. In the collections of Mucem we have a lot of bread. What I have included here comes from Sicily, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina…In the exhibition, we have also another section dedicated to flock breeding with this shepherd’s hut. All the raw material came from North Greece to the museum and we treated all the vegetable materials to protect against fire and parasites. Shepherd’s families came to Mucem to build the hut on site. The Sarakatsan Fraternity of Athens lent all the objects dating from the beginning of the 20th century to furnish the hut.

M.J.: Did you work with objects that are on loan from other museums?

É.d.L. : Yes there are a few objects loaned from other museums. For example, we have a collection of sheep wool samples in glass jars from the deposits of the ‘Musée de l’Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort’, that have never been shown before. This is an extremely rare piece.

M.J.: Was the concept of your exhibition to make a history of agriculture from ancient times until today, or to gather information and objects around these themes (wine, olive oil, water, animals etc.)?

É.d.L. : The exhibition is rather thematic because I do not have the means to make a history. There are also very few archaeological objects, so the idea was mainly to give some insights on these fundamental themes. I have loans from the archaeological museum of Chania in Crete, the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Benaki Museum in Athens, the Archaeological Museum in Geneva, the Mediterranean Archaeological Museum in Marseille, and Lattara Museum in Montpellier…

M.J.: Please tell as also something about the videos included in the exhibition and their dialogue with the objects.

É.d.L. : Videos bring also a living dimension. A video on the making of ritual breads in Anogia, Crete, was shot at the same time as the purchase of these ritual breads for the museum’s collections. Most of the videos have been commissioned by filmmakers for the opening of Mucem in 2013. At first, we were afraid that the videos would captivate the viewer, who would no longer observe the objects, but it was not the case because people watch both. The videos bring landscape and life and create a context for the objects. I intended that the videos would also present gestures: hands cultivating the grapes, gestures connected to the use of objects, or even gestures connected to machines in the contemporary era. We are more focused on the past than on the present, even with the objects that are depicted as new and in use. The question was therefore how to take into consideration these contemporary objects, without showing that agriculture in the Mediterranean is archaic, but that it had its evolution like other agricultures in the world, even if in another rhythm and in another way. Another difficulty of this exhibition was how to show a social dimension of agriculture. In this exhibition, I have focused mainly on techniques.

M.J.: The archive for this exhibition is a contemporary archive, done mostly by you?

É.d.L. : Yes, this is indeed a big difference to other museum or exhibition archives that are historic and trace the presence of objects in previous museums using photography. Here we have a very modern archive. This archive launches the question as to how collections can reflect agriculture in the Mediterranean. My principle in this work is to spend a lot of time in the ‘field’. I do not buy objects from auctions or antique shops. I am interested in finding the objects that are still in use, and still in their place of use, and constitute for the museum this type of archive. Mucem has an archive department. I have to deposit regularly the archives that I produce in this department, which stores and inventories them in the best conditions.

M.J.: How are your own archives organised?

É.d.L. : My archives do not have the aesthetic character of old archives. I have images and videos that I took myself; official documents, but also reference material (text and images) that I have found mostly in ethnographic and anthropological literature.

M.J.: What is interesting in relation to your archive is that it is itself ‘alive’, it is constituted by your travels, encounters and connections and does not originate in a museum.

É.d.L. : We opened this exhibition in 2013, then we did a lot of changes in the show in 2015, and we will close in April 2020. I am preparing the following exhibition on food in the Mediterranean, which will take place in this space. For this exhibition I will work this year and next, and I will follow the same procedure of acquiring new objects in the field. There are fascinating problems to follow. For example, the legal status of objects: taking care not to go against the legislation of the countries, organising the transport of the works.

M.J.: In this current exhibition did you include objects from the ancient Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris?

É.d.L. : There is one single object which is coming from this museum, this old ethnographic museum in Paris in which I have worked, and it is my ‘madeleine of Proust’. But, in general, my acquisition policy is based on the human element. I have very close connections with colleagues in these different regions. Without these friendly human relations, these objects would not have been here and I, myself, would not have understood these objects. Our missions are extremely short, we stay in a place less than one week, so we need to be very effective. We can complete these missions only because we have personal relationships in the field, otherwise we would not have managed anything. Human relationships contribute to the constitution of meaning of the collections. For example, I had seen this Egyptian “norag”, formerly used to chop cereals on the threshing floor, before in books. When I went to visit Nessim Henry Henein, one of my Egyptian researcher friends, I saw two in his garden. He was keeping flowerpots on it and I have some photos in my archive with it in his garden. I begged him to give me one for the museum and this is how this tool is in this exhibition today. This tool exists only in the Mucem collection, it is not present in any other museum in Europe. Even in Egypt, it is difficult to find this object in museums, because their research focus is more directed towards antiquity. There is this great pleasure of not only having these wonderful objects, but also the pleasure of the human meetings that we can have around objects. Once included in the exhibition, the object is a carrier of all these dimensions.

M.J.: And these are invisible dimensions of the objects. This has a lot to do with the specificity of ethnographic work, but also with the archive, and giving value to a personal research archive, which is not the ‘official’ museological one, but which has nevertheless constructed the exhibition invisibly, and which reveals the curatorial process and the context of the objects.

É.d.L. : Yes, previously ethnographic fieldwork was the result of years, and sometimes a life-time of participation in the lives of communities. The way we work today, it has to be concentrated in a five-day campaign. But it was the museologist and ethnographer George Henri Rivière, to whom Mucem has currently dedicated an exhibition, who included contemporary objects in the collections, changing the interest from old objects to new objects. Mucem continues his museological programme today. I find that our role at Mucem is to show the diversity of the Mediterranean in all its constituent parts.

M.J.: To make a synthesis of the Mediterranean cultures?

É.d.L. :Yes, with all the difficulties and joy that this implies.

March 2019, Marseille