Marrakech through its six most incredible museums
Marrakech is of the most surprising and curious cities in the world – partly because of the city’s museums. Besides the traditional Islamic art museums and the Dar Si Said Museum of Moroccan Art in Marrakech, there’s the House of Photography, the Yves Saint Laurent Museum and even the ostentatiously named Mohammed VI for the Civilisation of Water Museum. All of these are perfect for getting to know other aspects of the city and its history, from the most remote to the present.
1 House of Photography
Located in the centre of the city’s medina, this museum is more like a time machine than a photography museum. Its collection, comprising more than 10,000 photographs, old photographic plates and documents, whisks you away to the Morocco of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To the country that diplomats and explorers such as Henri de La Martiniére encountered and photographed, whose landscapes entranced photographers such as Jacques Belin and whose inhabitants fascinated others such as Adolf de Meyer. Their works can be seen in the museum’s permanent exhibition, as can works by numerous anonymous photographers who, for decades, captured the reality and evolution of the city and the country. Founded in 2009, the House of Photography is the personal endeavour of its patrons, Patrick Manac’h and Hamid Mergani, to bring together one of the best collections of photography in the country.
2 Orientalist Museum
In the mid 19th century, the Catalan painter Mariano Fortuny painted a large canvas of the historical Battle of Tétouan that had taken place only two years earlier. It was an artwork that inspired many artists. Among them was Salvador Dalí, who would paint his own version of the battle many years later. He used oil paints, just as Fortuny did, but he also used watercolours. Today, this second work is on display in the Orientalist Museum, a lovely late 17th-century riad in the medina that was refurbished to house this private collection of paintings, handicrafts, ceramics – including some from 17th-century Fez – and Berber silver jewellery. Dali’s watercolour is one of the prominent works on display. There are also works by artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Jacques Majorelle and Edwin Lord Weeks. These Western artists were captivated by Morocco and wanted to portray it on their canvases. The icing on the cake of a visit to the museum is the rooftop terrace, from where you can see the medina and the landscape of the Atlas Mountains in the city’s background.
3 Yves Saint Laurent Museum
Yves Saint Laurent had already had a museum in Paris. As one of the designers who revolutionised fashion in the 20th century and created haute couture, his legacy deserved it. He was an icon whose influence is still felt by today’s new designers. But Paris – where he lived and triumphed, and where he died in 2008 – was not his only city. In 1966, Saint Laurent arrived in Marrakech with his long-time partner Pierre Bergé and fell in love with the city. They bought their first house in the medina that same year. After that, Marrakech was his refuge and a source of inexhaustible inspiration for his designs. All of this – his love story with the city, the time he spent there, the gardens of the painter Jacques Majorelle, located very close to the museum and, most especially, his creations – can be seen in the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, which opened its doors almost a decade after his death. The exhibition hall houses a permanent collection of his works, but also offers temporary exhibitions, a specialised bookshop with more than 5,000 volumes, an auditorium and a café.
4 Dar el Bacha Museum
Dar el Bacha both is and isn’t a museum. It is because exhibitions on Moroccan art and culture take place inside, along with exhibitions on Islam, its history, and the relationship of Islam with the other great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Judaism. But at the same time, it’s not, because when you go through its doors, you will be awestruck by the building itself. Dar el Bacha – now called Dar el Bacha - Museum of Confluences – and opened in 2017, is undoubtedly one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. Built in 1910, this palace was the official residence of Thami El Glaoui, the pasha of Marrakech, the highest authority in southern Morocco under French rule for almost half a century. Today, the former residence has been renovated so it can once again display its former splendour: the garden of fountains and orange trees, the carved cedar doors, the hamman, the chessboard-like marble floors and the decorated columns. Located in the medina, Dar el Bacha is an invitation to imagine how El Glaoui lived there.
5 Museum of Music
Spanish – especially Andalusian – music is partly based on Moroccan and African music. These roots, along with the different music and cultures of Morocco – from Berber to the deepest Sahara – are on display in the Museum of Music. This 16th-century building in the medina, with a terrace that has views of the Atlas Mountains, features stucco decorations and rooms with finely carved woodwork. Here, not only are the instruments behind those sounds and rhythms, such as bongos, xylophones and traditional stringed instruments on display, but they can also be heard. Besides the temporary exhibitions on historical African musical styles and well-known Moroccan musicians who have influenced popular music in recent decades, they also organise concerts several times a week. Because music is not for seeing, but for feeling.
6 Mohammed VI for the Civilisation of Water Museum
As well as being one of the recent museums to have opened (in 2017) in the city, this is also one of the most unusual. The Mohammed VI Museum for the Civilisation of Water feels like a combination of history, anthropology and science museums. It is – of course – dedicated to water, as an element on which life is based, but especially how Morocco has managed water, and its cultural importance for the country as well. The museum also has information on the country’s water heritage, the influence of water on Moroccan culture and life, and the history of hydraulic engineering in Morocco. Immerse yourself in the water and its history in the country in order to better understand its importance and, above all, don’t forget the care it deserves as a scarce resource. As the Quran says in the verse that gives meaning to the museum: "...and we made every living thing of water."