Editorial Feature

6 Unusual and Unexpected Objects at Mucem

From Tarot cards to a ‘baby hatch’

With over 1 million objects, spanning Europe and the Mediterranean, and dating from the Neolithic period all the way up to the present day, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations has a very diverse and wide-ranging collection of objects. As such, it covers almost every facet of human history and creativity—including the weird, wonderful, and unexpected.

1. Mage Edmond’s Oracle Cards

This set of tarot cards were created by the famous 19th-century clairvoyant Mage Edmond. Edmond hand-painted each card with a different symbol that connected it to one of the seven celestial bodies that were at the heart of his mythology—the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Cards like this would have been used by Mage Edmond with some of his more famous clients, who included Napoleon III and Victor Hugo.

Fun fact: Mage Edmond hid his name in a few of his illustrations.

2. Sister Orgia’s Habit

The order of the ‘Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’ is a global protest and social justice group that uses religious imagery and drag to challenge traditional gender and sexuality stereotypes. This “order of queer nuns” was founded in the U.S. in the 1970s, at the beginning of the AIDs epidemic, initially with the aim of resisting religious oppression of LGBT+ people, but also encompassing a wide range of social issues—even canonizing their own LGBT community heroes as saints. Sister Orgia’s habit shown here, originating in France and decorated with the colors of the Marseille football club, expresses the order’s motto of “preach joy”.

3. A blacksmith’s catalogue

Named after the patron saint of metalworkers, this “St. Eligius bouquet” is made up of lots of little examples of different tools and metalworking techniques. These would have been made by a blacksmith and hung outside his shop, showing off the artisan’s skills as well as working as a shop sign and product catalogue; a bit like photographs of previous customers’ haircuts in a hairdresser.

4. The ‘baby hatch’

This unassuming object has an unexpected and heartbreaking story. In the 19th century, with no access to birth control and little recourse for pregnant women facing extreme poverty, many unwanted babies went abandoned on the street or left outside of refuges. Exposed to the elements, many of these babies would die. And then along came the baby hatch: a small door and rotation system that meant that women could pass a child from the outside into an orphanage or convent where they could be looked after. As the museum says, “the hatch did nothing to lessen the drama of abandonment, but the intention was to at least save human lives (which it undoubtedly did)”.

5. A fortune-telling machine

Early Twentieth-century France attempted to prohibit the use of gambling fruit machines with severe regulations and higher taxes. Trying to get around the new rules and regulations, French cafe owners turned to some unusual methods; they instead disguised their fruit machines as music boxes and horoscope dispensers. For the modest sum of 2 francs, this device was supposed to reveal the user’s lucky number and day of the week. Here, you can see a sphinx and Egyptian pyramids, imagery that was frequently utilized in fortune-telling since the 19th century. In the Western mind, these figures were evocative of ancient and mysterious knowledge, like a guarantee of quality predictions... even by a machine!

6. Mermaid bread

While a humble, everyday food, bread has had a huge impact on European culture. It’s eaten in many different religious and cultural ceremonies (think of its place in the Christian Eucharist, for example) and, as such, breads shaped like figures or important symbols have been at the centre of traditions relating to fertility, death and rebirth for millennia. This loaf in the shape of a mermaid was acquired by the museum in 2004, along with more than 1,000 other examples, from a collector who had spent 15 years travelling across Europe in search of figurative breads.

It might seem odd to see bread in a museum collection but, surprisingly, this isn’t all that unusual. Take this loaf excavated from an ancient Egyptian tomb and now in the British Museum, for example.

Explore the Mucem collection here.

Words by Leonie Shinn-Morris
Credits: All media
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