Marrakech’s best museums are small, intimate and often housed in wonderful old mansions. Plus, they’re usually much less crowded than the city’s big sights. Drop into one of these nine museums on your visit to the Moroccan city.
Marrakech has a generous scattering of small museums, and more are popping up all the time. They don’t demand an entire morning or afternoon of your time, but are rather places to pop into while touring the Medina or the downtown Ville Nouvelle. At most of them, friendly staff are on hand to answer questions and even show you around. Few take more than an hour or so to visit, and some of the best ones are housed in beautiful old mansions that are worth seeing for themselves.
For centuries, Marrakech was the northern terminus for a rich trade across the desert with Timbuktu, Mali and Ghana. Musée Tiskiwin documents the city’s place in the trans-Saharan caravan trade and its accompanying cultural connections. Crossing the Sahara was a far more hazardous undertaking than crossing the Mediterranean. But it was the cross-desert trade in salt, gold, ivory, Moroccan leather and – lest we forget – slaves, that made the city rich. The museum (whose location is marked by a bright yellow sign) started life as the private collection of Dutch anthropologist Bert Flint, who has spent his life studying Marrakech’s links with West Africa. Here in this museum, you’ll see a vast collection of camel saddles, tents, sculptures, costumes and adornments illustrating the trade, desert life and Marrakech’s West African connections. English-speaking visitors are provided with a booklet which explains all of the exhibits.
At the Maison de la Photographie, you can glimpse the Marrakech and Morocco of times gone by through an amazing collection of photographs, all taken between 1870 and 1960. With over 4,500 shots, many printed from glass negatives made by pioneers of Moroccan photography, the museum has far too many images to show at any one time, but rotates them in exhibitions that change regularly, focusing on particular aspects of the city and of Morocco more widely. Many of the photos show aspects of street life over the decades, or cover the history of locations such as the Jemaa el-Fnaa. There’s also a good roof terrace café and a shop selling reproductions of old photographs as postcards.
The Riad Kniza Collection is a museum of beautiful pieces of art, jewellery and costume, collected over many years by Haj Mohamed Bouskri, one of Marrakech’s most renowned antique dealers. Haj Mohamed runs the Riad Kniza, a five-star riad located directly opposite the museum. As a tour guide to the rich and famous, he’s shown US Presidents and Hollywood film stars around town, among others. He also ran the city’s top antique store, which he closed to set up his riad. But having done that, he has now created this museum to display the cream of his collection. Brassware, glassware, garments, jewels and weaponry are all magnificently displayed, and the collection of 18th- and 19th-century ceramics from Fez is wonderful. Entry is free, as the museum is supported by its own in-house antique shop.
In the famous Majorelle Gardens is an Art Deco pavilion painted in the artist’s stunning “Majorelle blue”, an intense colour inspired by the blue of a traditional French and North African workman’s jacket. Originally Majorelle’s workshop, the pavilion has now been converted into a museum of Berber art and culture, and is open to anyone visiting the garden. The displays are arranged on three floors. The ground floor showcases traditional skills and crafts, including weaving and basket-making. Its prize piece is a lovely old minbar (mosque pulpit) from the Anti-Atlas mountains of Morocco’s far south. The middle floor is dedicated to Berber jewellery, traditionally made from chunky pieces of silver embellished with coral and amber, and the very top floor is given over to Berber costumes, showing the designs and accessories particular to each community.
Just around the corner from the Majorelle Gardens is a museum dedicated to the man who saved it from the bulldozers, Algerian-born French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. The museum is a homage to “YSL”, as he is known, who bought and restored the garden, spending much of his time in the city, along with his partner Pierre Bergé. As a fashion designer, YSL was famed for his combination of comfort and elegance in womenswear, a look that quickly became popular among Europe’s jet set, and a particular favourite with movie star Catherine Deneuve. The museum is housed in a brand-new, specially constructed building with a textured brickwork exterior. It kicks off with a starter exhibition of photographs and artworks before plunging into the main course of fashion design. The main exhibition space features prototypes from some of YSL’s most famous creations. There is also a film about Saint Laurent and his work, as well as temporary exhibitions, a library, bookshop and café. Most visitors combine a visit with the neighbouring Majorelle Gardens.
Musée Mohammed VI pour la Civilisation de l'Eau (AMAN)
The Musée Mohammed VI pour la Civilisation de l’Eau (Mohammed VI Water Museum), named in honour of Morocco’s king, is dedicated to the science and beauty of hydrology. Located out of town in the Palmeraie (oasis palm grove), the museum is large, modern and still largely undiscovered. It is, however, well worth the effort of getting to. Child-friendly, with lots of touch screens, interactive presentations and video displays, the museum illustrates the history of hydraulic engineering in Morocco from the Middle Ages to the present. Indeed, it is a little-known fact that Morocco pioneered irrigation techniques, using water channels from the High Atlas mountains to bring water to all of the city’s ancient orchards, including the Menara and Agdal gardens. There are exhibits on the properties of water, on the hydraulic history of Marrakech and Fez, on the spirituality of water and the rituals associated with it, and on the system of dams built under the reign of the present king’s father, Hassan II.
The exhibitions at the Musée des Confluences are usually very interesting, but the star of the show is the building itself. The museum’s rather vague title (“Museum of Convergences”) reflects the fact that it doesn’t actually have a specific theme or even a permanent collection, but houses a succession of temporary displays on different subjects. Past exhibitions have included the shared culture of the Abrahamic religions and the magnificence of Marrakech’s palaces. Indeed, of those palaces, this very building is among the most magnificent of all. It was built in the 1920s for the despotic Thami el Glaoui, who was Pasha of Marrakech during the colonial period, and no expense was spared in its construction. Glaoui threw lavish parties here, attended by the likes of Winston Churchill, and the beautiful tile work, stucco and carved cedarwood is among the finest in all Morocco. Not all of the palace is within the museum – part of it houses the local HQ of one of Morocco’s big labor unions – but regardless of what’s on, the museum is well worth a visit just to experience the magnificence of Glaoui’s wonderful palace.
Located next door to the Ben Youssef Medersa, the Musée de Marrakech is not in fact a museum about Marrakech, but a small collection of diverse exhibits housed in a gorgeous 19th-century palace. As with the Musée des Confluences, the Musée de Marrakech is less of interest for its exhibits than for the building which houses them. Commissioned by Mehdi Mnebhi, Morocco’s defence minister, it was constructed around a magnificent central patio with a huge brass chandelier. Other key parts of the building include its kitchen and private hammam. The collection includes antiques, coins, musical instruments, ceramics and jewellery, and there’s a small collection of contemporary paintings and sculptures. Unfortunately, descriptions are in Arabic and French only.
An impressive 19th-century mansion, Dar Si Said went on to house a museum. At one time, the state-run Dar Si Said was Marrakech’s only museum. Its collection of historical and archeological pieces have now been been put into storage (bar a small collection of old weapons), and Dar Si Said has now been been reborn as a museum of carpets and textiles. The building itself is worth a second glance. It was the home of the eponymous Si Said – a son of the grand vizier Si Moussa, who lived in the nearby Bahia Palace – and while its interior decor can’t compare with his father’s home, it certainly isn’t short of beautiful tile work, stucco and painted ceilings. The museum centres on a lovely central patio with a fountain and gazebo. The mainstay of the museum’s permanent exhibition is a wonderful collection of antique carpets, but there are also exhibits on how carpets and textiles are manufactured, and a display of costumes through the ages. Descriptions are in Arabic, French and English.