The louvre

A new safe house for the Louvre’s invisible treasures

LIÉVIN, France – This is the most ambitious move in the history of the Louvre – a five-year project to transfer a quarter of a million works of art to a state-of-the-art storage site 200 km in the North of France.

For more than 16 months, a stream of trucks has been quietly transporting the treasures of the museum’s Parisian basement, and other sites, to the Center de conservation du Louvre, a cultural fortress in the town of Liévin, near of Lens.

Already 100,000 works have been moved – including paintings, carpets, tapestries, large sculptures, small figurines, furniture and decorative pieces – dating from antiquity to the 19th century.

With French museums closed due to the pandemic, Jean-Luc Martinez, the director of the Louvre, has free time. On Tuesday, he took a small group of journalists to tour the newly operational site, which is set to become one of Europe’s largest art research centers and host experts from museums, academics and curators of the whole world.

The Louvre is located on low ground along the banks of the Seine. In 2016, flooding in Paris was so severe that the museum itself was threatened, prompting a 24-hour emergency operation to pack, crate and transport thousands of art objects out of storage underground and on higher ground.

The conservation project at Liévin, costing 60 million euros, or about $73 million, began in late 2017 as a necessary response to the unpredictable and inevitable rise of the river.

“The reality is that our museum is in a flood zone,” Martinez said during Tuesday’s visit. “You can’t just pick up and move marble sculptures,” he noted. “There was a risk of sewers backing up and dirty, smelly sewage damaging the art. A solution had to be found. Urgently.”

The Louvre considers and then rejects the idea of ​​building a site near Paris: too expensive and impractical. Instead, he chose Liévin, a 10-minute walk from the Louvre mini-museum outpost in nearby Lens, which opened in 2012.

This pocket of France, once a thriving mining center, never recovered economically from the bombings it suffered during World War I and the collapse of the coal industry. The local authorities were so keen to expand the Louvre’s presence – and attract visitors – that they sold much of the land for the Conservation Center for the symbolic sum of one euro.

The glass, concrete and steel structure, inaugurated in October 2019, resembles a Bauhaus-style bunker partially buried in the landscape.

A chalky sand subsoil above the limestone rock soaks up excess rain. A special German-made leak detection system ensures double sealing of the roof. Complex security systems protect against terrorist attacks and fires. Bright green light fixtures suspended throughout the facility trap and kill dangerous enemies like the common beetle.

Trucks transport the works of art to a garage where they are unloaded and placed in a temporary chamber to acclimatize them to their environment and eliminate contaminants. Six concrete-walled storage vaults – each focusing on a different type of object – span almost 2.4 acres. There are spaces for artisans, restorers, researchers and photographers from the Louvre and possibly also for those from other museums. The Louvre hopes that the site will one day be able to provide refuge for art in danger of destruction in countries facing war and conflict.

Touring the vaults with their high ceilings, fluorescent lighting and floor-to-ceiling windows, Mr Martinez stopped in one where pieces of marble and stone were wrapped in plastic and stacked in wooden crates on heavy shelves. made of metal.

“In a well-made warehouse, there’s not much to see,” he said, a hint of apology in his voice. “Everything is well put together. »

Suddenly, on a high shelf near the ceiling, he spotted an intricate marble work, sculpted by Bernini and intended to serve as the basis for a famous antique Louvre statue of a sleeping hermaphrodite. And then, on a lower shelf, he pointed to a 1,300-pound piece of stone that once formed part of a building near the ancient Greek site of the “Victory of Samothrace,” another valuable sculpture in the collection of the Louvre.

“A researcher might ask to see Bernini or say, ‘I want to see the Samothrace piece!'” he said.

In a nearby vault, Isabelle Hasselin, senior curator, examined and cataloged more than a dozen small terracotta figurines of the Roman goddess Minerva, found in Turkey. Ms Hasselin lifted one, which showed two women, arm in arm, from a drawer of a metal cabinet, explaining how it had been badly restored with glue and a metal pin in the 1960s.

“We are able to do extensive research here, away from the hustle and bustle of Paris – and away from the worry of flooding,” she said. “What a relief.”

With 620,000 works, the Louvre collection is the largest in the world. Only 35,000 of them are exhibited in Paris; 35,000 others are distributed in the regional museums of France. More than 250,000 drawings, prints and manuscripts – too fragile to be exposed to light – will remain in storage at the Louvre in Paris, on a high floor protected from flooding.

The basement is not the Louvre’s only refuge for unseen works of art. Some are hidden in other storage areas of the museum; others are kept in secret locations across the country, where they have been moved for safekeeping over the years. At the end of December, 80% of the work in the most vulnerable flood zones had been moved, according to Brice Mathieu, director of the Conservation Center.

In the process, curators have made startling discoveries. A forgotten wooden crate turned out to be filled with 6,000-year-old ceramic fragments from the ancient Persian city of Susa; the restorers have reconstituted it in a vase. Another find from Susa was a stone shoulder that belonged to the museum’s 4,000-year-old sculpture of the goddess Narundi.

As Mr. Martinez strolled through the halls of the center with Marie Lavandier, director of the Louvre-Lens museum, they came across an 18th century leather box adorned with golden fleur-de-lys that probably once contained a crown. Ms. Lavandier took a photo with her mobile phone.

“I see an object like this, and I think to myself, really, we protect all the treasures and the sophistication of the museum throughout its history,” she said. “It touches my heart.”