It will be the biggest art convoy since the Second World War. In 2018, the Musée du Louvre is due to start moving more than 250,000 works of art and artefacts from Paris to a new 23,500 sq. m store in Liévin, a small city 200km north of the capital. The complete move will take at least five years. The plans for the store, which have been under discussion for years, are finally about to be implemented. Last week a team lead by British firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners was picked to design the complex, which will have light-filled work spaces under one vast, green roof. But moving the collections to a regional store however high-tech has divided curators and provoked an outcry from art historians around the world.
Liévin has a population of 35,000 and is in a former coal-mining region. Its last pit closed in 1974 after an explosion that killed 42 men. Today unemployment stands at 25%; among the under-24 age group it is almost 50%. In 2014, the right-wing National Front won 27% of the votes for the city council, traditionally a Socialist stronghold. The region is also led by a Socialist, Daniel Percheron, 72, who retires next year. He pushed hard to secure 49% of the €60m construction budget for the new store, the rest being covered by the windfall from the Louvre Abu Dhabi contract with Agence France-Muséums. The Louvre will be the sole owner and manager of the store.
Inspired by the Guggenheim Bilbao, Percheron was also the main promoter of the “mini Louvre” in neighbouring Lens. Opened in 2012 on a former mining site, it has since welcomed 1.5 million visitors. While moving works between Liévin and Lens will be easier, this will certainly not be the case for the Louvre in Paris. The round trip to Liévin by train takes four to five hours, and costs between €80 and €120. Vehicles carrying works to and from the northern city will need much more time. In fact, 200km is the furthest distance possible from the Paris Louvre, because insurance rates increase greatly when works need to travel further.
In October 2014, in an unprecedented move, 42 of the 45 curators from the Louvre signed an “urgent” letter to the museum’s president, Jean-Luc Martinez, and France’s minister of culture and communication, Fleur Pellerin, asking them to reconsider the project. The collections in storage, they claim, are “not a simple stock, but represent the heart of the Louvre”. They are constantly needed for research and conservation, which they say will be “paralysed” by the move to Liévin. Easy access is necessary to respond to requests for loans, stage exhibitions or to replace and rotate works in the galleries, claim the curators. “A museum without its reserves is like a plane without engines: it looks all beautiful and glittering, but it won’t move,” they say.
Earlier this year 13 former heads of departments and curators appealed directly to the French president, François Hollande, to ditch the “plan to dismantle the collections”. By mid-June, their text, claiming that “the Louvre is under one of the most serious threats of its history”, had gathered almost 3,000 supporters online from around the world. Many comments come from archaeologists. “Ready access to the Louvre reserves is absolutely essential for scholarship and academic research,” writes Michael Tite, from Oxford University, while a former curator from the Palace of Versailles, Christian Baulez, states “the Louvre is sacrificed to touristic attraction”. Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor at Harvard University, Massachusetts, denounces an “ill-conceived project” with “constant transportation”, leading to huge costs and the risk of “damaging the works”.
In June, eight department directors at the Louvre signed an op-ed supporting the project, which, they say, will provide much “better working conditions”: a “quarantine” space for the first time, separate spaces to study, pack or unpack the works, and adequate environmental conditions, “which are seldom met today”. The op-ed was published on the La Tribune de l’Art website.
The plans are unlikely to change. Pellerin has given her full support to Martinez. “The project is nothing new,” Vincent Pomarède, the second-in-charge at the Louvre (in a position created in January), tells us. “[The store] was launched by the museum’s former president Henri Loyrette and the deal signed in 2013 with the region after approval by all heads of departments. Since then the practical conditions have been prepared with the curators, included some of those who are now protesting.”
Martinez insists that he had to find safer storage fast. The Louvre has the world’s richest collection, with 460,000 works and archaeological pieces, 35,000 of which are on display. France made a big mistake when the new ‘‘Grand Louvre’’ was built in the 1980s, by creating the storage facilities underground.
Fifteen years ago parts of the collections were removed to a store that costs €3m a year to rent. But about half of the collections remain under the royal palace, next to the Seine, and are at risk of a flood similar to the one that submerged the centre of Paris in 1910. Experts say such a flood is likely every 100 years or so. Electricity in the city would be mostly cut, states a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, noting that “protection levels are not up to the standards on many comparable OECD countries”
What stays, what goes
“It will be much easier to find and study a piece in a modern facility than in some of the cramped storage we have today,” Martinez says. “Of course, we’ll have to think about shuttles and housing there. The teams are still discussing what should be kept in Paris in ‘intermediary’ storage and how we could use the space which will be freed up,” Pomarède says. For example, the drawings and prints collection, which is all in storage and includes more than 150,000 sheets, will stay in Paris.
Pomarède admits that he “understands and even partly shares the concern” of his colleagues. “Naturally it would have been much better to find the same place in Paris or close by, but we had tried for a decade with no success: the urban area is too cramped. And then we decided against a third option, which would be far from both Paris and from Lens, making things even more complicated.”
Last but not least, there is the cost: the coffers of the culture ministry are empty and very few local councils are willing to share the burden of a facility which will not draw a public. So things must be wrapped up before Daniel Percheron leaves office next year.