September 25, 2022

LIÉVIN, France – It’s the most ambitious step in the history of the Louvre – a five-year project that will transfer a quarter of a million works of art to a state-of-the-art warehouse 120 miles away in northern France.

For more than 16 months, a stream of trucks has been quietly transporting treasures from the museum’s central Paris basement and other locations to the Louvre Conservation Center, a cultural fortress in the town of Liévin near Lens.

100,000 works have already been moved – including paintings, carpets, tapestries, magnificent sculptures, small figures, furniture and decorative pieces – from antiquity to the 19th century.

Jean-Luc Martinez, the director of the Louvre, has time as museums in France are closed due to the pandemic. On Tuesday, he took a small group of reporters on a tour of the newly operated site, which is set to become one of Europe’s largest art research centers and welcome museum experts, scholars and restorers from around the world.

The Louvre lies on a low plain on the banks of the Seine. In 2016, the floods in Paris were so severe that the museum itself was threatened and triggered a 24/7 emergency operation to wrap, crate, and move thousands of artifacts from underground storage to higher levels.

The Liévin conservation project, which cost 60 million euros, or about $ 73 million, began in late 2017 as a necessary response to the unpredictable, inevitable surge of the river.

“The reality is that our museum is in a flood plain,” Martinez said on the tour on Tuesday. “You can’t just pick up marble sculptures and move them around,” he noted. “There was a risk that the sewer system would back up and dirty, smelly sewage would damage art. We had to find a solution. Urgent.”

The Louvre considered the idea of ​​building a site near Paris and then turned it down: too expensive and impractical. Instead, she chose Liévin, a 10-minute walk from the Louvre outpost at the mini-museum in the adjacent city of Lens, which opened in 2012.

This pocket of France, once a prosperous mining center, never recovered economically from the bombing of the First World War and the collapse of the coal industry. The local authorities were so busy building the Louvre’s presence – and attracting visitors – that it sold much of the land for the conservation center for the symbolic sum of one euro.

The glass, concrete and steel structure, which opened in October 2019, looks like a Bauhaus-style bunker that is partially dug into the landscape.

A calcareous subsoil above the chalk ground absorbs excess precipitation. A special German leak detection system makes the roof double waterproof. Complex security systems protect against terrorist attacks and fire. Bright green lights hanging throughout the facility’s trap, killing dangerous enemies like the common furniture beetle.

Trucks take the works of art to a garage, where they are unloaded and placed in a makeshift chamber to accustom them to their surroundings and clean up any debris. Six storage vaults with concrete walls, each focusing on a different type of property, extend over almost 2.4 hectares. There are rooms for craftsmen, restorers, researchers and photographers from the Louvre and finally for those from other museums. The Louvre hopes that one day the site can be a haven for art at risk of destruction in countries exposed to war and conflict.

Mr. Martinez toured the vaults, with their high ceilings, fluorescent lighting, and floor-to-ceiling windows, and stopped in a place where chunks of marble and stone were wrapped in plastic and stacked in wooden boxes on heavy metal shelves.

“There’s not much to see in a well-made camp,” he said with a hint of apology in his voice. “Everything is tightly packed.”

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

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

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

“We are able to do a thorough 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 on display in Paris; Another 35,000 will be distributed in regional museums in France. More than 250,000 drawings, prints and manuscripts – too fragile to be exposed to light – are stored in the Louvre in Paris on a raised floor that is safe from flooding.

The basement isn’t the Louvre’s only refuge for invisible works of art. Some are hidden in other storage areas throughout the museum. others are kept in secret locations across the country, where they have been taken for safekeeping over the years. By the end of December, according to Brice Mathieu, director of the Conservation Center, 80 percent of the work in the most vulnerable floodplains had moved out.

In the process, curators made some surprising discoveries. It turned out that a forgotten wooden box was filled with 6,000 year old ceramic fragments from the ancient Persian city of Susa. Restorers assembled it into a vase. Another find by Susa was a stone shoulder that was part of the 4,000-year-old sculpture of the goddess Narundi in the museum.

As Mr. Martinez wandered through the halls of the center with Marie Lavandier, director of the Louvre Lens Museum, he came across an 18th century leather box adorned with a golden lily and probably once wore a crown. Mrs Lavandier took a picture on her cell phone.

“I see an object like this and I really tell myself we are protecting all of the treasures and sophistication of the museum throughout its history,” she said. “It moves me to the core.”