The Louvre, reinvented in Lens

Situated just an hour and a half’s drive from Brussels, the magnificent Louvre-Lens is a museum like no other. Since opening in 2012 at the heart of France’s former mining region, this annex of the world-famous Musée du Louvre offers a completely new visitor experience. “Louvre-Lens is much more than just the Louvre in a different place,” begins director Marie Lavandier. “It is the Louvre, done in a completely different way.”

TEXT: ANNA VILLELEGER

Built on the site of a former mining yard, approximately 200 kilometres north of Paris, Louvre-Lens displays objects from the Musée du Louvre’s collections. An absolute highlight is the Gallery of Time, described by Lavandier as “a kind of museum UFO”. This 3,000-squaremetre gallery presents more than 200 masterpieces, and is a world away from the compartmentalised halls of most museums.

From Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC, to mid-19th-century Europe, visitors can wander freely through different time periods, as well as admiring masterpieces by artists ranging from Sandro Botticelli to Joshua Reynolds. Part of the collection is renewed every year, and in 2017 visitors can discover 54 new masterpieces with a focus on Islamic art.

Meditation

Particularly original at Louvre-Lens is a policy to provoke contemplation in visitors, whether they are complete novices or history buffs. The museum has a team of 15 ‘médiateurs’ who devise various workshops and animate the visitor experience. This involves everything from family games to impromptu ten-minute presentations of works, not to mention sensory visits for babies (nine months plus).

Another example of innovation at Louvre-Lens is that its reserves and restoration workshop are on display and accessible for visitors. “This is an extremely rare, unprecedented approach,” enthuses Lavandier. “Louvre-Lens is resolutely open and transparent. This is reflected in the building’s luminescent, glass architecture.”

Mirrors

Temporary exhibitions at Louvre-Lens vary from those focussing on particular artists to those covering much broader themes. On display until 18 September is Mirrors, which showcases works from antiquity to the present day and presents work by artists including Rubens, Marcel Gromaire, François Morellet and Markus Raetz.

“At first sight, the mirror seems to be a banal object. Yet, it can turn out to be quite fascinating, even complex. This exhibition is interested in the notion of reflection and considers the mirror in turn as a material, an instrument and a motif for artists,” explains Lavandier.

The Le Nain Mystery

Meanwhile, running until 26 June, is The Le Nain Mystery. This is the first retrospective in almost 40 years devoted to 17th-century French painters, Le Nain brothers. Works by the siblings Louis, Antoine and Mathieu Le Nain are hard to come by.

“Our exhibition brings together three quarters of their production, including several previously unseen paintings,” reveals Lavandier.

“To me, Le Nain brothers are among the greatest French painters in history. Yet their work remains enigmatic in many respects and divides art historians as much as it excites them. This exhibition and the accompanying multimedia features allow visitors the chance to unravel some of the mystery.

After this major retrospective, Louvre-Lens will be presenting the first ever exhibition on the theme of music in antiquity. Visitors will be taken on a journey from Rome to Mesopotamia, via Greece and Egypt, to discover the omnipresence of music in ancient Mediterranean society. At the heart of the exhibition, a live music space will host concerts, in addition to those that already take place throughout the year in the museum’s theatre.

Cultural discovery and gastronomic pleasure

Louvre-Lens is home to a gourmet restaurant, L’Atelier de Marc Meurin, located in the circular glass pavilion overlooking the gardens designed by French landscape architect Catherine Mosbach. Chef Meurin is a Lens native and has a double Michelin star for his other restaurant, Le Château de Beaulieu, situated in nearby Busnes.

At the museum restaurant, diners can enjoy inventive and sophisticated market cuisine, made using the finest local produce such as seafood from Boulognesur-mer and poultry from Licques.

An important role in regeneration

After four years of existence, the LouvreLens has generated more than 600 jobs and 100 million euros of economic benefits in the area. Since the opening of Louvre-Lens and the Nord-Pas-de-Calais Mining Basin being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012, the Pas-de-Calais region has continued to reveal itself as an important tourist destination.

Besides Louvre-Lens, the region is home to important cultural attractions including the Lewarde historic mining centre, La Piscine museum of art and industry in Roubaix and the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis. There are also some particularly poignant war sites just a stone’s throw from the museum, such as the Canadian National Vimy Memorial and Notre Dame de Lorette, the world’s largest French military cemetery.

The success of Louvre-Lens goes to show the importance of culture in areas affected by industrial changes and social depravation.

“Louvre-Lens is an opportunity for the people of Lens to benefit from cultural democratisation and, beyond that, the economic and social development of the region,” concludes Lavandier. “But it is also an opportunity for the Louvre to reinvent itself and present its wonderful collections in a different way.”