A behind-the-scenes quest is underway to preserve the world’s largest collection of art and antiquities that are now at threat from climate change.
For decades, hundreds of thousands of the Louvre’s collection of 620,000 works have been stored in the former royal palace’s basements in Paris. Hidden in the depths of the city, away from prying eyes, they were meant to be totally safe – but a new threat is flooding in. Like many rivers around Europe, the Seine has become prone to swelling and that has raised tough questions about how to keep the artistic bounty intact. In 2016 heavy rainfall forced the museum to close its doors. As staff rushed to transfer masterpieces to higher floors, many realised that climate change would soon threaten the Louvre again. “We are fortunate to keep one of the world’s finest collections of ancient art and archaeology; it’s a huge honour,” said former Louvre president-director Jean-Luc Martinez a few years later, as he unveiled a new storage location for the works. “We must preserve this heritage in order to pass it on to future generations.”
The venue he was inaugurating, the Louvre Conservation Centre, seeks to provide a permanent solution to that problem. Located in the former coal-mining town of Liévin, north of Paris, the building is set to receive up to 300,000 artworks for safekeeping by 2024, including the transfer over the course of this season of the 150,000 objects most at risk. In 2019, when the centre first opened its doors, Martinez declared it “the biggest move in the entire history of the Louvre”. Yet, aside from the trucks regularly pulling up by the centre, Liévin retains a sleepy air that belies the magnitude of the task inside this huge concrete box.
Seen from the town’s cluster of terraced workers’ houses, the building, designed by UK architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, feels imposing. A closer look reveals design details that help it blend into the landscape. Topped with a green roof, it is surrounded by a series of manicured parks that extend from the nearby Louvre-Lens Museum, the Louvre’s first regional offshoot, which opened in 2012 in an attempt to transform this post-industrial northern region. Slag heaps towering in the distance, though, are a reminder that the area’s history as France’s fossil-fuel heartland hasn’t been eradicated.
Inside the centre, the Louvre’s specialists are working on Liévin’s future role as a cultural hub. “Here is the submerged part of the iceberg – everything that happens behind the scenes and that we are not able to showcase to the public,” says the centre’s director Marie-Lys Marguerite, as she leads monocle down a large spiral staircase from the reception to the main hall, where polished concrete floors meet a glass wall that looks out onto the gardens. “The Conservation Centre is responsible for works that are not presented to the public because they are too fragile, others have taken their place or because they still need to be studied or restored before they can finally be exhibited.”
After directing several museums in cities across France, she took over as the director of the centre in May. Today she oversees a team of 15 maintenance, logistics and security staff who run the building, and welcomes about 60 curators who travel from Paris every month to supervise the transfer and documentation of the Louvre’s collections. The operation is serving its purpose exceptionally well. In the past few months, five truck-loads of art have been arriving at the Conservation Centre every week for a painstaking process of documentation, restoration and conservation. The artworks are brought in through a large gate at one end of the building and are later transported down the sky-lit corridor known as the “boulevard of artworks”, which separates the highly secure storage units on one side from the vast workspaces on the other. Floor-to-ceiling windows span the western façade, allowing light to flood into the rooms, which are visible from the outside to curious passers-by.
“Here is the submerged part of the iceberg, everything that happens behind the scenes and that we are not able to showcase to the public”
The building has a bunker-like feel but Marguerite and her colleagues are keen to display the important work that happens here. The ability to welcome researchers is a luxury that the Louvre couldn’t always provide. “Within the Palace there were several conservation spaces but sometimes there were stairs to climb, the spaces were cramped or we didn’t have the necessary light,” she says. “Accessing the works could be complicated and it was not always possible to accommodate researchers.” Transferring the art here is also an opportunity to check the collections for damage or degradation, performing minor rehabilitations when needed and considering how they might be displayed in the future, before safely placing them in climate-controlled storage units.
In one of the largest rooms, restorers Montaine Bongrand and Valérie Marcelli are working on the most recent batch of 99 textiles that they have been analysing for the past week. Two large tapestries, one from the 15th century and another from the 18th, are spread out on the floor. Twenty-eight-year-old technician Marion Sortino, is delicately brushing them with a special vacuum cleaner. By the large windows, a series of smaller woven objects are laid out on a table. “It’s a team effort,” says Bongrand, who also runs her own restoration business in Brittany but regularly works at the Conservation Centre. “Usually, we’d see one, two, three or four pieces at a time – not a hundred [like here],” she says. One tapestry has caught her eye: a medium-sized piece depicting a lamentation of Christ seems to be the work of a top-class Dutch atelier from the 16th century. “It’s an opportunity to see a large part of a collection we’re not necessarily familiar with,” she says.
Works kept in the Conservation Centre:
The Coronation of Esther by Jean-François de Troy (1783)
Inscribed stone from Samothrace (2nd century BC)
Egyptian funerary figurine found in Saqqara, the royal burial ground of the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis (380-30 BC)
Shepherds and Shepherdesses Dancing, a tapestry made by the historic Gobelins Manufactory in Paris (1685-1700)
Meanwhile Julien Cuny, a curator at the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, is overseeing a photoshoot of a large, inscribed stone from Susa, which has been pieced together to reveal important Persian texts from the 6th century BC. “It was in fragments in our reserve and nobody had tried to assemble the puzzle,” he says as a photographer sets up various lights around the glued-together slabs of stone. “These pieces are quite heavy and there wasn’t much space to reconstitute them. With large fragments, you need to spread them out or ‘play’ with them, if you like.”
While Cuny hopes that the stone will make it into the Louvre’s exhibition spaces, most of the artefacts in the Conservation Centre will never appear at all. This doesn’t mean that they will sit here gathering dust. The centre aims to become a pioneering place for restoration and research, where academics can examine artworks in secure and comfortable spaces. “It might seem like an old garage where we’ve left all the things we didn’t want to see anymore but it’s more than that,” says Marguerite. “The challenge is to offer the best conditions and conserve the works, which are part of the world’s heritage. It’s a huge responsibility.”
Storing and conserving the Louvre’s collection is an intensive process.
192: Lorryloads of works that have arrived at the Louvre Conservation Centre since its inauguration
95 per cent of all works located in flood zones were transferred to Liévin
60: Trips taken on average per month by Louvre staff to Liévin for the study and monitoring of collections
37: Nitrogen anoxia treatments (to protect works from parasites) that have taken place in the past few months