Louvre-Lens Shines Bright in a Once-Sad City in France

The Gallery of Time at the new Louvre Lens, in Lens, Northern France. photos by Max Hartshorne
The Gallery of Time at the new Louvre Lens, in Lens, Northern France. photos by Max Hartshorne

Louvre-Lens Brings Great Art to the North

Where there was once a coal mine, is now a World-Class Museum in Nord Pas de Calais

By Max Hartshorne, GoNOMAD Editor

The first thing we saw when we arrived in Lens, France were two huge mountains that look like pyramids with grass growing on them. They were coal heaps, giant piles of tailings left over from some of the many coal mines in this part of northern France that all closed up in the late ’80s.

The shiny metal exterior of the huge Louvre-Lens museum in Northern France.
The shiny metal exterior of the huge Louvre-Lens museum in Northern France.

We drove up a hill to view one of them up close, along with a series of former mine buildings that now house a theater and other arts-related endeavors.

In the town of Lens, there are rows of streets with identical buildings that used to house miners. Today these are subsidized housing for low income families.

Big Numbers

In December 2012 a tremendous thing happened here. A new Louvre opened on the abandoned site of one of these coal mines. It’s the Louvre-Lens and it’s a 500,000 square feet magnet for art lovers from all over Europe. With 15 percent of their priceless art borrowed from the Paris Louvre,  they are planning new exhibits for years to come.  So far people are

Aerial view of Louvre-Lens, Northern France.
Aerial view of Louvre-Lens, Northern France.
Aerial view of Louvre-Lens, Northern France.

flocking to see this tremendous new tourist attraction, in a city that is certainly not known for high culture.  Lens is famous for being the home of a professional soccer team, and for the mines that all closed down by the mid 1980s.

As of January 2014, more than one million people had visited, and the expectation for one year was pegged at only 700,000. In
the courtyard outside of the squat glass and steel building, we met with Bruno Cappelle, who handles media relations for the museum, and he told us that 60% of the visitors to the Louvre Lens (LL) were locals.

“This museum is about changing the way people think about this town, and about this part of France. This is much more than a
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museum, it’s bringing people from all over France to Lens, where most of them have never visited,” said Bruno Cappelle, as we sat in a courtyard in June 2013, seven months after the official opening of the Louvre Lens Musem.

This is exciting and a great development, but did not come about without a lot of advance work.  Cappelle said that a team of six was deployed to visit all of their neighbors, knock on their doors, and tell them about the new museum, and ask for their opinions.

Why Not a Car Factory?

Bruno Cappelle, of Louvre Lens.
Bruno Cappelle, of Louvre Lens.

Cappelle said that some of the locals asked why they weren’t building a $150 million car factory, or some other large employer. But even though there are only about 100 or so jobs at this sprawling temple of ancient and classical art, there are reverberations that will echo throughout this region far longer than any car factory could.

And since it’s a state-owned operation, it will never close up and move to China. Tourism is a long-term proposition, as most people in France realize.  There is no country in the world with more tourism visitors than France.

Easy Walk to the High Speed Train

The LL is located about a twenty minute walk from the TGV high speed train station and there is a well-made walking path and free shuttles if you don’t want to walk. The museum offers free admission for the first year.  There is a Time Gallery that shows the progress of art from the earliest days of civilization until the 1840s.  Cappelle explained to us that the Louvre Paris has 36,000 works on display, but the LL has only 205 works in its Gallery of Civilization time-line room. “That way, you get a balance between the famous and the forgotten. and you’re not overwhelmed with trying to see too much”

Rows and rows of rowhouses, once housing for miners in Lens.
Rows and rows of rowhouses, once housing for miners in Lens.

Famous works include Liberty to the People, by Delacroix, and some of the lesser known works from Egyptian tombs are striking and well explained using the devices they hand out to listen to while you view the art.

The diversity of the people who have come to the LL, so many locals, has inspired Cappelle. That and the fact that in this town of 36,000, more than 10,000 membership cards have been sold, bringing people back again and again.

Treasures from Egypt in the museum's main Gallery of Time.
Treasures from Egypt in the museum’s main Gallery of Time.

But the LL isn’t just about art, it’s about improving and bringing a spotlight to a very poor and depressed part of France.

“Changing the image of this area, so it’s not just about football and unemployment, that’s a big part of what this museum is all about,” Cappelle said.

In five years, everything in the LL will be different, Cappelle told us.

The museum’s director explained how he thought the timeline approach to displaying the art worked for visitors:

“When you show these works from different cultures together, you can pick out themes that museums don’t usually have the chance to look at in their permanent collections. These include, for example, the use of color in artworks in relief, and the question of the portrait. By putting together, say, the portrait of Louis-Francois Bertin by Ingres and the Portrait of Fath Ali

France's patron saint of liberty is seen in the Louvre-Lens museum.
France’s patron saint of liberty is seen in the Louvre-Lens museum.

Shah, a Persian ruler of the Qajar dynasty, you can go beyond stylistic differences  to common codes in the representation of power.

Coal hills like this dot the region where the museum is located, eerie remnders of the coal that dominated the economy.
Coal hills like this dot the region where the museum is located, eerie remnders of the coal that dominated the economy.

“We are working with the Louvre (Paris) to show that the museum is about more than just a handful of world famous artworks.  LeCoal hills like this dot the region where the museum is located, eerie reminders of the coal that dominated the economy. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece was not the Mona Lisa, but the Saint Anne.”

When to Go

The museum is open daily except Tuesday from 10 am – 6 pm. Closed January 1, May 1. Late night openings on the first Friday of the month from September to June, til 10 pm.  Also on the museum grounds is 2-star Michelin chef Marc Meurin’s restaurant. Trains come on the Paris-Dunkirk TGV line, there is shuttle service from the station to the museum, if you don’t feel like walking.

The Time Gallery, Galerie du Temps) is an open display of some 200 works representing all of the Louvre’s Curatorial departments. Stretching out over 120 meters, it covers three main periods: Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and Modern Times. It brings together different civilizations and artistic disciplines.

Nothing in the museum is from before 1840.

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.