In 2003, the French Department of Culture sent a call out to find a location for a new satellite outpost of the Louvre – the most visited museum in the world, with just short of 10 million visitors a year. Only the Pas-de-Calais region, in North-East France, responded to the call and proposed a number of cities; thus a brand new museum, designed by Japanese architects SANAA, opened in Lens in December 2012.
The Musée du Louvre-Lens – tagline: “Le Louvre autrement” – does not have its own collection but instead displays selected artifacts from the Louvre, in a series of temporary exhibitions – currently Time in Art, “A reflection on the perception of time”, and The Etruscans and the Mediterranean, “A new portrait of the city of Cerveteri”, with explorations of the sacred and of war planned for 2014.
Its main feature is the 120-metre long Galerie du Temps, where visitors can discover a semi-permanent display, drawing from “all civilisations and working techniques (…), from the birth of writing around 3500 BC until the middle of the 19th century, taking in the entire chronological and geographical scope of the collections of the Louvre museum.”
Lens, at the heart of northern France’s depressed old mining country, was listed as 9th poorest French city in 2010. For a glimpse of what it was like in its heyday, you can read or watch Germinal by Emile Zola, inspired by the miners’ strikes of 1869 and 1884 (the film version features Russian actor Gerard Depardieu).
Is Lens the new Bilbao? Actually, Lens might be something of a new model for regeneration-through-museums policies, according to Atlantic Cities: with more modest costs and targets (500,000 yearly visitors), the return on investment might be both quicker to be felt and less riddled with undesired side-effects. The article refers to a 2005 book, The Globalized City: Economic Restructuring and Social Polarization in European Cities, where authors Frank Moulaert, Arantxa Rodriguez, and Erik Swyngedouw write:
“… the project transformed the city in unforeseen ways, some of them unwelcome. Economic stratification and social exclusion emerged. The transgressions of the new economic elite went beyond the normal complaints about gentrification, according to the authors; the shock of growth has had unfortunate side-effects for urban governance and democratic participation.”
Louvre-Lens is one of the projects that form The Global Louvre, which comprises exhibitions, excavations, partnerships and long-term loans around the world, as well as the Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi, self-titled “The First Universal Museum in the Arab World”, thrice delayed but planned to open in 2015. There’s quite a lot more than cultural tourism at stake here, as explained by the Louvre’s outgoing Director Henri Loyrette in this interview with The Art Newspaper: namely, cultural diplomacy, new revenue streams, audience development and the desire ”to revive (the Louvre’s) founding mission of being a universal museum”.
Despite the early signs of success for the first two French attempts at delocalising Parisian cultural powerhouses to drive regeneration – Centre Pompidou-Metz is already the most visited exhibition space outside Paris in just 3 years, and Louvre-Lens is following closely – the French government has announced that it won’t pursue new projects of this type in France in the near future, preferring to wait for these two experiments to come to maturity before assessing their impact.
However, the latest French museum to open its door outside Paris, Marseille’s MuCEM, seems already set for a similar, if not even greater success, with a record 1 million visitors in its first 3 months. Designed by Rudy Ricciotti, the ‘Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée’, one of the key projects of Marseille’s year of European Capital of Culture, is garnering critical praise for its bold design and elegant dialogue between the past and the future, but opinions are divided on its exhibition policy.