In 2003, Daniel Percheron, the president of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France’s remote northernmost region, opened his morning newspaper to learn that the Louvre Museum in Paris was looking for a place to site a provincial branch museum that would help promote France’s “cultural decentralization.” There would obviously be no shortage of glamorous candidates (Cannes, anyone?) but Percheron decided to put forward the hard-up Nord-Pas-de-Calais city of Lens. Once the heartland of French coal mining, Lens had struggled since the 1960s when the coal ran out and brought about the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in a single generation. “There was a chance in a million that a modest regional leader could get the biggest museum in the world to come set up on a coal-mining field in the poorest region of France,” says Percheron. And yet that is just what happened.
On Dec. 12, the Louvre-Lens Museum, a shimmering 28,000-sq-m edifice built on a former coal pithead, opened to the public. If Percheron’s dream came true, it’s in large part because his vision was shared by the Louvre’s president-director, Henri Loyrette, who realized that an annex in Lens — truly a world away from the Louvre’s stuffy Parisian palace home — could offer the institution much needed space to breathe, evolve and renew with its historic vocation as a museum born of the French Revolution. “A national museum is one that serves the whole nation, and that’s something that we perhaps forgot a little bit over the centuries,” Loyrette tells TIME. “[So] when Daniel Percheron says the Louvre-Lens is a grand opportunity for the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, I say it is a grand opportunity for the Louvre.”
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While the stone-walled Louvre in Paris is a resplendent, imposing sight, the Louvre-Lens is at once vast and self-effacing — a single-story, glass-and-aluminum structure and 20-hectare park blending into the surrounding landscape, which includes historical brick miners’ houses and the two tallest slag heaps in Europe. But transparent and flooded with sunlight, with entrances on every side, it’s “a museum open to society,” say architects Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima. On the lower level, extensive windows overlook the museum’s storage areas and ateliers, allowing visitors to observe museum professionals working behind the scenes, whether cataloging works or performing delicate restorations.
Reflecting the new openness, Louvre curators cast aside the strict museographic tradition of separating art by period and technique when fashioning the main 3,000-sq-m gallery, dubbed the Gallery of Time. “The Louvre is split into departments, yet here every type of barrier has been taken down,” says Vincent Pomarède, director of the Louvre’s paintings department. The result is a literal walk through the history of art and humanity, from the invention of writing in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium B.C. to the 19th century Industrial Revolution in Europe, across some 200 masterpieces, from a 2,700 year B.C. Cycladic statue of a feminine idol, to Eugène Delacroix’s iconic 1830 painting, Liberty Leading the People.
It’s “the Louvre as one can never see it — in all its geographic and chronological breadth,” says Loyrette, who hopes that such innovations may be carried over to Paris, where the Louvre seeks to attract the next generation of museumgoers. “When I started in museums 40 years ago, we opened in the morning and closed in the evening, and I’m not sure we really gave much thought to visitors,” says Loyrette. “Today, the museum needs to not only welcome those who come naturally to us, but also to take in hand those who see museums as inaccessible to them.”
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In Lens that meant offering a state-of-the-art audio guide equipped with video, scrolling 3-D mapping and the ability to compile a personal list of favorite artworks that can be consulted later from home on the Louvre-Lens website. It also meant creating a multimedia resource center at the museum’s heart, with access to wi-fi-linked tablets, a library and a 3-D movie theater where groups can step “inside” works of art or visit computer-rendered archaeological sites.
Entrance to the resource center, like the Gallery of Time, is free of charge. But the 21st century museum had a heavy price tag for its builders — almost $200 million, more than half of which came from the region. For Percheron, it’s an investment he believes could elicit a “Guggenheim effect,” referring to the economic boom the Spanish city of Bilbao experienced after welcoming its contemporary art museum in 1997. With Lens only about an hour by train from Paris, London and Brussels, 500,000 visitors are expected annually — a potentially huge boon for a city of 450,000 saddled with an unemployment rate well above the national average. “We’ve had to fight to see that Lens, like other mining cities, doesn’t become a ghost town,” says Percheron. “And now with the arrival of the Louvre, we’re not only sure that Lens will survive, but we hope it will become a metropolis.”
The hope is shared by everyone in Lens. Local Frédéric Labendzki, who worked as a reporter for the local newspaper La Voix du Nord for 15 years, was among those who toured the museum before it opened. Visibly moved, he said he had found himself thinking of his father and grandfather who once mined the earth hundreds of meters below where the museum stands today. “It’s very emotional for me. This is a place that is charged with history, the history of the people of this land, the miners of Lens,” he says. “Even if I don’t think it will resolve all our problems and the horrible unemployment we’ve suffered since the end of the mines, it’s a little like, by choosing to set up the Louvre’s annex in Lens, rather than elsewhere, we feel like France is giving back to the region for all it gave to the country.”