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Taking Art Off The Walls: The Public Opening Of Louvre-lens

Today is the public opening of the new Louvre satellite museum in the former coal-mining town of Lens in northern France.  The museum gives credence to the French ideal of free culture for all, bringing some of the greatest works from the Louvre collection to a town previously known best for the giant slag-heaps that bear testament to its mining past.

This exceptional project is part of a growing concern among France’s major museums for bringing art to outlying areas of the country. The Pompidou Center opened in 2010 the Pompidou-Metz in another post-industrial city in the East of France and inaugurated in the fall 2011 the Centre Pompidou Mobile, a roaming exhibition space that brings contemporary masterpieces to small cities around the country.

The Louvre-Lens has been designed by the Japanese firm SANAA, who designed the New Museum in Manhattan, and Glass Pavilion in Toledo, Ohio among many others. Like the New Museum, the Louvre–Lens is assembled from five main  box-like structures, but rather than stacked atop one another, as they are in New York, the Lens structures join corner to corner, spread out horizontally.  The museum has received acclaim from critics around the world since its unveiling on the 4th of December:  you can watch a great video of the Guardian design critic exploring the site here.

The architecture is clean and minimal, with natural light filtered softly through the ceiling, and brushed aluminum walls giving off hazy reflections of art and viewers alike.   SANAA have woven the industrial landscape of Lens into the building in subtle ways.  The New Museum in Manhattan uses the stacked boxes to reflect and incorporate the horizontal lines of the surrounding skyline into the vertical lines of the museum building, and in Lens the architects have followed the contours of the mine that lies beneath the building in the concrete of the floor, allowing the history of the site to influence the lines of the building.   A visitor follows the history of the site with their feet, even as they are encountering the history of art with their eyes.

The boldest move of the building is the Galerie du temps, a 125 meter long hall where works from the Louvre’s collection are shown.  The brushed aluminium walls are empty of art – work is instead shown on plinths and free-standing constructions all along the corridor-like space.  As the visitor moves lengthwise through the space they advance chronologically through art history.  Horizontal movement from one side to the other takes them on a geographical and cultural journey, so that art from the western canon is placed side by side with art from other traditions and geographic origins. Though the presentation is simple, the experimentation from a museological perspective is incredibly daring, and invites visitors to draw connections between works from different cultures and artistic traditions: works that in most contexts are kept firmly within their geographical classifications, behind different walls. 

It’s culture for all, without borders.   

Louvre-Lens opens on December 12th 2012