French culture is everywhere

Louvre-Lens director Marie Lavandier tells Jane Hanks why the innovative museum is quite unlike any other in France... or beyond

27 February 2019
By Jane Hanks

The Louvre-Lens opened in 2012 in the Hauts-de-France region. It was built on the site of an old open-cast coal mining quarry in the declining industrial heartland of France in the town of Lens, which at that time had no museum of any kind.

It is the third most-visited museum outside Paris with 480,000 visitors a year, and nearly 65% are from the region, fulfilling its raison d’être to bring culture to people outside the capital.

The Director of the Museum is Marie Lavandier, who was appointed in September 2016. Throughout her career she has worked in many museums all over France and in 2018 she was awarded the Femmes du Tourisme trophy for women who succeed in making France attractive to tourists.

What is the difference between the Louvre-Lens and the Louvre in Paris?

First the Louvre-Lens (louvrelens.fr) is  new. It is an art museum that has been built on two essential factors which make it different from the Musée du Louvre.

The first is that it is installed in a region with a very strong identity. It is an hour from Paris, but it is not at all like Paris.

The mines used to employ a million people in the north of France and so when they closed in the 1970s and 1980s it led to a period when the area had to totally reinvent itself and now it is one of the most remarkable areas in the whole of Europe. In 2012, the same year that the museum was opened, the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin was also listed as a Unesco World Heritage Centre.

It was an area marked by economic decline but 8million people in the region said they dreamt of having a major museum here.

The second factor is that the Louvre-Lens set out to completely reinvent the traditional idea of a museum.

The Louvre in Paris is set in a palace which is an old building divided into different parts and it is difficult to get from one to another and the collections are divided up into different sections.

Here we have something completely different, which is unique in the world.

In the Galerie du temps you have 5,000 years of the history of art in one immense open space. There is very little text, few explanations, no fixed circuit and you are left to wander among the 300 works of art, from the Louvre in Paris, that are displayed in a completely different way.

You can explore the whole history of art under one roof. In one viewing, you can see classical Roman pieces, works from the Italian Renaissance and explore many different stories, for example what was going on in the Middle Ages between Europe and the Islamic world.

This gives you a very original museum experience. Ours is a museum of the 21st century which has reinvented the traditional codes.

It is very different from the Louvre, but do you have strong links with the Paris museum?

Yes, of course, and that is fundamental to us. They generously lend us their collections and it is very important for us to work with their team. 

They have contributed many ideas which cannot be introduced in Paris and have helped us to create a museum for the future.

At the same time, this is also a place where we can experiment and act as a laboratory for methods that could be introduced into Paris.

This year, for the first time they have run activities in one of the capital’s shopping centres, which is something we have been doing here for some time. We hope to give an idea of what the museum experience is like.

What do you think people want to get out of a visit to a museum?

First, let us look at who comes here. 65% of our visitors come from the region.

This is a figure I am very proud of because the people who live here are not necessarily used to going to museums, so it means we must be offering them what they want.

There are 60,000 visits from the people of Lens every year, and it has a population of 30,000 which means that there are many who come several times. I am also proud that when we asked visitors how they felt here, 100% answered that they felt good in the museum, which again shows they are happy here.

We want them to have a feeling of well-being here, a moment which they share with others and it is a museum that attracts a lot of families.

There are lots of places where you can talk, where you can sit and it is very convivial. Normally you cannot eat in a museum, but we have an area, inside, where you can bring your own picnic.

If you want to find out more about a painting you particularly like, you can find a book about it in our library. We also have a 20-hectare park, which is a natural, green space in a landscape which was industrial, and so it is the whole body as well as the mind, which is involved in the visit.

Do you need to have a knowledge of art to visit your museum?

No, not at all. First, we wish to give visitors a warm welcome, and invite them in to experience our works of art.

There are people on hand to act as your guide, and this is free. Several times a day there are impromptu talks which give a ten-minute ‘flash’ about a chosen work.

There is a small team called the interrupteur, which is a play on words as the French word can mean both something which brings things to a halt, and an element in a switch which means you can turn on a light. They use theatre techniques to bring the attention of the visitor to something in the museum in a way which is poetic or a bit quirky.

Is one of your aims to make sure that people are not frightened by the idea of going to a museum and to make it accessible to everyone?

Here, our challenge has been to attract a public that tends to be less qualified than those who live in Paris, and who are less likely to think about going to a museum.

We must never forget that crossing the threshold and taking the first step into the museum is important.

We have no physical threshold because you can straightaway see inside as our museum walls are transparent.

But that is not enough. Many people are even hesitant about coming into the park. So we have to ask this question. How to get people here? It is our job to go into the town and invite them in, and not necessarily for something you would usually associate with a museum activity.

To celebrate our fifth anniversary, we wanted to hold a party with local people and give them something they would enjoy – and so we put on a bingo event.

Sometimes we have to leave behind our preconceived ideas of what we should be as a museum and do something different. For me, anyway, culture is everywhere.

It is there when you choose what to wear in the morning, when you go out onto the streets, when you eat, and when you play bingo with other people.

Why do you think it is important for people to cross the threshold and visit a museum?

Because when you come it brings you the joy of discovering something new, a very special and particular kind of experience.

Our building is unique in France, designed by Japanese architects from SANAA and it is really something magnificent with aluminium walls which reflect the landscape outside and inside reflect the works of art.

Our park is a transformation of the industrial landscape it once was with a contemporary and very special design by landscape designer, Catherine Mosbach. And I think we also offer an out-of-the-ordinary experience, different from a classic museum. It is a place with lots of surprises.

 Is it also a place simply to enjoy being surrounded by beauty?

The building captures the changes in light, you are right it is a place which is simply very, very beautiful.

And the works of art which are beautiful capture your heart too?

It is important to realise that the Musée du Louvre does not only lend us works from its storage vaults, but also some of the greatest works which are on display in its galleries.

So we have some of the finest works of art on display in an extraordinary setting. When I come into the Galerie du temps I sometimes stay a moment and watch the visitors as they arrive.

The entrance is higher than the gallery and so they look down on this wonderful view of history, the sculptures and the paintings, and people stop and often I hear them say, c’est beau quand même. What I observe is people really do not have to have a great knowledge of art history to find the view in front of them extraordinary and breath taking.

At the Louvre-Lens we can also see what goes on behind the scenes, such as the restoration workshops. Is that also what visitors want?

I think so and we are going to develop this part of the visit further.

At present a building is under construction a few hundred metres from the Louvre-Lens and it will store 300,000 works from the Louvre collection which will be brought here sometime in 2019 or 2020.

This will bring extra possibilities for us. We have our own storage vaults too which people can see through a glass partition and we have a whole array of digital media which allow visitors to discover the different jobs in a museum.

There are also workshops where we can see the restorers at work and at certain times you can have a guided tour where you can meet and talk to the restorers. It is very important to explain to visitors the parts which are usually hidden and to create a museum which tells a story and we are working on the way we do this to make it even more lively and interesting than it is now.

In what other ways is your art museum different from others?

The events in our park are also important. In the summer we like to provide opportunities for local people to come who cannot go away on holiday and so we have climbing towers, treetop adventure circuits, and the opportunity to participate in all sorts of sports activities. 

This year, the subject of our temporary exhibition opening at the end of March is Homer and so we will extend this theme into our summer activities.

When you come here you discover a museum which interacts with its visitors in a completely different way from other museums. Physical activity is seen as part of the whole experience and you can sometimes take part or see others taking part in a pilates or yoga class in the Galerie du temps among the Greek statues. We welcome nine-month-old babies too and have sessions for them and their parents so you may see them on cushions in front of a work of art.

We also have workshops for grandparents where they can pick up facts and methods to help them show their grandchildren around the museum, and learn the answers to the questions that children always ask when they come here.

Is it a pleasure for you to be Director of the Louvre-Lens?

It gives a great deal of sense to my job. I have worked in many museums, both small, local and rural, as well as national, well known and established, and both were interesting.

I find the Louvre-Lens is a combination of both these experiences as it operates on a national and international level with its links to Paris, and other art institutions all over the world, but also at a regional level, where we work a great deal with the local population.

The Louvre-Lens has far closer links with the surrounding region than most museums. This is true at an economic level, providing jobs and attracting tourists and at a social level as we go out into hospitals, prisons and retirement homes. I have to continually question the role of a museum, ask why some people do not come, ask whether it is really democratic and invent new ways of working. 

Professionally speaking it is absolutely marvellous. It can be tiring as you are constantly finding ways to evolve, but this is what makes it fascinating.

Is the Louvre-Lens the model for the museum of the future?

I am not sure, but I have noticed that we are being observed from far and wide.

We are talked about across the world, we are asked to take part in conferences or to take part in research. I think that the model of the museum has changed very little in the past two centuries but we are now beginning to look at its role in a very fundamental way in all four corners of the world. 

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