The largest museum in the world opened a satellite in one of France’s poorest cities on December 4, 2012.
Ten years on, the Louvre-Lens is slowly transforming the image of this former mining region.
The museum is the fruit of a project which began in 2003, when the Culture Ministry decided it wanted to democratise access to culture.
A year later, Lens beat competition from other northern towns, including Boulognesur-Mer, Calais and Valenciennes, to be chosen to host the Louvre’s first satellite site.
“It made a lot of people fantasise at the time,” Hélène Corre, deputy mayor of Lens in charge of culture, told The Connexion.
“People were talking about Bilbao, which had a spectacular development [after the arrival of the Guggenheim Museum].
The effects have been more subtle, but real.”
The past decade has seen Lens attempt to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. Tourism was previously mostly limited to Britons and others visiting local war memorials.
Lens, a city of more than 30,000 people, had no museum before 2012.
Ms Corre said the goal was to “give some confidence back to a population marked by the trauma of the closing of the mines and economic difficulties. “It was an area that needed a boost, and which deserved it in light of its sacrifices and struggles.
Changed image of the city
The Louvre has completely changed the image of the city, including among locals. There is a swelling pride.”
Among those sacrifices are the 42 miners who were killed in an explosion in Liévin, next to Lens, in 1974. The same year the Louvre opened,
Lens celebrated another milestone: the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin was listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. Florence Dupont, from the Lens-Liévin tourist office, said: “The idea is to highlight this heritage but turn towards the future.”
She said the Louvre had helped shine a light on the city’s industrial heritage – the museum was built on a flat slagheap, and others are visible from the site. “We have clearly seen a before and after,” she said of the museum.
Overnight stays in the Mining Basin increased 20% between 2011 and 2019, with 1,200 additional beds in hotels and other accommodation.
Ms Corre said the museum and accompanying investments had helped the town navigate the difficult economic conditions of recent years.
With 450,000 visitors per year, it is among the three most visited museums outside of Paris, with Lyon’s Musée des Confluences and Mucem in Marseille.
Primary role to attract locals
While the city would still like to bring in more foreign tourists, the primary goal of the museum was to attract locals.
A 2017 study found more than 20% of visitors came from the Lens-Liévin urban community, while 65% were from the Hauts-de-France region.
More than half (56%) of visitors said they were unfamiliar or not very familiar with museums, 13 points above the national average, and 4.3% had never been to a museum before.
In order to attract a wide demographic, the permanent collection of 200 pieces belonging to the Louvre is free to visit, funded by regional and local authorities, and temporary exhibitions showcase more recent artwork.
In 2016, there was even an exhibition dedicated to objects belonging to supporters of the local RC Lens football team.
“The cost is not even the hardest barrier to remove,” Ms Corre said. “It is difficult to make people feel permitted to go there, and to believe they will enjoy it.”
It is often easier to acquire the habit at a young age, she said, which is why there are school visits and activities designed for children, “more similar to what you find in museums in the English-speaking world”.
The architecture was designed in contrast to the heavy tradition of the Louvre in Paris, with a glass structure open to the environment and meant to be less intimidating.
Since opening, the museum has held workshops in prisons and with jobseekers. To celebrate the anniversary, the tourist office is offering 10 weekend packages, marrying a visit to the museum with different experiences, from beer and football to an Art Deco architectural visit of the town.
Louvre-Lens has also lined up a number of exhibitions and events over the coming months, including an augmented reality tour based on the Assassin’s Creed video games.
It will mark its birthday with workshops, guided tours and concerts on December 3 and 4, which is also the day of Sainte Barbe, the patron saint of miners.
Find the full programme here.