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How the Louvre Is Protecting Its Cultural Treasures Against Extreme Weather

Spurred by flooding linked to climate change, the Paris museum is relocating a third of its collection to a new conservation center

The museum plans to store some 250,000 of its 620,000 artifacts at a new facility in Liévin. (Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners)
smithsonianmag.com

The most-visited museum in the world is shipping away a third of its collection.

As Elaine Sciolino reports for the New York Times, the Musée de Louvre in Paris has spent the past 16 months transporting more than 100,000 of its 620,000 artifacts to a conservation center in the northern French commune of Liévin. Ultimately, the custom-made space, which opened in October 2019 after six years of planning, will serve as a safe haven for some 250,000 artworks previously threatened by flooding, according to a statement.

Home to such famous artworks as the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Louvre sits on the right bank of the Seine—a precarious position given the river’s frequent flooding. In 2016, when heavy rainfall brought the Seine to its highest levels since 1982, the museum undertook a “round-the-clock, emergency operation” to move its cultural treasures from underground storage to safety, notes the Times.

A study conducted soon after the flooding found that climate change had increased the likelihood of Paris’ heavy rainfall almost twofold. The disaster forced the Louvre to close for four days and prompted staff to leave many items packed for rapid future evacuation, writes Ryan Waddoups for Surface magazine.

Seine River Bank Flooding Near Louvre
Rising waters flooded the banks of the Seine as recently as this month. An area near the Louvre is shown here on February 2. (Edward Berthelot via Getty Images)

Though the museum has had a flood risk prevention plan in place since 2002, the protocol does not allocate enough evacuation time to save all of the Louvre’s vulnerable holdings.

“The reality is that our museum is in a flood zone,” Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez tells the Times. “You can’t just pick up and move marble sculptures around.”

Constructed at a cost of $73 million, the Louvre Conservation Center is designed to be the museum’s lifeline, housing hundreds of thousands of artifacts previously stored at more than 60 locations in and outside of Paris. Per the Louvre’s website, the 2.4-acre site includes six storage areas, a photography studio, workshop rooms and even a rooftop garden. Each of the concrete-walled storage vaults focuses on preserving a different type of object, from paintings to sculptures and metalworks.

“The building is sited on well-draining subsoil; chalky sand over a layer of chalk bedrock,” John McElgunn of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the firm that designed the facility, tells Architectural Digest’s Nadja Sayej. “Everything is sized to deal with rainfall well in excess of the current historical records and future rainfall projections for the area.”

The Louvre Conservation Center
The new Louvre Conservation Center boasts a rooftop garden, research rooms and state-of-the-art storage vaults. (Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners)

Additional protective features include a double-waterproofed roof with special leak detection technology, green lights that capture harmful bugs such as the common furniture beetle, and security systems programmed to shield artifacts from fire and terrorist attacks.

Just 70,000 or so of the Louvre’s 620,000 artifacts are on view at any given time, with 35,000 displayed at the Paris museum and the rest loaned to smaller regional museums across France, according to the Times. Though the majority of objects not on view will be moved to the conservation center, another 250,000 light-sensitive drawings, prints and manuscripts will remain at the Louvre, where they’ll be stored on a high floor to mitigate flood risk.

The center serves as more than just a storage space: As Surface notes, the facility is poised to become one of Europe’s biggest art research centers, attracting museum experts, academics and conservators alike.

“We are able to do deep research here, away from the hustle and bustle of Paris—and away from the worry of flooding,” Isabelle Hasselin, a senior curator at the Louvre, tells the Times. “What a relief.”

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