How a former coal pit was transformed into France’s third most-visited provincial museum
For nearly three centuries, the Pas-de-Calais Mining Basin was home to an industry so important it employed hundreds of thousands of people at any given time. The decline of coal mining across Europe since then has presented great social challenges for all the towns and regions affected by the loss of what had been the mainstay (if not the entirety) of their economies.
Over the course of the Industrial Revolution, large towns and cities grew around coal mines; often, whole regions were transformed by the influx of populations serving the industry. You only have to go as far as South Wales – once a land almost totally reliant on agriculture and fishing – to see how extensive this transformation can be.
So what do you do when the mines close? It’s fair to say that, in terms of the reinvention of their former coal-mining areas, the French have succeeded rather better than the British. In France, there has been a continued and concerted effort to revitalise the regions where the mines have fallen into disuse – and nowhere is this better exemplified than in Pas-de-Calais, and in particular, on the 20-hectare site of the Louvre-Lens Museum, which until the 1960s was a coal pit.
So why build the first provincial Louvre museum here? Well, while Lens itself is home to only about 40,000 people, it does lie smack in the middle of the most densely-populated region of Europe. Paris is an hour away by TGV; Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent are all within easy striking distance; Rotterdam, The Hague and Amsterdam lie just beyond; the cities of the Ruhr Valley are not much further away; and, crucially, you can hop on a train from Lille to London and be in town in time for your next meal. In all, there are literally tens of millions of people who could leave their homes in the morning, visit Louvre-Lens at their leisure, and be comfortably home again in time for bed. This has translated into a footfall of more than a million visitors a year, making the vast art gallery (which was only inaugurated in 2012, lest we forget) already France’s third most-visited provincial museum.
Of course, erecting a museum on a coal pit was no mean feat. The land was far from flat (you can still see the old pithead in the grounds) and the architecture of the building had to be modified accordingly to make it blend in. The long, glass walls that enclose the 28,000m2 exhibition space look straight, but they are not: they undulate ever so slightly, so they marry with the bumpy terrain and reflect the landscape in a more natural way. Inside, the endeavour to harmonise with nature continues unabated. Ventilation channels run across the halls to help maintain a temperature of 23 degrees, while the aluminium walls reflect light hazily, and also, somehow, ensure that there are no echoes in what are really quite cavernous rectangular rooms.
The vast museum is made up of five spaces. The Galerie du Temps, at the eastern end, houses the permanent exhibition, while temporary exhibitions are displayed at the western end of the complex, adjacent to which is an auditorium. Between these is the practical stuff: the café, the bookshop and, down the spiral staircase, the storage rooms, which – in keeping with the ethos of the museum – you can see into from above, through long, glass walls.
To cap it all, Louvre-Lens boasts a more than reasonable restaurant, L’Atelier de Marc Meurin, where a short but excellently curated menu will sustain you for about €40 before wine. The simplicity and understated elegance of the food complements not only the wonderfully sleek gallery but perfectly echoes its humble origins.
From France Today magazine