Louvre moves art treasures to new centre to avoid Paris floods

A preparatory study by the 16th-century Italian artist Giulio Romano in the Louvre Conservation Centre, in Lievin, France this month. The museum hopes the new facility will become one of Europe’s largest art research centres, visited by museum specialists, conservators and academics from around the world. PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Workers moving artworks at the Louvre Conservation Centre. With climate change, scientists say bouts of heavy rain that cause flooding are set to become more frequent, threatening riverside gems like the Louvre. PHOTOS: NYTIMES

LONDON • When the River Seine that runs through Paris overflowed this month, officials at the Louvre Museum were relieved some of their most valuable items were safely stored in northern France.

The world's largest and most visited museum, with almost 10 million visitors annually, had already transported about 100,000 at-risk art pieces to the new Louvre Conservation Centre in Lievin, some 190km north.

The reason? Climate change.

"The current floods show once again how necessary it is to protect our artworks from flooding," said Mr Jean-Luc Martinez, director of the Louvre, which owns about 620,000 artworks, only 35,000 of which are on display in the Parisian former palace.

"Soon this flood danger will - once and for all - be behind us," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With climate change, scientists say heavy rains that cause flooding are set to become more frequent, threatening riverside gems like the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral and the Musee d'Orsay - home to the world's greatest Impressionist paintings.

The problem is not unique to Paris. Italy built flood barriers to protect Venice's historic city centre after salty sea water damaged St Mark's Basilica, while London's Tate galleries sit on flood-prone sites.

"We have a lot of museums whose collections will be affected if they are not stored properly," said Ms Mechtild Rossler, director of the Unesco World Heritage Centre, which supports landmark buildings recognised by the United Nations cultural agency.

By mid-2021, Louvre officials hope that 250,000 at-risk paintings, sculptures and tapestries - including the Venus de Milo - will be in their new, US$120 million (S$159 million) home, where they will be safe from floods, heatwaves and other extreme weather.

The 18,500 sq m glass and steel building was designed to blend into the local environment, with a grass-covered roof where wildflowers grow in the spring, that helps with rainwater management to prevent flash flooding.

The Louvre Conservation Centre is set to become one of Europe's largest art training and research centres, visited by museum specialists, conservators and academics from around the world, as well as offering refuge for countries in conflict.

"This request must come from the states themselves, in full compliance with international law, and provided the works be returned safely when the conflict is resolved," the Louvre said on its website.

The conservation centre, which opened in October 2019, will gather together in one place works previously stored in about 60 locations, almost two decades after the Paris Police Prefecture first warned that the Louvre was at risk.

The Seine has always been prone to flooding. During the great flood of 1910, the river rose by 8.6m.

Roads were submerged for two months, the metro flooded, and thousands were evacuated, with damage estimated by Louvre officials at US$1.9 billion in today's currency.

With climate change, Parisians have seen more frequent flooding.

Two of the worst floods since 1910 have been during the last five years. In 2016, the river rose 6.1m and in 2018, by 5.8m - slightly less than during the floods of 1982 and 1955.

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2021, with the headline Louvre moves art treasures to new centre to avoid Paris floods. Subscribe