The magnificent, world-renowned Louvre Museum has ventured outside its Parisian home to bring a new cultural landmark to this area of north France. Its aim is to give the local residents (and the many foreign visitors the museum aims to attract), access to the best art in the world in a spectacular new building, but equally as important is the aim of helping revive the former mining town of Lens and the surrounding area.
Lens is not an obvious place to attract sightseers. The mining town was destroyed in World War I, then occupied by the Nazis and hit by Allied bombs in World War II. The mines continued operating after the war and the area now boasts the tallest slag heaps in Europe. But the industry declined dramatically; the last mine closed in 1986 and the town stagnated.
So the Louvre-Lens is seen by the authorities as a major step in reviving the area, in the same way as the Pompidou-Metz Museum did in Metz in Lorraine, and the Guggenheim Museum did in Bilbao, Spain.
Lens was also chosen because of its strategic location. It’s just south of Lille and the Channel Tunnel to the U.K. is only an hour’s drive away, making it possible to visit it in one day from the U.K.; Belgium is 30 minutes’ drive, and the Netherlands two hours or so. It is at the center of a hugely well populated region and the hope is that visitors will make a weekend or a short break and combine the Louvre-Lens with a tour of the area, particularly of Lille and the nearby battlefields and memorials of World War I.
The new Louvre-Lens is housed in a series of five low, spectacular glass and polished aluminum buildings that join each other at different angles. The park that is slowly being constructed around it is reflected in the glass and the roofs are also in glass which brings in light and gives you a view of the outdoors.
An international competition was won by the Japanese architectural firm of SANAA, and the building designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. The project was started in 2003; it cost 150 million euros(£121.6 million; $198.38million) and took three years to build.
The Museum is divided into different sections. Start in the Galerie du Temps, the main gallery where 205 major works of art are displayed in 3,000 square meters, with no dividing partitions. There's a 'Wow' moment as you walk in and see the gleaming space filled with priceless, unique art works. It shows, according to the museum, that 'long and visible progress of humanity' that characterises the Louvre in Paris.
The exhibits take you from the beginnings of writing to the mid 19th century. The gallery is structured around three main periods: Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Modern period. A map and brief explanation puts the sections in context. Nothing is hung on the walls of reflective glass, but as you walk through the exhibition, dates are marked on one wall to give you an idea of chronology. So you can stand at one side and look at the cultures of the world through the masterpieces of each era.
- Antiquity takes you from Mesopotamia through the Egyptians; the origins of the Mediterranean civilization; Babylon and the ancient East; Egypt and the great temples; cities of the Mediterranean; the Assyrians; classical Greece; the world of Alexander the Great, and the Roman Empire in 70 objects.
You see a strange elongated figure from the Syros islands from 2700 BC beside the gleaming bronze demon-god Pazuzu from Assyria. It may be cultural influences, but as ever, the superb classical and Greek figures in their heroic poses seemed to me the most remarkable.
- The Middle Ages has 45 works in 7 themed parts: Eastern Christianity and the Byzantine Empire; Western Christianity and the first churches; the origins of the Islamic world; Italy, Byzantium and Islam in the West; Gothic Europe; the Islamic East’s greatest achievements, and East meets West.
After the life-like classical statues, some of the Medieval art looks stilted and uncomfortable. There's a fragment of a head from a mosaic in Torcello, Venice in the 11th to 12th centuries,while stylised Gothic figures appeared later in Europe.
- Modern Art has 90 works in 9 themed parts: The Renaissance; three modern Islamic Empires; Arts of the Court; Baroque Europe; French Classicism; the Enlightenment, Neoclassicism; Islam and Western Art in the 19th century and the Revolution of 1830 called Art and Power in France.
The Renaissance comes out in all its wonderful glory, with life-like portraits like Balthazar Castiglione by Raphael. At the same time, the Eastern cultures were producing magnificent Iznik plates covered with detailed scenes.
The space is magnificent, as are the exhibits, from exquisite ancient Greek marble statues to Egyptian mummies, from 11th-century Italian church mosaics to Renaissance ceramics, from art by Rembrandt and works by Goya, Poussin and Botticelli to the huge Delacroix emblem of the romantic revolutionary, La Liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People) which dominates the end of the exhibition.
You should take the multimedia guide that explains, in good detail, some of the exhibits. You need to pay attention at the beginning when the assistant explains how it works as it takes a bit of getting used to. Once you're in the relevant section, you key the number into the pad to get a long, interesting explanation of the context and the work.
You can use the multimedia guide in a second way, which I recommend. There are various different themed tours that take you through various objects, which makes a thread to follow. However there is no indication as to what those themed tours are, so at the moment, when the whole system and idea is very new, you just have to try each one at random.
The Pavilion de Verre
From the Galerie du Temps, you walk through into a second, smaller room, the Pavilion de Verre, where the audio accompaniment is not commentary, but music. There are benches to sit on and views out to the surrounding countryside.
Here there are two different exhibitions: A History of Time, around how we perceive time, and a temporary exhibition.
There may not be commentary, but you can ask any of the many curators in the gallery for explanations. It’s like having a private guide which can be great.
If you plan a visit, then leave time for the temporary exhibitions, all of which are major. Most of the works come from the Louvre, but there are also significant works from other major galleries and museums in France.
In the main galleries, 20% of the exhibits will change each year, with the whole exhibition being remounted with new exhibitions every five years.
The major and international temporary exhibitions will change twice a year.
The Reserve Collections
Downstairs there are the cloakrooms (free lockers and free cloakroom), but more importantly this is where the reserve collections are held. Groups have access, but individual visitors can also see what is happening.
Museum website (in English)
There is a good bookshop, a cafe and a restaurant in the grounds.
Wednesday to Monday 10am-6pm (last entry 5.15pm)
September to June, the first Friday of each month 10am-10pm
Closed: Tuesdays, Jan 1, May 1, Dec 25.
Entry free to main museum
Exhibition entry: 10 euros, 5 euros ages 18 to 25 year; under 18 years free.
How to get there
Lens train station is in the center of town. There are direct connections from Paris Gare du Nord and more local destinations like Lille, Arras, Bethune and Douai.
A free shuttle service runs regularly from the station to the Louvre-Lens museum. The pedestrian walkway takes you about 20 minutes.
Lens is very near several motorways, such as the main route between Lille and Arras and the road between Bethune and Henin-Beaumont. It’s also easily accessible from the A1 (Lille to Paris) and the A26 (Calais to Reims).
If you're coming with your car by ferry from Calais, take the A26 towards Arras and Paris. Take exit 6-1 signposted to Lens. Follow the directions to Louvre-Lens Parking which is well signposted.
Being so near Lille, it's a good idea to combine it with a visit to North France's liveliest city. For information, see the Guide to Lille.
Staying in Lens: Read guest reviews, check prices and book guest houses and bed and breakfasts in and near Lens with TripAdvisor.