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Louvre’s global role expands under Jean-Luc Martinez

Director is determined to see the French museum’s expertise and collections shared around the world—and safeguarded at home

Jean-Luc Martinez has introduced a number of high-profile initiatives at home and has made the Louvre Abu Dhabi a priority since he was named the director of the Louvre in early 2013.  The Greco-Roman antiquities specialist was thrust on to the international stage when French President François Hollande asked him to devise a 50-point plan to protect heritage in areas of conflict. Martinez will speak on the subject at a conference in Abu Dhabi this month, where an international partnership to safeguard cultural heritage in war zones is due to be launched by Hollande and the Crown Prince of the Emirate.

Martinez spoke to us at the opening of the exhibition History Begins in Mesopotamia, at Louvre-Lens (until 23 January), about the ongoing threat of terrorism, the significance of sending masterpieces from the Louvre to China and why moving ahead with the Louvre’s planned new storage facility in Liévin, near Lens, is essential for safeguarding the museum’s collection.

The Art Newspaper: Why does the exhibition History Begins in Mesopotamia at Louvre-Lens focus on conserving heritage in the Middle East?

Jean-Luc Martinez: Exhibitions have a role, in light of the destruction of heritage. Terrorists have tried to manipulate public opinion through destruction. But we, as museum professionals, can respond by informing the public about what heritage is. A French start-up called Iconem flew drones over Khorsabad in Iraq, highlighting the pillaging by Islamic State [Isil], and the illegal trafficking of antiquities is addressed in the exhibition. It starts by reminding us that heritage is universal. So many things came from Mesopotamia: writing, politics, etc. We have rediscovered this heritage. The exhibition Eternal Sites at the Grand Palais [14 December-9 January 2017] also focuses on the destruction of ancient sites.

The terrorists have not just targeted pre-Islamic buildings and objects; they have destroyed Islamic heritage as well. There is total immersion for visitors, with aerial views of the sites [Bamiyan, Khorsabad, Palmyra, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and Kerak Castle] some of which are inaccessible because of conflict. These films also show a reconstruction of the sites when they were built, compared with now. There are different dilemmas: at Palmyra, for instance, there is Greco-Roman architecture in marble, and it’s a question of how this can all be rebuilt. The most important thing is that we can contribute collectively to prepare for reconstruction.

Is the reconstruction of these sites possible following their destruction?

We could send out a strong message. There could be an international coalition of experts formed as an act of solidarity. Rebuilding Palmyra will take years of research—it’s a long-term plan.

Should museums do more to preserve endangered sites and objects?

It is clear that the great encyclopaedic museums—as in the UK, in Russia, in Berlin and the US— have a responsibility. We must organise exhibitions on the importance of heritage, for example, and assist in training professionals in the countries affected, just as the British Museum [in London] has done in Iraq. French museum professionals have also worked with their Syrian counterparts. Museums especially have a responsibility in regards to the trafficking of antiquities and the traceability of works. If pillaged works aren’t purchased, then the pillaging will cease.

Is your 50-point protection plan for François Hollande progressing?

These points are being implemented in parallel with Unesco. Many things are moving forward, such as the creation of an international endowment at the beginning of December, which will be overseen by a Unesco committee. And the French, German and Italian ministers of culture have made joint efforts to regulate EU law regarding antiquity controls. On the French level, the government has introduced a new heritage law which grants refuge [for artefacts at risk]. The new conservation centre at Liévin could be a place of refuge.

Is the Louvre initiating any other partnerships with Middle Eastern or North African organisations?

We are doing a lot, with Libya for example. The director of archaeological digs there works for the French government. The Libyan government has also asked France to preserve a certain number of objects that were seized here. Meanwhile, the museum of Islamic Art in Cairo has reopened and we have welcomed a team from there.

Closer to home, how is the Louvre’s audience changing?

The majority of our foreign visitors come from the US, and we work closely with American museums. We’ve co-organised the exhibition Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio, which is at [New York’s] Metropolitan Museum of Art and will come to the Louvre next year [20 February-22 May 2017].

Next year we’ll show works from the Louvre at the National Museum in Beijing and then in Hong Kong because our second largest foreign visitor group comes from China.

But we also have to win over French visitors because in France the Louvre is sometimes perceived as a place just for international tourists, which is why we’ve joined forces with the education department and are now working with hospitals and prisons. We need to target working people aged between 25 and 55.

The long-awaited Louvre Abu Dhabi is due to open next year. Will it change how we see and use museums?

Louvre Abu Dhabi is above all an Emirati initiative. The Emirati government asked France to launch this project—it’s not a Louvre policy, it’s an Emirati scheme. Look at the world around Abu Dhabi: it’s between Asia and Africa. Europe is on the periphery, so we subsequently had to reconfigure our focus. It’s not just about showing the Louvre collection, but rather the collection that Louvre Abu Dhabi has built up, which includes 600 works [the Louvre and other French national museums will loan 300 works].

Do you plan to open other Louvre branches worldwide?

It’s not a French policy or a policy of the Louvre. Louvre Abu Dhabi came about because the Emirati government requested it. If another country submits a proposal, we’ll consider it.

Is the Louvre Abu Dhabi project an effective franchise model?

That’s an interesting question as it’s all to do with the brand—and we must protect the Louvre brand and its image of expertise. We are not a luxury brand, we have nothing to sell as such. This is all about helping a country develop over 30 years by passing on expertise.

What is the purpose of Louvre-Lens?

Louvre-Lens is a museum without a collection; its mission is to show the collections of the Louvre. We’ve carried out surveys and asked: “What does the Louvre mean for you?” People answered: “The Impressionists and Picasso.” So the Louvre is known all over the world but its collections are not. Our goal is to show [in Lens] the diversity and range of the collection from all of the different departments.

Finally, why did you pursue the Liévin store project when it inflamed some of your curators?

The reality is that between 50% and 70% of the collection was under threat [from floods earlier this year]. We can’t live with that risk. People have been complaining about the distance of Liévin from the Louvre but the Louvre is near—by this I mean Louvre-Lens. This is our second site. Some have compared it with a restaurant, saying it’s bizarre to build the kitchen 200 metres from the restaurant—but there are now two restaurants! It’s also important to remember that Liévin will be a conservation centre and a research hub, and not just a warehouse.

Grand Louvre heads to China The Louvre will launch a charm offensive next year in China with the launch of a major exhibition in Beijing and Hong Kong featuring 130 key works from its collection. The exhibition, Invention of the Louvre: Eight Centuries of French History through the Museum’s Collections, is due to open at the National Museum of China in Beijing next spring and then travel to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum (dates to be confirmed).

“This exhibition, [focusing on] the Louvre’s legacy since 1793, has been specially put together for Beijing and Hong Kong to recognise and celebrate established Sino-French cultural relations,” the organisers said in a statement. The show, which includes works by Rembrandt and Rubens, will be divided into six sections including The Louvre in the Age of Enlightenment and the Denis Diderot period (18th Century), and The Reconstruction of the Louvre by François Mitterrand and I.M. Pei—a reference to the Grand Louvre project in the late 1980s.

The director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, says that he is specifically targeting Chinese audiences, now the second largest overseas group of visitors to the Paris museum (the Louvre welcomed 820,000 Chinese visitors in 2015, a 73% rise compared with 2014). The French embassy in Beijing and the consulate general of France in Hong Kong and Macau are backing the show.