Louvre Conservation Center

Louvre Conservation Center Photo

The world’s largest and most visited art museum is bidding au revoir to a hefty chunk of its art collection—and with good reason. The Musée du Louvre in Paris, France is home to more than 600,000 works of art, including such famed pieces as the “Mona Lisa,” “Liberty Leading the People” and “Venus de Milo.” The collection ranks as one of the most valuable in the world—yet only about 35,000 pieces are on display. And because the museum is located near the River Seine, art stored in its basement is at great risk of water damage, especially with climate change. Just last month, Parisians faced a flood alert as the waterway swelled after heavy rains.

With the river—and risk—on the rise, leaders at the Louvre launched a multiyear project to transfer 250,000 works of art to the new Louvre Conservation Center site 120 miles (193 kilometers) away in northern France. Launched in 2017, the project to build the structure was completed in 2019, with the art slowly making its grand migration by 2024. 

Relocating the pieces isn’t just a matter of preserving the art; it’s about maintaining history, according to Jean-Luc Martinez, director of the Louvre.

“The Musée du Louvre is fortunate enough to have one of the world’s most impressive collections of ancient art and archaeology,” he said in a statement. “It’s a tremendous honor. And it’s also a tremendous responsibility: It is our duty to preserve this heritage for future generations.” 

The relocation project is the largest in the museum’s 225-year history, according to Martinez, and has allowed the team to document, digitize and study each item in its archive for the first time. In addition to the pieces moving to the new digs, 35,000 are shared throughout regional galleries in France. And the 250,000-plus prints, manuscripts and drawings deemed too fragile for light exposure will remain in storage at the Paris campus—but elevated in non-flood zones. 

To carry out the ambitious €60 million relocation project, the Louvre partnered with U.K. architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, along with teams from four French companies: landscape architects from Mutabilis Paysage, technical consultants from Egis Bâtiments Nord, environmental consultants from Inddigo SAS and economists from VPEAS SAS

The bunker-like facility comprises 18,500 square meters (200,000 square feet) of concrete-clad indoor space. The subterranean design and insular interiors are all designed to prevent even the slightest changes in humidity—which can wreak havoc on aging pieces of art. The center is also equipped with a leak-detection system that immediately notifies staff of any water infiltration. 

As of last month, 100,000 works—from huge sculptures to small paintings—had been moved. But conservation is just the beginning: Along with safeguarding collections from the Louvre and other selected museums, the facility is on track to become one of Europe’s largest research centers. The space includes low-humidity areas for metalworks, a varnishing booth, workshop space and a photography studio.

As often happens in the art world, the project is starting to spawn some imitators: The British Museum is joining forces with the University of Reading to create a new £64 million storage and research facility in Shinfield, England. And the Rijksmuseum is teaming up with three other Dutch art institutions to develop the Netherlands Collection Centre in Amersfoort, the Netherlands.