Big news: The Louvre reached 10.2 million visitors in 2018. Feverish media articles and exitement all around.
As I am providing The Louvre visits, I was even called in the morning by the Belgian radio and asked to comment this event (in Dutch):
Two of the questions posed by the journalist are worth a bit of elaboration:
1. Is the video of Beyoncé and J-Zay the contribution that made the record possible?
2. How many more visitors can museums as top attractions handle?
The said video was widely viewed and thus many people saw a number of works of art of the Louvre. Did this make viewers go to the Louvre? Would it have stimulated people to go and learn about art and history or were Beyoncé curves and wiggles stimulation enough?
What is certain, is that museums prefer to thought of as sexy rather than dusty and boring. Yet far more difficult is to be attractive in a pedagogical way. In how far this video helps the Louvre to ensure one of its 4 main tasks as a museum defined by ICOM namely to share knowledge and riches in an education manner, is far from clear to me (ICOM is the international organisation of museums and museum professionals which is committed to the research, conservation, continuation and communication to society of the world’s natural and cultural heritage, present and future, tangible and intangible).
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Beyoncé choses the Louvre because it is a place of exception in terms of history and art with no counterpart in the United States. Her gain is clear.
Does the Louvre need Beyoncé? And as the journalist pointed out, in what conditions do we want our visitors to come and admire this heritage? Of course the aim is to share the world’s treasures with an audience as large possible.
We had not time to develop this in the brief interview, but the two questions are intimately linked as I see and experience it on a daily basis. There are long queues in front of Louvre, yet inside, even on the busiest day, I could guide you around the Louvre meeting virtually no other visitors. Everyone rushes to see the 10 odd must-be-seen highlights. Now of course it is the Louvre itself who invites us to all go and see the same 10 highlights. The Louvre holds over half a million works of art of which 35.000 are on display. If it would better promote the rest of its vast collections, visitors would have a much more satisfying experience once inside. What is the point of a rich collection if you don’t make the most of it?
Today we send in thousands of people a day in vast museums with the message: you have to have seen this and this and this. Once inside you get a huge map to cover huge spaces: for the Louvre 72 735 m2 of galleries of the total surface of 360 000 m2). Works of art are accompanied by technical information like dates and artist name and a bit of context text. It is as if you send people to the swimming pool with only a technical manual. Go and swim here are 3 types of strokes you can use. From a more trivial point of view , the Louvre equally suffers from a lack of …toilets and benches to sit on and have a rest. If you attrack huge crowds who come from far a way and want to make the most of their expensive trip and stay as long they can handle, give them the dignity of a clean washroom and place to rest when it is needed.
Perhaps if the VIPs (politicians, businessmen, critics, …) also come on crazy busy days and sweat a bit with the rest of us instead of enjoying quiet spacious evenings for free, things would change.
So what are my humble recommendations to visitors in the current circumstances, because luckily you can go to the Louvre and have a very satisfactory visit:
Come on quieter moments (evenings, winter, when the French are not on holiday, …)
Like with any activity you are not familiar with, be prepared in accordance with your interests and your fellow travelers (children for example) : either plan your route and read up or book a guided tour (offered by the Louvre in French or English) or book a private guide
Remember that most of us humans have a short attention span – know when to stop and keep it a happy experience and not a chore!
Know that the world will be surrounding you – different cultures have different perceptions of bodily distance and rules of politeness. And some visitors rush in to go and see the Mona Lisa and back out in 20 minutes, so move out of the way when 40 of them rush your way otherwise you will be run over!
Have your bottle of water and survival snack!
Less is more! Give yourself time and contemplate, as far as is possible when it is very busy, to take in what you are looking at. Imagine you are alone in the museum and there is just you and Mona Lisa and she smiles at you and you will never know what she thinks… and nor will you really know it from any other human being and that is what she is about. Conveying or evoking universal human emotions by artifacts of all times and places, therein lies the magic of museums … politicians and museum directors willing to give us the correct circumstances to live them.
What has the new Indian, Chinese and Russian middle class visitor learned about the West during his visit in the Louvre?
For in the end the question that needs to be answered is what have visitors learned when they come out of the Louvre? Are museums concerned enough about this?
Deducing from the commentaries of the visitors I take around in group or private visits, the random visit is nice. But after a guided visit, people often come to realise the full and missed potential of a museum experience.
To come and go in a museum is not enough. The commentary on the defined set of works of art for a particular group visit at a given time, is another thing. It is a skill that requires knowledge and experience and is therefor is a profession, my profession. It is so true that it can stand on its own as a slide show lecture. I do this for some clients. It allows for a more in depth visit on the spot. But some also chose to use that new knowledge to go to the museum on their own or even not to go and simply enjoy the enrichment.
For the moment we are reducing the aim of the visitor to the Louvre to having looked at the designated highlights. That is not the aim we had, when we build museums in the 19th century. It was supposed to be a civilising experience (albeit paternalistic and subjective from our Western perspective).
What has the new Indian, Chinese and Russian middle class visitor learned about the West during his visit in the Louvre? Aren’t we missing opportunities here to communicate with the outside world? Old Europe that is struggling on many accounts to keep its head up in a fast-moving world. The world comes to us and what do we offer as an experience? Can we do no better? An adult Parisian with a solid art history background is not the same visitor as a group of Chinese families. Do we cater for them both the same?
More and more visitors for a cultural supermarket experience? Do we spend all that money on museums for that? I am not so sure that is something to cheer about. Let’s not see and promote it as entertainment otherwise it will be treated as such. Let the world come and go away saying, “Wow forget Harvard, Singapore, Dubai, … here is the new world of learning and wealth. These Europeans are intelligent with their cultural capital.”
What do we aspire to? Having the whole world come and see the Mona Lisa? It is simple: there is no time and room to do so. And for sure, it is not desirable. This painting is one of the very many beauties and riches mankind has produced. Let’s spread our interest, both in each museum and around the world, and appreciate every object and action for what they are.
Let’s be ambitious
Let’s attract those who want to come to the Louvre to learn and come out reborn. The day the Louvre is full of silent whispering people uninterested in taking selfies, insensitive to Beyoncé, mesmerized to finally see the translucent subtilities Mona Lisa’s skin or the relaxing back muscles of the Venus the Milo in the flesh, and seek out all the corners of the museum, we will have succuded in our mission. It is the day we will hear children wonder out loud.
If and when you come to the Louvre, be prepared or let yourself be guided. We the Guides are there just for that reason and we love what we do, foremostly because we can help you learn to see what you are looking at.