Art in bunkers and high-security facilities

French president Francois Hollande offers to safeguard the world’s endangered artefacts at an upcoming Louvre storage facility


French president Francois Hollande (left) visits an exhibition at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Photo: Reuters
French president Francois Hollande (left) visits an exhibition at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Photo: Reuters

Just this August, Twitter was aflood with pictures of a secret bunker found at the Maharashtra Raj Bhavan complex in Mumbai’s Malabar Hill. The state’s governor took the chief minister on a guided tour of the secret chambers, which came fully equipped with living quarters too. The idea of secret, underground secure facilities isn’t a new one. But leave it to the French to build such a place for a museum, and eventually propose to open that up for the safekeeping of precious, endangered artifacts from areas that are worn-out or under duress.

On the first of this month, French president Francois Hollande proposed that the Louvre’s conservation facility in Lievin, (still under construction, at a site about 200km north of Paris) will also be opened for the safekeeping of artifacts from places like Syria and Iraq. The Lievin facility, estimated at £55 million, has been in the works since 2013 and is due to open in 2019.

“The prime mission of the Lievin site will be to house the Louvre Museum’s stored collection,” Hollande said at a ceremony to unveil a plaque marking the site. But, Hollande said, it will have “another role, sadly linked to the events, dramas and tragedies which may unfold in the world, wherever works of art are in danger because terrorists, because barbarians have decided to destroy them... (especially) in Syria and Iraq.” The site will also act as a facility to study the Louvre’s extensive collection.

A few years earlier, a similar project came into being in the US. A Cold War time Federal Reserve Board high security storage facility was transformed into a film archival centre. It opened to public in 2008. Called the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, it is located in Culpeper, Virginia and houses about 6.3 million pieces from the country’s motion picture, sound, and TV collection. “We have the classics here. We have Casablanca, we have The Maltese Falcon…and we have all the Adam Sandler movies,” says George Willeman, a film archivist and Nitrate Film Vault Manager at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, in a video made by the network Great Big Story in collaboration with the Toronto International Film Festival.

Hollande’s proposal though will be made officially only in December, at the Conference on Terrorism & Culture to be held in Abu Dhabi. As per a speech made to the Unesco in November 2015 and a suggestion for an international action plan raised by Hollande at the G7 meet in May this year, the aim of the France-led conference is three-fold: to fight against antiquities trafficking, to have countries receive endangered cultural property “as refugees,” and to preserve the memory of destroyed sites.

With inputs from AFP

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