It is a rare day when humanity beats the sword in to a plowshare. It’s doubly rare when the swords are beaten into sculpture. When that does happen, it’s worth noting.
On this day in 1793, the storied Louvre museum opened in Paris, France. Now known as a repository for many of the world’s greatest artistic treasures — Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa chief among them — the Louvre is the archetypal grand museum. The legions of global tourists who flock there annually attest to its permanence and prominence.
According to the museum’s website, the Louvre got its start as a 12th century armory. In 1190, a rampart was built around Paris, which was Europe’s biggest city at the time. To protect the capital from the Anglo-Norman threat, the king, Philippe Auguste, decided to reinforce its defenses with a fortress, which came to be known as the Louvre. This enormous structure was built to the west of the city, on the banks of the Seine. It was not a royal residence (which it would later become), but a large arsenal comprising a moated quadrilateral (78 by 72 meters) with round bastions at each corner, and at the center of the north and west walls.
Over the course of the next six centuries, each successive monarch added and demolished, renovated and remodeled until the complex resembles the now familiar form. As the guillotine fell on Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, the edifice began its transition from royal residence and bureaucratic center to museum. In 1791, the revolutionary Assemblée Nationale decreed the “Louvre and the Tuileries together will be a national palace to house the king and for gathering together all the monuments of the sciences and the arts.”
On August 10, 1793 the new museum opened its doors to the public. It would take another 187 years for the complex to completely transition away from former purposes. On September 26, 1981, President François Mitterrand announced a plan to restore the Louvre palace in its entirety to its function as a museum. The Finance Ministry, which still occupied the Richelieu wing, was transferred to new premises, and the Grand Louvre project, which would entail a complete reorganization of the museum, was launched.
Since that time, refinements, expansions and general improvements have been made to improve the visitor experience as well as buttressing the museum’s conservatorial and educational functions.
Of course one need not travel halfway around the world to attend a world class museum. With the opening of Crystal Bridges in the northwest part of our state, we have access to an amazing collection of American art. In Little Rock, the Clinton Presidential Library is an equally important repository for social and political history. For that matter, Little Rock has a trove of well-run and inviting art and history-oriented museums.
Here in Pine Bluff our own Jefferson County Historical Museum and Railroad Museums have shown the power of publically motivated preservation and interpretation. They are both grand exercises in doing more with less — a fact we should correct. As well, the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas expands our horizons with its displays and performances.
The land sculptor, Robert Smithson, once observed, “History is representational, while time is abstract; both of these artifices may be found in museums, where they span everybody’s own vacancy.”
Smithson knew that museums have a unique power to induce reflection. The art and artifacts contained within them do not have to be — should not be — sterile presentations of inaccessible cultural totems. Rather, they should educate, provoke and inspire. They show us at our best, our worst and most creative. We’d all do well to give one a visit.