Thursday, August 25, 2011

Twenty Minutes at the Louvre

I've finished my masterpiece on the Louvre, Twenty Minutes at the Louvre, which I've uploaded to YouTube. It's a look at the logistics of getting into the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, along the standard tourist track. I was a bit more imaginative than usual in preparation of the titles. Watching the crowds trudge through the museum in the video is rather tiring, but rest assured that it's even more tiring in real life (especially when it's 90° F inside the museum).

Earlier this month, I splurged on a ticket to the Louvre. I don't normally visit the Louvre on my own, since there really isn't anything there that I'm interested in seeing, but on this occasion I wanted to make a short video about the museum. I particularly wanted to show the “Greatest Hits” of the Louvre, meaning the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. The ticket is only ten euro, which is a pretty good deal in exchange for the opportunity to see a quarter-million works of art, but my budget is so limited that even this expenditure counts as a great extravagance.

As with all major tourist attractions, tourists visiting the Louvre follow a well-worn, well-defined pattern that does not vary over time. Most tourists enter the Louvre through the main entrance under I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid in the central courtyard (the “Napoléon courtyard”) of the museum. They do not know that there are several entrances to the Louvre, all of which are far less crowded than the main entrance. They wait up to two hours or so in line just to get past security at the front door of the pyramid, then they wait in line again inside the pyramid to buy tickets. Of course I shot some views of the long lines for my video.

The tourists do not know that there's another street level entrance 200 feet away that allows them to get tickets, enter the museum, and see the Mona Lisa in about five minutes flat, with no waiting. And another entrance, in the shopping center beneath the courtyard, is nearly as fast, with handy ticket machines and a very short security line. I show this in my video, too.

Tourists going through the main entrance or the shopping center entrance end up under the pyramid, which is below street level. From there, they have to climb multiple flights of stairs to get up to the second floor, where the Mona Lisa is. There are lots of signs and to some extent they can just allow themselves to be carried along by the current of humanity flowing towards the famous painting. In high season, the temperatures in the museum are in the 80s or above (Fahrenheit), with no humidity, no air conditioning, and no air movement. I've seen people close to passing out in the heat and crowds.

Once you get up to the Grand Gallery (as seen in The Da Vinci Code), it's a short walk to the Mona Lisa. This painting, the Louvre's priceless golden goose, is mounted behind bullet-proof glass in a gigantic wall all by itself, with a sturdy wooden railing in front of it to prevent people from standing too close. There's always a crowd in front of the painting. Most people looking at it are tired tourists trying to get their own photo of the Mona Lisa to bring home (apparently there's something special about a photo of the Mona Lisa that you've taken yourself, even though millions of better photos of the painting can be found all over the Web). Since they cannot see the painting directly because of the people in front of them, they hold the cameras above their heads to get pictures. Once they have pictures, they linger for a minute or two, and then they leave.

The museum establishes one-way traffic lanes to route people to and from the Mona Lisa, so you can't go back the way you came after seeing it. Instead, you get flushed into a different set of rooms filled with French painters. There are a few moderately famous paintings here, such as the Coronation of Napoléon, and after you pass through these rooms, you get a good view of the Winged Victory of Samothrace (the goddess Nike). Then you go down multiple staircases again to reach the Venus de Milo, a bit further east in a street-level wing featuring ancient Greek art. The Venus de Milo also has a crowd around it, but it's already much smaller than that in front of the Mona Lisa, because the Venus de Milo is far less known.

Beyond the Venus de Milo, things get really quiet. In other words, once you've followed the hordes to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, the crowds disperse. Most people leave the museum and go to Starbucks or somewhere else to rehydrate and eat before they collapse, but a few press on. In any case, once you move beyond the Greatest Hits, the entire atmosphere of the museum changes, and it starts to look a lot more like the quiet, calm place you'd expect a museum to be. Entire wings of the museum have hardly anyone in them, and most of the people wandering around outside the beaten path have at least some interest in classic fine art, otherwise they would have headed for the exits as soon as they saw the two main attractions.

I include all this in my video, including some snippets of the quieter parts of the museum, for contrast. Lots of people take pictures of the art in the museum, but nobody takes pictures of the crowds and the exhausting logistics of visiting the museum, so that's a niche I can fill.

Oh, and if you are curious, yes, you can photograph and film the permanent collections of the Louvre freely. You are simply requested not to use flash. The Louvre did try to outlaw photography for a while, but that only lasted for a year before they had to give in. The Orsay museum also outlawed photography a few years ago, but they haven't rolled back the change (yet).

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