One of the world’s most prestigious museums and home to the Mona Lisa, the Louvre, has digitized more than 480,000 of its works.
Just like the other institutions and industries, the cultural institutions around the globe too were forced to close their shutters due to the merciless Covid-19 pandemic. The effects of this closure were even felt by the most popular museums in the world like the Louvre that saw a 72% decline in its visitors in 2020 from 2019 when 9.6 million people flocked to the museum. However, in 2020 they welcomed just 2.7 million visitors.
Despite the physical closure of the museums, art enthusiasts around the world didn’t stop their search for inspiration. Smithsonian Magazine reported, “in that same pandemic year, 21 million people visited the Louvre’s website”.
According to CNN, browsing the historic museum’s holdings from home is easier than ever. With a major website redesign and a new online collection database, Louvre’s collection of art is available to search online for the first time. “Some of this is hyperbole. The entire collection is so huge, no one even knows how big it is,” wrote Neda Ulaby for NPR.
The updated catalog consists of more than 480,000 entries. It includes rare items from those stowed away in storage to the iconic Venus de Milo and Winged Victory of Samothrace that have been digitized in its collections database. The collection represents about three-quarters of the entire archive.
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“The Louvre is dusting off its treasures, even the least-known,” said Jean-Luc Martinez, President-Director of the Musée du Louvre, in a statement. “For the first time, anyone can access the entire collection of works from a computer or smartphone for free, whether they are on display in the museum, on loan, even long-term, or in storage.”
Martinez adds, “The Louvre’s stunning cultural heritage is all now just a click away.”
According to NPR, the museum’s revamped homepage is designed for more casual visitors. It is especially for those who would be visiting the website on cell phones, and it also has translations in Spanish, English and Chinese. This digital database of the Louvre is free to browse. However, it does not offer open access. It means that users cannot directly download, share or reuse the images.
As per Art Newspaper, earlier the public only had access to about 30,000 listings of works in the Louvre’s collections. Over three-quarters of the entries in the Louvre’s online collection contain images and label information, according to Per France24.
A screenshot from the Louvre’s new online collection of ‘Paintings’ Museé du Louvre.
The archive includes the collections of the Musée National Eugène-Delacroix. These collections are run by the Louvre and the nearby Tuileries Garden.
It also includes a number of Nazi-looted artworks that are in the process of being returned to their original owners’ families. About 61,000 works stolen by the Nazis were reclaimed from Germany. These works were brought back to France after World War II, according to the new online catalog.
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Of these works, 45,000 have been returned to their rightful owners while a number of others were sold by the French state. The remaining 2,143 unclaimed works were categorized as National Museum Recovery (MNR), as per Smithsonian Magazine. These unclaimed works were then entrusted to French cultural institutions, including the Louvre, for safekeeping.
It’s also not clear how many of the online images may be of sacred objects. These images may be from countries other than France, and not meant to be casually viewed as the digital catalog includes items that may have been plundered by Nazis or colonial forces in a separate album titled “MNR” works. MNR stands for Musées Nationaux Récupération, or National Museums Recovery.
A screenshot of one of the highlights from the Louvre’s new online collection, “NATIONAL MUSEUMS RECOVERY | ‘MNR’ works at the Musée du Louvre” Museé du Louvre.
“This has to be coming up against these questions around restitution and repatriation and thinking about what the digitization of cultural heritage means within a context that is contested,” observes Suse Anderson.
Although the Louvre was involved in repatriation efforts, concerns still lingered. There were concerns that Nazi-looted art may have made its way into the Louvre’s permanent collections during the war, reports Smithsonian Magazine.
Ever since they hired curator Emmanuelle Polack to lead a wartime provenance research project in January 2020, the museum has checked nearly two-thirds of the 13,943 works it acquired between 1933 and 1945, Martinez told the Art Newspaper.
The Louvre planned to launch the findings of this research project on its website. The director noted that curators have been instructed by him to conduct a similar investigation of the thousands of artworks in the museum’s collections that hail from countries formerly under French control, such as Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon.
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As per Smithsonian Magazine, the goal of this long-term project, he said, will be to identify which items in the Louvre’s encyclopedic collections were obtained through looting or colonial violence.
“Our collections are mostly archaeological and come from digs shared with the countries of origin,” Martinez told the Art Newspaper. He added that the museum often obtained new archives through “bilateral” legal agreements.
At the same time, Martinez adds, “[M]useums like the Louvre served imperial ambitions and we have to deal with this history.”
McClellan, the author of Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics and the Origins of the Modern Museum continued speaking of the strategy of putting nearly everything online which is as NPR reported in “keeping with the Enlightenment ideals that shaped the museum after the French Revolution”, saying: “collecting the world’s knowledge together under one roof, and then making it available for researchers and the general public.”
A screenshot of one of the highlights from the Louvre’s new online collection, “Masterpieces of the Louvre” Museé du Louvre
Major institutions have digital databases of their work and have been digitizing their collections for many years. However, the Louvre’s online archives required especially exhaustive labor as every image, according to the museum, is accompanied by scientific data.
“Title, artist, inventory number, dimensions, materials and techniques, date and place of production, object history, current location, and bibliography. … These documentary entries, drawn up by museum curators and researchers, come from two museum collection databases, and are updated on a daily basis.”
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Since running these databases does have an expense, McClellan and other observers have wondered whether the Louvre may find ways to monetize some of the images in the collection. They were also thinking about whether the online collection will affect real-life attendance as the museum’s director said in his statement, “I am sure that this digital content is going to further inspire people to come to the Louvre to discover the collections in person.”
Anderson, who is a professor of Museum Studies at George Washington University, is generally impressed, she says, by the Louvre’s online expansion. Suse studies the impact of digital technology on museums and is especially impressed since the museum steers visitors beyond the obvious marquee works of art such as the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo.
“I’m a serendipitous browser,” she says. “I’m not the person seeking the hero works. They’re so easy to find. I’m the person who wants to find the unexpected.”
Like the actual museum, the Louvre’s online collection provides pathways towards discoveries, Anderson says, according to NPR. “It helps you see things you might not otherwise. It helps you find surprises. And that’s where I think you often get the connection to your own life, is when you find something that resonates, that isn’t the thing you went looking for.”
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Cover image adapted via India TV.