Looking for elbow room, Louvre limits daily visitors to 30,000

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Looking for elbow room, Louvre limits daily visitors to 30,000
People in line at The Louvre entrance in Paris, on May 27, 2022. In an effort to offer “more pleasurable viewing,” the Louvre will limit daily visitors by one third. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

by Dan Bilefsky

PARIS.- It has become an unpleasant gladiatorial rite of passage for tourists to Paris: Trying to view the Mona Lisa, the pensive diva encased in bulletproof glass, through a heaving throng of arms, heads and raised iPhones at the sprawling Louvre Museum.

No longer. Or at least, that is what the Louvre’s management appears to be hoping after it was revealed this week that it has, effectively, decided to limit daily attendance by about a third, to 30,000 people — a policy that has quietly been in place for several months. During its busiest days before the coronavirus pandemic, the Louvre could attract as many as 45,000 people a day, the museum said.

Explaining the decision, Laurence des Cars, the museum’s recently appointed director, appeared to acknowledge that visits to the Louvre, which attracted some 10 million tourists in 2019, making it among the most popular museums in the world, had become, perhaps, not as serene as a walk along the nearby Seine.

Even before the pandemic, the Louvre was taking a close look at crowd management because many galleries were overrun by tour groups. It was also trying to improve visitors’ experiences by, among other things, introducing yoga sessions near Jacques-Louis David and Rubens masterpieces.

“I would like a visit to the Louvre to be a moment of pleasure, especially for people who are discovering the museum for the first time, which means 60% of our visitors,” des Cars said.

Attendance at the museum in 2022, she added, had bounced back to 7.8 million people, 170% more than in pandemic-battered 2021 but 19% less than in 2019, before the coronavirus hit. The renaissance, which Louvre officials attributed to tourists from the United States and Europe, was emblematic of the extent to which the Louvre had recovered after coronavirus travel restrictions buffeted museums in Paris and across the world.

The Louvre’s decision to rein in its attendance has come as museums across the French capital this week announced relatively robust visitor numbers after attendance plummeted in 2020 as the coronavirus hit and tourists, especially those from Asia, stayed away. Nevertheless, attendance at other museums such as the Château de Versailles and the Musée d’Orsay are also lagging pre-pandemic rates, mirroring cultural institutions in the United States.

As many museums across the world are struggling to regain visitors, cultural observers said that the Louvre’s decision to keep them at bay was likely influenced by one decidedly influential 16th-century Italian lady.

James Gardner, author of “The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum,” noted that the Louvre had a “Mona Lisa problem” that had made visiting the institution, a medieval fortress reconstructed to serve as a royal palace in the 16th century, “intolerable.” Solving the problem, he added, was a national imperative, given that the Louvre was central to French cultural identity and at the literal physical core of a capital that viewed itself, fairly or not, as the center of the world.

“Limiting the numbers will improve the experience of visiting the Louvre,” he said. “Now, you have a crush of people trying to see the Mona Lisa and the congestion can be unbearable. Just steps away you have 40 other masterpieces — there are four da Vinci’s in the Grande Galerie just a few feet away — but all anyone is looking at is the Mona Lisa, an Italian painted by an Italian who has become so thoroughly French.”

If the Mona Lisa were removed and put in a private gallery, he added, perhaps in the nearby Jeu de Paume, that would help solve the problem, once and for all. (In 2019, Jason Farago, a New York Times critic at large, suggested building a pavilion for her, perhaps in the Tuileries).

But Guillaume Kientz, who served for nine years as curator of Spanish and Latin American Art at the Louvre and is now the director of the Hispanic Society Museum & Library in New York, countered that limiting the daily number of visitors risked alienating people by making trips to the Louvre too much of a hassle. Nevertheless, he said it was, perhaps, necessary given that the museum entrance, next to I.M. Pei’s famous Pyramid, had become encumbered by bottlenecks and sometime interminable waits.

“In an ideal world it is not good to put limits on museum attendance as going to a museum should be spontaneous and natural and not requiring of so much effort,” he said. “Adding yet another barrier is not a good idea.”

Edmund White, an American novelist who lived in Paris for 15 years and was a frequent visitor to the Louvre, said he hoped the new policy would keep irksome icon-worshippers away. He said in an interview that the situation with the Mona Lisa had become reminiscent of the World’s Fair in New York in 1964 when overenthusiastic visitors viewed Michelangelo’s Pietà from a moving walkway.

“This icon worship has got to stop, with American tourists descending on the Louvre and not even knowing what they are looking at,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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