A Timeline through History

A huge, abandoned slag heap from former coal mining activities close to the city of Lens, Nord-Pas de Calais, does not sound the most promising location for a world class museum. Yet, it is. Anna Hyman explains.

The history of Lens itself goes back centuries – certainly to Norman times. Over the  decades the city has had more than its fair share of troubles and  indeed it suffered horrendously in the Two World Wars. But eventually thanks to rich seams of coal the city recovered. 

Coal mining scars

Inevitably the surrounding gentle countryside had become scarred with huge, mountainous almost conical, slag piles rivalling the Egyptian pyramids and visible for miles. They were said to be the highest in Europe and not for nothing was the region known as the most important coal mining area in France.

The coal brought prosperity, until that is, mining began to decline and actually ceased in the 1980s because of environmental issues and cheaper coal from abroad. The days of boom and growth in Lens were over. A regeneration plan was desperately needed.

Paris and the Louvre

Several miles away in Paris the magnificent Louvre Museum was also facing problems. One of them space. It is one of the most popular museums in the world and consequently always crowded! Plus, many exhibits are kept hidden away in storage and never seen because there is simply not enough room for them on display. The Louvre had to expand but where and how.

One solution was to build another Louvre, but this time away from bustling Paris in one of the quieter French regions. In 2003 the French government held a competition amongst the regions in an endeavour to find a suitable location. As it happened the only region to apply was the Nord-Pas de Calais which nominated six cities, one of them, Lens.


It was actually an excellent decision as Lens is approximately 200km from Paris and it has a railway station. By flattening one of the mountainous slag heaps there would be plenty of space on the 20-hectare site for a brand new, purpose-built building. And with the good road networks it was also easily accessible not only to Paris, but also Lille, and European cities, plus the Channel ports.

In 2004/5 work began and in 2012 Louvre-Lens opened its doors, winning a major French architecture award a year later.

A stunning design

It was raining that grey autumn day not long after it had first opened when we walked from the car park up the meandering path to the museum where once had stood an ugly black mountain of slag. The slag, it was decided, would be used as infill for the original mine, and the remainder used to form the beautifully designed, gently landscaped park created by Catherine Mosbach.

If anything, the misty rain made the long, low building in front of us look almost delicate, ethereal. Hardly surprising as it is actually constructed from five slightly curving linked steel and glass buildings with glass roofs and polished aluminium exterior walls; which in a certain light, seem to shimmer and almost hover, because of weird distortions from reflections.

The stunning design for Louvre-Lens was the result of a 2005 competition won by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the Japanese SANAA agency. Their aim to blend the gentle landscape into the almost translucent museum design echoing the contours of the park. It’s a long, low minimalist building never higher than six metres, with beyond it glimpses of tree tops as if emphasizing its oneness with the surrounding countryside.  

Walk into Louvre-Lens

Walk into Louvre-Lens and you find yourself in a soft, yet bright and airy atmosphere thanks to the skilled and sensitively devised internal lighting and use of space.

Beyond the entrance and reception area there is an information desk, a library, shop and a cafeteria. (A larger restaurant is in the grounds). There are also exhibition halls housing temporary exhibitions. On show in one of them from 27 September 2023 to 15 January 2024 is an exhibition entitled ‘Fantastic Animals’ featuring the likes of dragons, griffins and unicorns. 

And below the ground floor huge, stunning glass fronted workshops are used for restoration work as well as storage.

Revealing the Galerie du Temps

The entire building fascinates and entrances me. But what pulls me like the proverbial magnet is the huge and breath-taking main hall which contains a wonderland of fascination and interest. The stunning Galerie du Temps (Time Gallery) houses over 200 skilfully displayed and many virtually ‘free-standing’ exhibits from the main Paris Louvre collection.

The exhibits have been chosen to cover 5000 years of our history covering everything from Etruscan artifacts to 19th century paintings.

Walking through History

It’s a joy and a treat to be able to walk seemingly through time admiring the objects and to be able to see them close up and personal from different angles.  And yes, photography is permitted.

It is obvious from the faces of other visitors that they too enjoy this relaxed experience. But best of all for me is to watch the groups of school children sitting on the ground in front of an exhibit whilst Sir or Miss or museum guide explains it to them – sometimes they are sketching, sometimes just listening but one thing for sure – they are interested.

Many a time I have wanted to quietly sit on the floor with them to listen and learn.

UNESCO heritage…

And what has happened to the remaining black slag heaps? They are no longer black. Today they are green, softened by vegetation, and much loved for hiking, trail running and for enjoying the big outdoors with lovely views thrown in for good measure.

Take time too to delve into the Mining Museum and visit the miners houses to learn more about the hard life above and below ground for men and ponies.

All of the Nord-Pas de Calais mining Basin by the way has been awarded UNESCO status.

…and Art Deco…

Lens itself has a thriving market on Tuesday and Friday mornings, and if football is your game there is the celebrated Lens’ Bollaert-Deleis stadium; and if you appreciate Art Deco you’ll love wandering around the streets of Lens.

The city was so badly damaged during the First World War that it was virtually all rebuilt in the Art Deco style. Definitely make a point of checking out the Art Deco railway station – looking remarkably train-like – it makes me smile every time I see it; and do go into the station to see the mosaics of miners.

…but Louvre-Lens has our vote.

It’s a fascinating region but for me the pièce de résistance  is Louvre-Lens itself with its stunning Galerie du Temps. It makes me want to head back to Lens just as soon and as often as I can.

More information


Pas-de-Calais Tourism: