PARIS, France (AP) — The 518-year-old Mona Lisa has seen many things in her life on a wall, but rarely this: almost four months with no Louvre visitors.
As she stares out through bulletproof glass into the silent Salle des Etats, in what was once the world's most-visited museum, her celebrated smile could almost denote relief. A bit further on, the white marble Venus de Milo is for once free of her girdle of picture-snapping visitors.
It's uncertain when the Paris museum will reopen, after being closed on October 30 in line with the French Government's virus containment measures. But those lucky enough to get in benefit from a rare private look at collections covering 9,000 years of human history — with plenty of space to breathe.
That's normally sorely lacking in a museum that's blighted by its own success. Before the pandemic, staff walked out complaining they couldn't handle the overcrowding, with up to 30,000 to 40,000 visitors a day.
The forced closure has also granted museum officials a golden opportunity to carry out long-overdue refurbishment that was simply not possible with nearly 10 million visitors a year.
Unlike the first lockdown, which brought all Louvre activities to a halt, the second has seen some 250 of the museum employees remain fully operational.
An army of curators, restorers and workers are cleaning sculptures, reordering artefacts, checking inventories, reorganising entrances, and conducting restorations, including in the Egyptian Wing and the Grande Galerie, the museum's largest hall that is being fully renovated.
“We're taking advantage of the museum's closure to carry out a number of major works, speed up maintenance operations and start repair works that are difficult to schedule when the museum is operating normally,” Laurent le Guedart, the Louvre's architectural heritage and gardens director told AP from inside the Grande Galerie.
As le Guedart spoke, restorers were standing atop scaffolds taking scientific probes of the walls in preparation for a planned restoration — travelling back to the 18th century through layer after layer of paint.
Around the corner, the sound of carpenters taking up floorboards was faintly audible. They were putting in the cables for a new security system.
Previously, these jobs could only be done on a Tuesday, the Louvre's only closed day in the week. Now hammers are tapping, machines drilling and brushes scrubbing to a full week's schedule, slowed down only slightly by social distancing measures.
In total, 10 large-scale projects that were on hold since last March are under way — and progressing fast.
This includes works in the Etruscan and Italian halls, and the gilded Salon Carre. A major restoration of the ancient Egyptian tomb chapel of Akhethotep from 2400BC is also under way.
“When the museum reopens, everything will be perfect for its visitors — this 'Sleeping Beauty' will have had the time to powder her nose,” said Elisabeth Antoine-Konig, Artefacts Department curator. “Visitors will be happy to see, again, these now well-lit rooms with polished floors and remodelled display cases.”
Initially, only visitors with pre-booked reservations will be granted entry, in line with virus safety precautions.
Those who cannot wait are still able to see the Louvre's treasure trove of art in virtual tours online.