03/26/2013 04:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Women Storm the Louvre (By Invitation)


Photo by Frank Browning

Paris -- For tourists with college degrees visiting here there are two sites on the Must Do list: the Eiffel Tower that twinkles top to toe every hour after sundown and THE LOUVRE, the most visited, the most monumental, and very possibly the richest art museum in the world. But what's so for Bo-Bo Americans and their well-heeled parents is absolutely untrue for the hundreds of thousands of poor and immigrant women who live a short subway ride away in this city's grim suburbs.

When I first came to Paris and my husband was working, I would walk in the parks if I had free time," said Ouida, a well-spoken middle-aged woman from Algeria. "But I never dreamed I could come in here [to the Louvre]. I didn't think I would be allowed.


Louis XIV, last French ruler to live in the Louvre Palace; photo by Frank Browning

Now Ouida not only visits the Louvre regularly. She works as a Louvre volunteer to draw other women this month from the suburbs to visit the world's grandest art museum. The program, called La Semaine de la Femme in fact has been running all this month, drawing thousands into the Louvre even on the museum's off days. It's a program that began in the mind of another woman, Fabienne Martet, who came from a poor southern French family and had also never visited a museum until one of her teachers took her.

Many of the women who come here have never left their neighborhoods. Often they've never even dared to cross the peripherique (the ring road that circles the city) to come into Paris proper. They are afraid. A lot of them can't read French. They worry that they wouldn't understand anything. Sometimes they have never even been on the Metro (subway) and don't know how.


Photo by Frank Browning

Martet's program to reach out to these women, ridiculed at first by some of her colleagues, is part of a broader program financed by the Fondation Total (the global French oil company) to redefine what the Louvre is, how it and other are museums should work and whom they should serve.

"We say the Louvre is a museum pour tous, for everybody," she says, but what does that really mean? To draw the women in, a whole system has been developed inside and outside the Louvre where volunteers go to social service associations -- from the Red Cross, to youth training groups to churches and free food programs -- and ask them to talk to women in their neighborhoods.

The outreach counselors say almost always the women shrug off the first invitations, saying, "Oh, I can't go, my hip hurts, I have a headache, I have to get my kids from school." But slowly they accept, guided through the Metro by the volunteers. Those who do come, however, are not merely dumped at the entry gate. Louvre employees work with the volunteers to find a theme or "a trail" within the gigantic structure that will be interesting or "sensitive" to the women's own interests.

'We pay real attention to the cultural aspects of exhibits -- and to the visitors," Martet says. "Nudity could pose a problem for many people. Our lecturers are trained to be aware of those (and other) concerns. I work training them all year long pushing them to know the public they're working with. For The Week of Women alone this year, her teams worked with 120 different civic groups drawing women to the Louvre, each tour of the Louvre a little different from the other.

"The Louvre presents an occasion to talk about subjects that [the women] may not normally do." Martet recalled a visit this year by a group of semi-literate [in French] African women organized around the theme of marriage across the centuries (a conceivably hot topic as France debates same sex marriage in Parliament). "The [visitors] all arrived in the grand Rubens gallery with his famous painting depicting the "proxy" marriage in 1600 of France's King Henry IV and the Florentine Princess, Marie de Medici -- neither of whom had ever met prior to the wedding." (In fact Henry himself was too busy to show up, so Marie's uncle "stood in" to slip the ring on her finger. Ah love.)


Image courtesy Louvre Museum

"One of the African women, when she saw the painting, said, 'It's like in my country. It's how it happened with me.' The group organizer leader who had known that woman well said to me later, 'Fabienne, until then, she had never spoken about that. Never.'" The fact of standing in front of that work, here in the Louvre, opened up the conversation.

Often Rubens's "Rape of the Sabin Women" is on the tour and that famous painting regularly provokes very personal, emotional responses.


Photo Louvre Museum

A lot of the women who come in are from countries torn by war. More and more of them have suffered [such] terrible things. The guides say that as they walk through the Louvre the artworks open up a discourse and help these women to find their voices. Just standing in front of a painting or an object permits them to enter into exchanges with each other and to open their voices. To live something here in the Louvre.

What happens is very often really intimate when they are standing before works of art. Very personal. A lot of women who come will not speak, they don't succeed in speaking, but inside themselves, internally, important things are happening. It's a sort of transcendence. They are finding confidence and trust. [Sometimes] here in the Islamic collection, they say how gratified they are to find images, fabrics, porcelain -- objects like those in the countries where they came from.

The Louvre's annual Women's Tours in March are only one part of the museum's outreach program. Others take place all year long, bringing in the unemployed, even people living in the subways and on the streets, and sometimes the visitors end up knowing more than the tour leaders. Martet spoke of one man who had no home and had lost his job as a fine arts carpenter. When the group came into a room full of Renaissance marketry, the man began speaking with another visitor about how the wood inlays were done -- because he had formally done the same sort of thing -- and the team leader turned the discussion over to him.

For Martet and her colleagues these outreach efforts are at the core of what today's art museums -- whether of Greek and Egyptian ruins or of contemporary design -- must be about. The object is not to teach, she says, but to awaken people emotionally and bring them to find their own voices: "It's a way to speak with delicacy of a subject important, and important to the women. And not just the women.

This morning we had a group of 19 young people: 13 boys and six girls. We wanted to deliver one main message: respect for women. We of course want them to enjoy being here but also to talk about the role and status of women from ancient Egypt until now. They, mostly the boys, they could see what pretty women looked like through the centuries but they also saw the violence [that has happened against women].

She paused.

You know in France we have 150,000 kids who have dropped out of school without a diploma and no job. There remains a great deal of violence against women, including an enormous amount of verbal violence. Here in the Louvre it's a kind of safe place to talk about that; it's not a threatening environment.

Time was running out as Martet kept recalling personal anecdotes, not least how she, who started out organizing musical events at the Louvre, came to run the outreach programs. As important as it is, she said, to draw outsiders into the Louvre, what they take away with them is most important to her, what they communicate to their children, their friends, even giving them confidence to go into their own neighborhood libraries.

The thing is always to remember the marvel of the first time [you saw a beautiful piece of art] and to remember what those first emotions are. To a large degree it was the same story between myself and my parents and that teacher who first took me to a museum.