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Louvre Overhaul Completed, Finally

December 18, 1997

PARIS (AP) _ It’s taken 15 years and cost $1.7 billion, but the Louvre, finally, is renovated.

Once a dusty collection of poorly lit galleries jammed with paintings hung floor to ceiling, the Louvre today ranks among the world’s largest, most up-to-date art facilities. Millions visit each year.

The last leg of renovations, to be inaugurated Friday by President Jacques Chirac, created a stunning setting for France’s priceless collections of Egyptian, Greek and Etruscan art, and made the Louvre synonymous with state-of-the-art grandeur.

``The Louvre was like a theater with no backstage, and it had reached an impasse,″ Jean Lebrat, who headed the renovation project.

Now, 204 years after it opened as a museum, the Louvre occupies the entire sprawling palace that was home to French royalty from 1200 to the 1789 French Revolution.

You can’t miss the entrance, its courtyard capped by I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid. And every feature _ from the soft light illuminating the base of the medieval keep to bold signs pointing the way to the Mona Lisa _ makes the museum accessible to experts and amateurs alike.

That was the late President Francois Mitterrand’s dream: a daring architectural and curatorial adventure that many consider his greatest cultural legacy.

The new wing, on the museum’s south side overlooking the Seine, is a resplendent backdrop for 5,000 Egyptian antiquities _ only 10 percent of the prized collection _ that have been closed to the public for nearly three years.

``There’s more room for groups and their guides, more space between objects, and visitors have the choice of looking at things thematically or chronologically,″ said department head Christiane Ziegler.

The overhaul has breathed new life into 30 galleries recounting 3,000 years of Egyptian civilization.

Many small items are displayed in glass cases; others stand against colorful backdrops that recall the vivid hues found in antiquity.

Statues, papyrus texts, sarcophagi, woven straw baskets, tools, gold jewelry, sports equipment _ even onions and coriander seeds buried with the pharaohs _ characterize the collection, considered second only to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Many objects are on display for the first time, including a mummified crocodile.

A tour of the new wing, with its newly restored Second Empire decor and painted ceilings, takes about 90 minutes.

Ziegler said the biggest challenge was making sure that the ornate splendor of the building didn’t compete with the elegance of the objects on display.

The Louvre opened as a museum in 1793 in the aftermath of the French Revolution, a response to growing public demand for access to treasures amassed by royalty since the 14th century.

About 110 acres of public gardens, including the Tuileries, also have been spruced up.

A few projects remain, though, including a bridge over the Seine to connect the Louvre and the Orsay Museum. That would make the complex the largest art facility in the world.

``If the Louvre ever stops evolving,″ said director Pierre Rosenberg, ``that will mean it’s dead.″

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