The masterpieces for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, one of the world’s most anticipated museums, require the optimum aesthetic presentation, and the challenge of creating the artwork display cases is a monumental work in itself.
When it comes to cultural exports, Belgium has a track record that extends far beyond the standard cliches of brewing, chocolate, waffles and moules-frites.
Even before the country was established in 1830, Flemish artists such as Jan van Eyck, the Breugels (elder and younger), Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck were responsible for some of history’s most compelling works of art.
More recently, the singer Jacques Brel, Herge, creator of Tintin, and the great surrealist artist Rene Magritte helped to define the way we remember the 20th century.
Less well known is the country’s more recent contribution to the world of museums and, more particularly, to the way many of us look at art.
Modern Belgian masterpieces can be seen in more than 1,000 museums and galleries, including the Louvre in Paris, the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. But not a single one is labelled.
If that sounds unfair, it is not a problem for the engineers and technicians from Meyvaert, a family business established seven generations ago in the Belgian port city of Ghent.
Meyvaert is not in the business of making art. Its forte is in making its work invisible, while drawing attention to the artworks its display cases contain.
Like a good tailor, the company’s aim is discretion, which is just one of the reasons why it is supplying the cases for the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
It is a project Dirk Van Gaubergen admits is stretching his employer to its limits.
“We’ve been working unusually fast. We have a lot of experience but there are things on this project that have never been done before and the time frame is very limited,” says the laconic Flemish architect, who is leading Meyvaert’s Louvre Abu Dhabi team.
“It’s a huge job, around 100 cases, and engineering-wise it’s very sophisticated, so we put certain projects on hold because we knew that we would need a lot of our resources.
“The project might go from being 50 to 80 or even 90 per cent of our output, so we have dedicated a part of the factory specially to the Louvre.”
Mr Van Gaubergen’s team includes his assistant project manager, six engineers and a site manager, who are supported by Meyvaert’s in-house quality control, logistics, calculation and purchasing teams.
All of these people, he insists, are essential if Meyvaert’s Louvre Abu Dhabi project is to be a success.
“The purchasing department is very important because they buy all of the materials we need. One case can easily be composed of more than a thousand elements so it’s vital that all of those components go to the right place at the right time.
“Then there is logistics. Everything will be shipped in containers and we will probably use reefers [refrigerated shipping containers], because if they sit on the quayside in Abu Dhabi for a day or two, temperatures inside can easily reach 100°C or 120°C.”
Before Meyvaert could even consider the prospect of shipping its cases from Ghent to Abu Dhabi, however, the project has been through an eight-month design process that required making full-scale prototypes of cases designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel (AJN) and its specialist museum design consultant, Renaud Pierard.
“They take things to the limit but we like that,” says Mr Van Gaubergen, smiling. “We are doing things now that we’ve never done before, which doesn’t happen on every project.
“There’s a lot of motorisation in the cases for the Louvre, which is quite unusual, because every case has to be able to be opened by just one person.”
When it comes to the case that Mr Van Gaubergen describes as the “V5”, this is easier said than done.
“The architect asked us to produce a glass of roughly five metres by three metres without a joint. It weighs 500 kilograms and there are 14 cases like this, each of which measures, on average, 6 by 7 metres,” he says.
“When you are inside the gallery you won’t be able to see the whole thing because it will be hidden inside a wall. You will only see the glass. The design is really on the edge but when it is finished it will be marvellous.”
The size and weight of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s cases are not the only challenges that Meyvaert has had to overcome. Even though Abu Dhabi is not in a high-risk earthquake zone, the body charged with delivering the museum, Agence France-Museums, insisted that certain cases should be “seismically isolated”.
To ensure this, Meyvaert had to send two prototype cases to the Laboratory of Earthquake Engineering at the National Technical University in Athens, Greece, an institute that usually tests the seismic resilience of buildings and bridges.
“It was the only place in Europe where they had a shake table of the right size. We built a podium and a 700kg glass case on one of the largest shake tables in Europe and simulated a very heavy earthquake,” says Mr Van Gaubergen. “The glass shook but the display case survived.”
If the challenge of meeting the technical specifications set out by Agence France-Museums sounds arduous, the task of meeting AJN’s high aesthetic standards is just as exacting.
To ensure these are met, Mr Van Gaubergen works with Anna Ugolini, a fellow architect and project manager whom he describes as his mirror within AJN.
Ms Ugolini co-ordinates with the other consultants involved in the design of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s museography, as well the project’s client, main contractor and curators.
Like many members of the AJN’s design team she has worked on some of Jean Nouvel’s most prestigious projects including the Musee du quai Branly in Paris, the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and the new National Art Museum of China in Beijing.
“The showcases are really the product of a dialogue between us, our lighting consultants, our specialist museographer, Renaud Pierard, who also worked on the new department of Islamic art at the Louvre, our client and the curators,” says Ms Ugolini, an Italian.
“We make our proposal and then, with Meyvaert, we work on the technical aspects of the cases and their aesthetics.”
She says the fine-tuning required to achieve the desired level of sophistication includes making cases that cannot only be moved around the museum to meet the needs of future exhibitions, but which can also accommodate exhibits that are yet to be acquired.
“We needed to create display cases that are over-dimensioned,” says Ms Ugolini. “Half of the exhibits, 300, already belong to the permanent collection and the other half are loans, but in 10 years’ time all 600 artworks will belong to the museum.
“This means that the display cases have to be flexible because if the museum buys an artwork that is bigger or taller or different, they can change the display and the quantities of artworks that can be shown.”
In designing the cases the ultimate aim, for Ms Ugolini and Meyvaert, is to produce the best display cases in the world and arrive at a solution that will become so much a part of the museum that they will effectively disappear, allowing visitors to concentrate on the museum’s artworks without any distractions.
“That means using glass that is very fine, with joints that are very thin, and with materials that work contextually with the space they are in and with the colours and the story of the room,” says the architect from AJN.
“If you look at the edge of a piece of glass it will look greenish because of the iron it contains, so we normally use a superior form of glass called ‘extra white’,” says Mr Van Gaubergen.
“However, above the extra white you have ‘ultra white’ which has even more of the iron taken out. That’s what we are using for the Louvre. It’s also very difficult to have nice, finished corners or not to see glass on edge.
“So we had to develop special corner pieces and profiles to sit between the horizontal and vertical planes of glass to hold them together. We call it the ‘evolution profile’ and we had to have a couple of kilometres made specially for this project.”
Now that Meyvaert’s prototype cases have been tested and approved, it will soon be time to start making the cases in earnest and eventually, to move the bulk of the operation from Belgium.
Before that can happen, however, all but the very largest cases will be assembled in the Meyvaert workshops in Ghent before being dismantled, packed for transport and then shipped through Antwerp.
“We’ve checked the entrances to the galleries to make sure there’ll be no problems gaining access, and from October onwards our site manager will be here permanently to organise the reception of the goods, temporary storage and on-site construction.”
While many of the cases will arrive at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in kit form, the largest, some of which measure 20 metres, will be sourced using local materials and suppliers, and built by a team of 25 technicians who will also travel from the Meyvaert factory in Ghent.
“The museum world is a marvellous world to work in,” says Mr Van Gaubergen, clearly excited by the prospect. “It’s a very specialised niche market that contains a strange mix of artists and architects, curators, conservators and designers. It takes a lot of time and investment but you get a lot back. I like it.”