Critics Fear Louvre's Plan to Loan Art to Fukushima Carries Radiation Risks

Critics Fear Louvre's Plan to Loan Art to Fukushima Carries Radiation Risks
A detail of François-André Vincent's "Portrait of Three Men," oil on canvas
(Photo: RMNGP)

It has been almost a year since a major earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11, 2011, causing a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. In a show of support for the country, the Louvre has planned a traveling exhibition that will visit Japan from April 20 through September 17, 2012. After opening in Morioka and Sendai, the show will land in the city of Fukushima itself — a decision that has set off a debate about the danger of exposing the works to any radiation still remaining in the area.

According to Le Monde, 23 loaned works of art from various periods and civilizations will fly to Japan, including François Boucher's "Three Graces With Amor" and François-André Vincent's "Portrait of Three Men." The office of loans and holdings of the French national museum system has already approved the exhibition, which is intended as a sign of solidarity with the recovering Japanese people.


However, at least one sharp-tongued critic is not happy with the decision. On the blog La Tribune de l'ArtDidier Rykner penned a piece titled "The Louvre Is More and More (Radio)active in Japan," in which he called the exhibition "questionable," "meaningless," and "dangerous for the artworks," since Sendai and Fukushima are both located in regions that were contaminated by radioactivity after the accident. Rykner facetiously wondered if the Louvre would start sending art to all areas of the world that have been struck with disasters, natural or otherwise. "The Iraqi population hasn't suffered any less than that of Japan," he wrote. "Why wouldn't the Louvre send artworks to Baghdad next?"

The exhibition curator, Jean-Luc Martinez, who is head of the Louvre's department of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities, told Agence France-Press that "neither the works nor staff from the Louvre who will accompany them on a voluntary basis will be endangered." He specified to Le Monde that the radioactivity rate inside the Fukushima museum is .06 microsievert per hour, "a normal rate, which can be found inside a Paris museum." 

But Rykner points out that the Louvre did not consult France's Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear SafetyRoland Desbordes, president of the Commission on Independent Research and Information on Radioactivitytold the environmental site Zegreenweb that radioactivity is still present in the area around Fukushima and that wind can move contaminants into the city, where visitors could bring them into the museum. "In order to decontaminate an object made of porous material, even if it's made of stone, you have to scratch it," Desbordes said. "For a tapestry or painting, it's much more complicated and delicate."

The Louvre is taking the utmost precaution to ensure the integrity of the loaned art. Crates holding the pieces will be opened only inside the museum and the objects will be placed behind thick glass. The paintings will never be exposed to the atmosphere and their radioactivity will be checked upon arrival. 

All this security won’t limit access to the exhibitions, though. Japan is financing the traveling show, and admission costs will be free or minimal, depending on the location.