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A dinosaur of the Louvre

For quarter of a century one Cypriot woman has been rearranging the 35,000 items in the world’s biggest museum. THEO PANAYIDES meets her.

 

For a while, there was a real risk that the Winged Victory of Samothrace might collide with the Venus de Milo, says Clio Karageorghis with a nervous laugh.

That was when the movers – not just any movers, but skilled movers specialising in works of art – were taking the Winged Victory away for restoration, a six-month process that’s going to cost upwards of €1 million. They erected scaffolding and used a crane to transport the statue to another room, away from visitors – but the Victory stands on a pedestal, the prow of a ship, which also had to be moved. The prow has 33 pieces of stone and marble, recounts Clio, each one weighing 800 kilos; had one of those pieces crashed through the floor, it might well have landed on the Venus de Milo, which is exhibited directly below. One masterpiece of classical sculpture taking out another. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

This was in the Louvre, of course, the biggest museum in the world, where Clio has worked for over 25 years, rising to become Head of Architecture, Museography and Signage. She’s seen its area nearly double (an extra wing, which formerly housed the Finance Ministry, was added in 1997) and worked with four different Directors, each with his own style. The museum has more than 2,000 employees but only three – Clio and two others – can boast a quarter-century of service; “They call us the dinosaurs,” she says, her round face crinkling with pleasure.

You wouldn’t necessarily make the connection to Parisian high culture if you happened to pass by outside the house, a big house in the modest Nicosia neighbourhood of Pallouriotissa with a lemon tree in the front yard. This is the house where she grew up, and the house where her parents still live. On the living-room walls, amid a profusion of books and photos, are a couple of paintings done by Clio when she was younger; she hasn’t painted since she had her children, she admits with a twinge of regret – and those kids, Alexandros and Gabriella, are now 25 and 24 respectively, their photos propped on the mantelpiece behind me along with those of their parents and cousins. Alexandros works in financial law, Gabriella’s studying to be an osteopath. Clio’s husband is French, and an architect like herself.

She hadn’t really planned on being an architect. Her first love was Art, her teenage dream being to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris – her mother Jacqueline is also French, from a village near St. Etienne – but painting was deemed too frivolous a career choice by her parents, especially her father. They’re a high-achieving family in general: Jacqueline is an archaeologist, ancient historian and author of several books; Clio’s brother Andreas is an Oxford-educated mathematician, now at the University of Cyprus – and of course her father is Vassos Karageorghis, former Curator of the Cyprus Museum and Head of the Department of Antiquities for 26 years. Her parents met on a train going to Pompeii – Vassos was an archaeology student, Jacqueline a high-school pupil on a class trip – and initially flirted in ancient Greek (the only language they both spoke), thereby proving the benefits of a classical education.

You’d think museums would be in Clio’s blood, with that kind of background, but in fact it was quite a circuitous route. “I was quite rebellious when I was at school in Cyprus,” she recalls: “For me, museums and archaeology were something old, something dead, something that discouraged me from dreaming”. When they visited museums en famille, Clio always stayed outside and waited for the others to finish. She seems to have cherished freedom as a young girl (indeed, she still does); her memories of childhood in Cyprus – an idyllic time, she says wistfully – are of physical freedom, open spaces, room to roam. There was nothing around the house in Pallouriotissa when Clio was born in 1956, just fields where her brother played football and the semi-rural Nicosia outskirts where she picked anemones and wild tulips. Museums must’ve seemed claustrophobic, with their poky rooms and settled, unchanging collections of precious artefacts.

profile-The Kore of Samos is Karageorghis' favourite piece in the Louvre
The Kore of Samos is Karageorghis’ favourite piece in the Louvre

She was wrong, of course – both about museums in general and their static, settled nature in particular. She discovered the first mistake while doing an internship (what the French call ‘un stage’) in New York as a student, when she visited the Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art and fell in love with the whole concept of these vast cultural repositories – and discovered the second mistake when she started working in museums (first the Musée d’Orsay, then the Louvre) and saw the constant ferment beneath the placid surface.

“I think people don’t know this,” she muses, “that a museum is in constant flux”. That’s especially true of her own job, which probably requires some explanation: “museography” is the art of arrangement, the arduous process of setting up a gallery or exhibition. “We discuss it very extensively with the curator,” she says, “so they can explain what they want, the story they’re trying to show to the public, then we try to place the works in the space in such a way that the audience can understand the scenario”. It’s a form of interior design, with the practical rigours of architecture. “Signage” is easier to understand – and of course more tedious, a job (admits Clio) that initially came to her because no-one else wanted it. Quite simply, it’s designing the system of signs which guide visitors through what she calls “les parcours”, the routes through the various galleries.

Is that such a big deal? After all, they get maps of the museum at the entrance.

“It’s terrible, people get lost!” she replies earnestly. “They get lost because the Louvre was a palace, it was designed to be a palace, it wasn’t designed at all to be a museum”. It’s also staggeringly huge, with 35,000 items in around 460 galleries – “and the galleries are complicated, and the routes aren’t at all straightforward, so for people to find their way through this maze, a map is just a drop in the ocean.”

Clio herself knows the way, of course. That’s why she wears trainers to work every day, never boots (let alone high heels) – because she spends a good part of the day walking briskly through the Louvre, making her way to this or that gallery. She and her team (she’s in charge of some 20 people) scurry around behind the scenes, often out of sight of the millions of visitors: “We have secret doors,” she smiles, “we have our keys, we go in through the back”. A curator might send a photo of some small ancient vase, with instructions to move it to another gallery. The museum might’ve bought something new, requiring a change of arrangement, or they might’ve lent some exhibit to another museum. The opening of ‘Louvre-Lens’, a kind of mini-Louvre near Lille (staff now refer to the Paris Louvre as “la maison mère”, or ‘the mothership’), has made things even more complicated, with artefacts constantly shuttling between the two places.

Each day they scurry and tinker, unacknowledged by the footsore art-lovers who might spend three hours waiting in line at the Louvre’s pyramidal entrance (the museum now has signs advising visitors how much longer they can expect to wait, like a Disneyland ride). On Tuesdays the place is closed, and Clio comes into her own; that day, she says, is pandemonium, “there’s work going on everywhere”. France’s 35-hour working weeks don’t apply here; Clio works 60 hours, 8am to 8pm, and thinks of the museum as her home, her 2,000 colleagues as a kind of family. They include engineers, architects, graphic designers, the musicians who perform at the Auditorium, and some 1,000 security guards, all of whom she knows by name. “It’s a whole world…”

The only downside is that she lives in Paris – in the centre, near the Jardin du Luxembourg – but might as well be living in Pallouriotissa. “Basically, to tell you the truth, I work all the time,” she admits when I ask about her lifestyle. Her 12-hour days leave her too exhausted to do much, then on weekends she has to attend every new exhibition, to see how other museums handle museographical issues – which isn’t exactly a chore, but still counts as work. She loves fashion (elegant designs appeal to her in general, whether of a room or a dress) and used to be a regular at the opera, often with her daughter, but less so now. These days she reads a lot, especially Greek literature – a way of making sure she doesn’t forget her Greek, though she concedes that’s unlikely. She’s actually very attached to Cyprus, especially for someone who hasn’t lived here since 1974; “My home is here, in the end,” she notes with a kind of wry amusement. When she visits – which she does three or four times a year – it takes a few days to acclimatise, but then “it’s as though I never left”.

What kind of person is Clio Karageorghis? A hybrid, for a start, one who’s always hovered between two cultures; as a child, “I didn’t know if I was Cypriot or French”. Both her parents spoke French at home (Vassos having presumably learned the language since that train ride to Pompeii), but at school she was totally Cypriot. I also sense something spartan, maybe even severe in her makeup. Her favourite gallery in the Louvre, she tells me, is the one with pre-classical Greek antiquities, Cycladic idols and vases from Rhodes. Her single favourite exhibit is the ‘Kore of Samos’, a statue of a young maiden from the 6th century BC. These are elegant but austere choices, the ‘Kore’ being a hunk of marble with thin, splayed toes and a finely-sculpted tunic – unlikely to be Joe or Jane Public’s first choice if (s)he had 460 galleries to choose from.

Then there’s her work ethic. She’s always put in long hours, even when the children were small (those were the years when the Pyramid was being built). “The kids grew up with college students,” she admits; wonderful girls, terrific babysitters, carefully selected by Clio herself, but babysitters nonetheless. At work, she can be exacting (“exigeante”); her co-workers tell her frankly that she asks for a lot – not long hours, necessarily, but a high standard. She expects precision: “‘More or less’ doesn’t cut it with me. And that also translates to a certain way of life – at home, in the films I see, the music I listen to”. Put it this way: it’s hard to work in the Louvre, surrounded by masterpieces, then accept sloppiness in anything else.

Do museums even have a role to play in the Age of the Internet? Probably, says Clio. At one point, the Louvre tried to put everything online – to create a virtual tour of the museum, with 3D graphics – but it didn’t really take. “People want to see the originals. They won’t rest till they see the Mona Lisa, or the Venus de Milo: the object itself.” Often, when the galleries are full, tourists are offered photos of the crowd-pleasers and advised to see something else – but they always insist on waiting.

Still, a handful of world-famous exhibits is one thing, 460 rooms are quite another. It remains to be seen whether the Louvre – which, like all museums, has money problems – can survive on its grand scale indefinitely. Clio Karageorghis will be sad to see it go, but she herself is unlikely to be affected: she’s due to retire in a decade or so – and meanwhile she’s derived so much from a job that she loves. “My eyes are full,” she says, “and my mind is full with beautiful stimuli”.

How does it feel to work alongside the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo? She smiles, looking slightly apologetic. “We pass in front of works of art every day,” she admits, speaking of herself and her merry band of fixers, arrangers and tinkerers, the secret army that keeps the Louvre running. “Sometimes we stop and look at them – and sometimes we pass without stopping”. Just as long as they don’t crash into each other.

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