October 6, 2009 / 11:10 AM / 10 years ago

Night at the Louvre: don't ask to see the Mona Lisa

PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Security guards roaming the Louvre museum at night encounter African masquerades, a ghostly dancer in a scuba diving mask, an equestrian statue that makes baby noises and crazed carnival kings armed with rubber ducks.

Tourists visit a sculpture gallery at the Louvre Museum in Paris August 12, 2009. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

No, this is not the demented plot of a proposed sequel to Hollywood special effects blockbuster “Night at the Museum.”

The world famous Louvre really is coming alive at night for an innovative show called “Babysitting Petit Louis,” performed by a cast of three dancers, one singer, one actor and eight of the museum’s real-life security guards and cloakroom staff.

The brains behind the project is South African choreographer Robyn Orlin, who is well known in contemporary dance circles for her witty pieces satirizing her country’s post-apartheid struggles with racism and reconciliation.

Her show at the Louvre also uses humor to comment on a different set of issues: cultural elitism, the conservative attitude of major museums and the way visitors tend to treat the staff like furniture.

“It’s about how the public never really thinks about who takes care of art. I think all the guards are very vital people and it’s important to reawaken that for the public,” Orlin told Reuters backstage.

The show kicks off at night, after the museum has closed, under the glass pyramid where visitors to the Louvre buy their tickets. The audience stands waiting in the dark until the eight guards arrive, shining flashlights, and chant a set of rules.

“It is strictly forbidden to ask only where are the toilets, where is the Mona Lisa, or where is the exit?” they sing in unison, referring to the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece that is the main attraction of the Louvre for many visitors.


After that, the guards lead the audience of about 130 people on a strange and funny walk around the darkened Richelieu wing, through cavernous marble halls full of 17th century French statues and monumental ancient Mesopotamian sculptures.

Along the way, they encounter a lost white South African in Eiffel Tower boxer shorts and an “I love Paris” t-shirt, a black singer dressed in a gaudy gold parody of Louis XIV’s courtly outfits, a headless ghost in a black suit and some masquerades.

The guards are very much part of the performance, shepherding the audience with their flashlights, making wisecracks, taking part in some dance scenes and projecting short art films about themselves onto the pedestals of statues.

“Petit Louis” is in fact a small equestrian statue of the Sun King, a 1692 work by the French sculptor Francois Girardon, which cries like a baby until the guards intervene to calm it.

Amid the madness, Orlin throws in a few serious points about a variety of themes including France’s colonial past.

This is symbolized by the “Hottentot Venus,” an African woman who was paraded around Europe as a freak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the show, the lost South African donates a mini statue of the woman to the Louvre.

The show culminates in a delirious minuet during which the professional performers swap their golden carnival outfits for the security guards’ uniforms and name badges.

The professionals end up outside the museum windows, playing with giant rubber ducks in the fountains, while the newly glorified guards lead the audience in triumph to the exit.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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