National Museums in Belgium

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Publicerad: 2011-09-30


ISSN: 1650-3686 (tryckt), 1650-3740 (online)


The problematic and laboriously constructed nature of the Belgian nation is; to a large extent; reflected in the structure and distribution of Belgium’s federal/national museums. The complexity and contradictory nature of the administrative organisation of the Belgian state led one of its leading contemporary artists to comment that ’maybe the country itself is a work of art’ (Fabre; 1998: 403). Its national museums - those which receive direct federal funding - are the result of a series of projects that founded the large cultural institutions of Brussels in the nineteenth century; decreed by the Belgian monarchy that was itself only founded in 1830. Brussels; the largely French speaking capital of the nation situated geographically in the centre of a Flemish speaking region; is since 1830 the seat of a constitutional monarchy and democratically elected parliament that governs over the two very distinct linguistic and cultural areas: the northern Dutch-speaking Flanders and southern French-speaking Wallonia. In his article on ’What; if Anything; Is a Belgian?’; Van der Craen writes : ’Belgium has been at the centre of a heated debate since its creation. The relatively young country has had little time to develop any nationalistic feelings in comparison to; for instance; the Netherlands or France’ (2002 : 32). In constructing a nationalist discourse through the creation of national institutions such as museums; the Belgian monarchy looked very much to the French model for inspiration; and the strong influence of France; both politically and culturally; can be clearly retraced in the history the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. In the parliamentary debates concerning the organization and support of the arts; France appears as the preponderant model (Montens; 2001: 14).

Today; the relative inertia of Belgium’s federal institutions is indicative of the problems that the Belgian federal state has been experiencing in the face of rising regionalism and the transfer of the management of cultural affaires to the communities. As has been pointed out by numerous critics; its national museums; the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale and the Musée royal de l’Armée et d’Histoire militaire especially; can be characterized by the ’dusty’ character of their museography. Of the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale (1910) an American scholar wrote: ’The fundamental message remains the same: when going through the revolving doors of the museum’s main entrance; one has the feeling of entering into a liminal space; frozen in time’ (Muteba; J.; 2003: 61).

Three periods are of capital importance to understand the evolution of Belgium’s national museums: the French occupation at the end of the eighteenth century (1793-1815) – although no museums were really established this was a crucial period for the crystallisation of a public consciousness of artistic heritage; the years following Belgian independence in 1830 with the decision of the city of Brussels to sell its collections to the state (1843) and finally the period of the jubilees and the great national; universal and colonial exhibitions (1880-1930). Recent decades have; in stark contrast to what can be observed in other countries (for example Luxembourg); seen no major projects initiated by Belgium’s federal cultural authorities; and this despite the fact the museum as an institution is of growing popular appeal. One may however mention the creation in 2005 of the BELvue Museum that tells the history of Belgium as structured by the reigns of its successive monarchs.

This is not to imply however that there have not been major developments under the control of the government of the different communities – but simply to underline that the dynamics of museum creation have moved away from the central federal powers.

The identification of Belgium’s most important national/federal museums poses no problem of definition of any kind – though none of them carry the epithet ‘national’ but are denominated as royal. There are exactly five major ‘royal’ museums; all situated in Brussels and all directly funded by the federal government; they form an exemplary group to illustrate the classic national museum typology with a national art museum; an archaeology and history museum; an ethnology/colonial museum; a natural sciences museum and a military museum.


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Association francophone des musées de Belgique (AFMB) in the French Community: http://www.muse.ucl.ac.be/Icom/AFMB.html

Belgian Federal Science Policy Office: http://www.belspo.be/belspo/res/institut/esf2_en.stm

BELvue Museum http://www.belvue.be/BELvue/museum.aspx?id=256676&LangType=1033

Brussels Museum Council (‘Brusselse Museumraad/Conseil Bruxellois des Musées’ - BMRCBM) http://www.brusselsmuseums.be

Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée http://www.cbbd.be/fr/accueil

Flemish Community museums http://www.tento.be

King Baudouin Foundation http://www.kbs-frb.be/pressitem.aspx?id=177424&LangType=1033

Musée du Cinquantenaire http://www.kmkg-mrah.be/newfr/index.asp?id=507

Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale http://www.africamuseum.be/visiting/permanentexpo/memorial

Musée royal de l’armée et de l’histoire militaire belge http://www.klm-mra.be/klm-new/frans/main01.php?id=amuseum/geschiedenis

Musées royaux des beaux-arts de Belgique http://www.fine-arts-museum.be/site/fr/default.asp

Musées et Société en Wallonie’ (MSW) (Museums and Society in Wallonia): http://www.msw.be/

Vlaamse Museumvereniging (VMV) in Flanders http://www.museumvereniging.be

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