From Church Art to Public Museums

The passion for collecting is the drive force behind museums. Likewise, telling stories about these collection just follows. In my history of collecting series, I am getting guest posts from amazing museum professionals from different countries. Today, I am sharing a story about public museums in Belgium.

Author: Annelies Van de Ven

Churches used to be the “mines” of arts

Throughout the 18th and early 19th century rule over Belgium changed hands a lot. As a result, there was a continuous reshuffling of wealth and collections. A huge overhaul came when the anticlerical French revolutionary forces conquered the Roman Catholic Austrian Netherlands (modern day Belgium). Belgian churches were famous for housing great artworks. Alongside royal palaces and stately homes, churches were centres of culture, decked out to the nines with incredible paintings and statuary highlighting the qualities of their patrons. 

In 1794, they were stripped of their treasures be the French forces “for the good of the nation”, sold to support the conquering regime or shipped off to its brand new museum in Paris, the Louvre. However, some goods were kept locally. So four years after Belgium came into French hands, the first local museums were developed, one in Ghent and one in Brussels. 

Public Museums in Belgium
Church of Our Lady and St Peter and the Saint Peter abbey in Ghent. Photo by Paul Hermans on Wikipedia

Public museums got their beautiful buildings

Though to this day many Gentenaren believe the museum was set up through the resistance of local leadership, stowing away key artworks for their people. But surprisingly, it was the French government that established a publicly accessible museum in Ghent to house the remaining religious art. Moving from storage in an abbey, to a church display in 1802, to a gallery in the city’s art academy in 1809, the collection finally found its forever home in 1904 in a purpose built neo-classical building.

Public Museums
Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. Photo by Paul Hermans on Wikipedia

The history of the museum established in Brussels was far more straightforward, though it ended with a similar neo-classical building. The French decided to put this new museum under the supervision of director Guillaume Bosschaert, a seasoned curator with courtly connections. The museum became an official vassal of French culture and was the only museum in Belgium chosen to receive additional collections that couldn’t be put on display in the choc-a-bloc Parisian museums. Though they were never able to recover all their art, both grew their collections and have become some of the most popular tourist spots in Belgium. They occupy the third spot, right after Manneken Pis and the Belfry in Bruges of course!

History of Collecting series:

Do you have a story to tell about the history of public museums and collecting? I am accepting guest posts, so contact me to lana[at]funmuseums[dot]eu to submit your text. Your story can be from any country or era. Let’s talk about the passion for collecting!

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