Exploring the University Museums in Belgium

University museums are on the rise in Belgium. This past year has seen the physical opening of one new University Museum in Ghent (GUM), and the virtual beginnings of another in Mons (MUMONS), set to physically open next year. These museums come after the re-opening of the Musée universitaire de Louvain in 2017, now known as Musée L.

From simple thing about studying to… collections!

Though each of these institutions is unique, they have some commonalities

All of these museums aim to be spaces that are welcoming to public engagement, education and research.

University collections have long served as wonderful resources for teaching and research inside their institutions. Letters by the professors and donors who acquired works for their institutions show how passionate they were about helping to shape the future of education not just for themselves, their students and colleagues but to promote wider scientific and cultural progress. The choice to open these collections to the public only expands on these aims. The university museum provides a new space in which the university and community can communicate with one another and promote shared values.

All these museums draw from existing collections that existed within the university – passion for collecting on universities

Though these are Belgium’s only official University Museums, there are many collections linked to universities across Belgium, each collection with its own subject matter, scope and level of public outreach. Though many of these collections are limited in their accessibility, being housed in department offices and hallways, there are a few that helped inspire the big University Museums that have emerged. One example is the Aquarium-Museum of Liège, a large scale museum connected to the university that explores biodiversity, and the history of biology research in a visitor-focused way.

Each museum crosses combines art and science to explore creativity.

While previous university collections were often subdivided by academic discipline, the wonderful thing about the new University Museums is their ability to be interdisciplinary allowing visitors to engage with a kaleidoscope of objects and topics during a single visit from modern art to Bunsen burners. In each museum, art and science form two sides of the same coin, in their attempts to make sense of and respond to the world in which we live. This is expressed in their catchphrases:

MUMONS has as its slogan: “Sciences, Arts et Curiosités” (Science, Arts and Curiosities)
GUM presents itself as a “Forum voor Wetenschap, Twijfel en Kunst” (Forum for Science, Doubt and Art)
Musée L’s catchprase is “Inventer Dialoguer Tout un Art” (Invention Dialogue Truly an Art)

At the moment, given the lockdown in place in Belgium, these museums are temporarily closed. However, we will now explore some of their material online.

MUMONS has been particularly active in this space as it is both dealing with the lockdown slump as well as a need to galvanise interest for the museum’s delayed opening in the future. Besides offering digital exhibitions and online talks, they are also getting creative in their online engagement. Their podcast engages with current events and pop culture, from pandemics to Black Mirror, showing how science can be relevant to the present day. An online escape room highlights the variety of approaches across the sciences. Besides these efforts, the museum is also engaging with the objects themselves.

The scientific device and a “magic” device in one

University Museums Belgium
Spinthariscope, Rober Drosten 1905-1914, Umons

One of their monthly feature objects was the museum’s spinthariscope, an object that resembles a metal looking glass. Made in the early years of the 20th century, this small brass tube is an example of the world’s first radiation detector. Besides being used as a scientific instrument, the general public, fascinated by the new discoveries surrounding radiation, bought them as toys or curiosity objects, a practice that remained popular long after the tool stopped being used in labs. The object is a great example of how scientific research interacts with public interest!

The cork maquette!

University Museums in Belgium
Cork Maquette Pantheon by Antonio chichi, Universiteit Gent, Art in Flanders, photo by Dominique Provost

The online offerings of GUM and Musée L are much less extensive but still contain some absolute gems. The GUM has a whole post about its amazing Pantheon model. This cork reconstruction of the Pantheon made by Antonio Chichi in the mid to late 18th century is one of only four in the world and it has been recognised as protected heritage in Belgium.

Much like a dollhouse, the model opens up to a perfectly scaled Roman Pantheon interior complete with a coffered ceiling and colourful marble walls. It provides a unique way to appreciate the architecture of the building, its forms and supports in conjunction with its decorative scheme. The model’s restoration just last year brought back much of its vibrancy and it can now be appreciated again as the artistic and scientific achievement that it really is. 

The model on display in the knowledge section of the GUM exhibition, photo by the author

Passion for collecting in University Museums

Musée L used its time in lockdown to showcase some of the objects most beloved by its staff and volunteers, these “coups de cœur”  span multiple collections and materials but all of them have a special place in our hearts.

The director, Anne Querinjean, selected her own personal favourite among the 20 000 + works held in the museum. Her eye fell on Pierre Alechinsky’s “Les fameuses couleurs primaires » a piece created by the Belgian artist in 1973. The artist describes his method as being guided by his brush rather than any conscious design. He does not use his dominant hand to paint and he continuously moved the canvas to ensure fluidity of line. The artist was inspired by surrealist painting but also by Japanese calligraphy and printmaking. He lived through the second world war and struggled with some of his experiences, describing his painting as a way of freeing his monsters. The result is a vibrant piece, full of dynamism, one that seems to evoke the process of creation itself, of forms being made and unmade with at the centre the three primary colours holding the work together. It is easy to understand why this was the director’s favourite piece.

The painting on display in Musée L, photo by the author

Though we may not think of universities as great places for cultural encounters, these three institutions put the incredible richness of university collections on public display. 

But don’t take my word for it, spend some time checking out your local university museums, on-site or online, and tune into the #AcademicHeritageDay2020 today on social media for a glimpse at some wonderful artefacts across the academic collections of Europe!

See also: The earliest public museums in Belgium

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