Arranging Art: KMSKA and the psychology behind thematic display

After 11 years of massive restoration, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) reopened in September 2022 with a new take on displaying its main collection. The use of thematic curation in KMSKA has allowed the museum to optimise its pieces and appeal to a larger group of visitors regardless of their general understanding of art.

The museum, which opened in 1890, houses 8,400 objects but currently only displays 650 works to the public. In this collection, art dating from the 14th century to 1880 is exhibited thematically instead of in a traditional chronological order.

The museum says this creates “unexpected juxtapositions”, leaving visitors to their imagination and own interpretations of the works. Hanging artwork thematically means that a piece from the 13th century could be positioned beside a painting from the 1990s all in the name of staying within a certain topic.

Each room in the main collection has a sign with a theme listed at the door to suggest the reason for grouping selected pieces. Subjects include Heroes, Abundance, Suffering, Evil and Lessons for Life. The only exception in the permanent collection is the grand viewing area housing Peter Paul Rubens’ massive masterpieces. However, even this hall features a contemporary and interactive sculpture of camels by Belgian artist Christophe Coppens among Rubens' depictions of Christ.

Choosing thematic versus chronological when planning a collection goes beyond aesthetics. There is a social and psychological method behind the decision. “We’ve thought very deeply about how we present the collection," says KMSKA director Carmen Willems. "We’ve created this collection not for our viewers but with our viewers.”

A focus group of 100 residents recruited from 4,700 applicants reported on the practical aspects of the visitor experience based on how the museum displayed the collection.

Art for all

Dr Nico Van Hout, head of collections at KMSKA, elaborates on this notion explaining that the goal with thematic hanging is for all visitors to feel welcome, including those without prior art knowledge.

“For many, chronology is no longer an ovious guideline," he says. "We may not get visitors interested in art history, but we may get them interested in themes and stories."

Putting modern and contemporary masters side by side puts the history of art into context in a way that people can see in one space. This can also be a source of humour, Van Hout says: “We feel art temples can do with some humour, and be more playful."

The whimsical sculptures that Coppens was commissioned to create - 10 in total - also point to this sense of humour. His creations follow visitors on their thematic journey. As Belgium was one of the hubs of the Surrealist art movement, adding the skull of a dinosaur next to Maerten de Vos’s The Temptation of Anthony (1594) appears fitting.

Strengths and weaknesses

“Our collection has strengths and weaknesses," Van Hout says. "We are very strong in the period from the 15th to the 17th century, and with our extensive Ensor collection, we make a nice transition to the modern. But we don’t have more than a handful of good works from the 18th century.”

Another advantage to ditching chronology is crowd control. “In a chronological display, this quickly leads to overcrowded galleries and rooms that nobody visits,” he says. “A thematic display overcomes this weakness and distributes visitors throughout the museum."

While rooms by theme may make the visitor work harder to locate their favourite piece, this method contributes to further exploration of the museum as a whole. KMSKA believes it considerably boosts the dynamic of its impressive collection.



#FlandersNewsService | © BELGA PHOTO JONAS ROOSENS

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