Arranging Art: Oldest museum in Belgium embraces modern methods

As the oldest museum in Belgium, the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) in Ghent made an interesting decision in 2021 when it chose to implement thematic curation into its collection display.

The core of the MSK collection odates back to 1798, before Belgium even existed as a country. The museum opened in 1802, making it the oldest publicly accessible museum in Belgium and one of the oldest in Europe. It has been in its current location since 1904.

With a range of art from the Middle Ages to the present day and a focus on Belgian art from the 19th and 20th centuries, the collection holds almost 20,000 works of art, 600 of which are on public display.

Themed galleries

After a 40-room renovation, MSK reopened with a "transhistorical" presentation, meaning sections of the museum group the art by themes including poverty, wealth, the relationship between city and countryside, the image of women in art and immortalisation through portraits.

“We first chose the themes and then started looking for suitable works to display,” says MSK curator Lieven Van Den Abeele. “We also consider the role of women in art. For example, we show works by lesser-known female artists who have rarely or never been exhibited. A room where the woman is central. Not just as a model or muse, but as a painter or sculptor.”

Core values

The path at MSK starts chronologically but interrupts the historical journey with themed rooms. “In galleries, the works of art enter into a more intense dialogue with each other and with the visitor," its explanation of the collection states.

The museum believes people are not so different today than in previous centuries. Installing artworks side by side with this in mind gives more context to questions or ways of thinking that transcend time periods and art styles and reflect the core values of humans.

“The lives of everyday people serve as the uniting element of the themed galleries," the museum says. “In this way, the museum illustrates how every work of art contains many stories: those of the artist who conceived the work and the society in which it was created – but also the stories that appear to each individual who looks at it. The questions people address through art are more or less the same today as they have always been.”

"The different rooms and stories touch, cross and overlap, but they are not parts or chapters of one large whole"

Bart Verschaffel, a philosopher and professor of theory of architecture and architectural criticism at Ghent University, addressed the museum’s collection. “It is never about bringing together as many exemplary or representative 'top works' as possible, but about specific small constellations," he said.

"The different rooms and stories touch, cross and overlap, but they are not parts or chapters of one large whole. The museum does not offer a variant of the 'general overview' that can be seen everywhere, but tells a number of strong short stories using what it has to offer.”

The concept of thematic display is not a new trend. Several museums have turned to this way of displaying art, including the Pompidou in Paris, MoMa in New York, Tate Modern in London, LWL in Vienna and Louvre-Lens in France. Most recently, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) joined this movement. The goal is to appeal to visitors ranging from art specialists to novices and offer them an engaging experience through storytelling and images.

Critiques on thematic display

While grouping art by subject matter to tell a story is appreciated by some visitors, critics of this method believe that breaking away from a tradition of chronological display dumbs down the art it presents or risks confusing the non-specialist audience. 

Senior curator for the Tate Modern Frances Morris opposed this theory during an interview about museum's choice to favour themes. “I think what’s interesting is that a lot of attacks on thematic hangs come from the basis that we need chronology; we need history," she said. "But when you walk through our displays, you see that what they are doing is opening up history. They’re informing you about moments in time; it’s not a levelling off of time.”

MSK and KMSKA are the only two Flemish museums to have implemented this arrangement. Choosing to exhibit a collection thematically rather than chronologically could serve as a method for further conversation between seasoned art professionals and people visiting a museum for the first time.



#FlandersNewsService | © ARTERRA © VIDEO MSK GENT

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