Ghent, (Brussels Morning) – The Museum of Fine Art (MSK) in Ghent, some 60 km away from Brussels, has two reasons to throw a party. The first is to mark its 225 years of existence – making it Belgium’s oldest museum. And the second is to honorthe 125th anniversary of the Friends of the Museum. Starting on September 2, both of these milestones are celebrated with a year full of cultural festivities. Across two exhibitions, a historical tour of the galleries and a series of art projects around the city, the MSK will take stock of its fascinating history, while also addressing the question of what it means to be a museum in today’s world. We spoke with Prof. Dr .Manfred Sellink, the director of the museum.
What constitutes a museum today?
Asked about what constitutes a museum today, he answered with a short history of the term ‘museum’ which goes back to the ancient Greek word ‘musaion’ that stood for a very core institution in the cities around the mediterranean sea within the Greek empire. It was a public space, the temple of the muses, dedicated to the 9 muses of the arts and sciences but it was also a library, a space of art and knowledge, a space for debates, a place where beautiful and extraordinary objects were stored. Most remembered is the famous library of Alexandria where at some point some 6 to 700 scholars could be at work. Aristoteles met his pupils in the musaion in Athens. All this was taken into account in the mid XVIIIth century when e.g.the British museum was founded in 1753. Art and knowledge were combined and for Manfred Sellink this is still today a great source of inspiration: “Also today, in my opinion, a museum should be a lively place, a place of debate and of reflection, open to the public and part of a reflection on what we are, where we come from and where we are going to”. Speaking not with one voice but in polyphony, walking the same path but expressing many different voices. “We bring visual stories but they are backed by literary sources, by literature, by what musicians and composers, and scientists from different disciplines are telling us… That polyphonic structure, way of working is, I think, an important element of what museums are today and what they can contribute to society.”
125 years of existence of the ‘Friends of the Museum’, the second oldest in the world, after the Friends Society of the Louvre!
The Museum of Fine Arts Ghent has a collection of about 9,000 works, from the Middle Ages (14th century) to the first half of the 20th century, all western art. Over 600 works are shown in the museum’s permanent collection presentation. Manfred Sellink: “As a curator you are a passer by in the history of a collection and certainly in a history as long as ours. So as a museum director you always start with your collection. And our collection has grown from different sources, sources from the city of Ghent in the late 18th and the late 19th century, from the collaboration with the academy of arts like it was the case in many cities of the north west of Europe. In the first 70 years of the 19th century it was really what you could call a museum of contemporary art. Ghent was a rather well known city for art lovers through its Salon, a 3 yearly exhibition of ‘living masters’ as they were called or contemporary artists as you call them now. It was only at the end of the 19th century that was started with a deliberate policy to collect old masters and on an international scale. We come here to the other part of our festivities as we have with the Louvre the oldest museum friends society and that was a deliberate policy So that was a 1OO years after the foundation of the museum in 1797, 3 months after the Louvre started a friends collection with the same deliberate aim of starting to collect internationally and also the older masters.That was a start of a period of blossoming for the collection, certainly until WWI when other priorities took over in society. Is it an eclectic collection? Yes and no. It is eclectic in that sense that we are not an encyclopedic collection like the Louvre but then there are only a few encyclopedic collections in the world. We are not eclectic in the sense that we offer a rather broad stroke of western art from late 14th until mid 20th century, mainly paintings but also sculptures and work on paper, concentrating on a core of North and South Netherlandish art but with a rather wide range of international art. We have a very large collection of Dutch 17th century art, we have German expressionists, we have a very nice collection of 19th century French art … “
A deliberate policy of balancing old and modern masters
Certainly since Manfred Sellink is the director of the MSK the museum follows a deliberate policy to have a balance between the older masters and the 19th and 20th century but in our conversation he stresses that there is now always also a changing selection of works on paper. This balancing act shows itself also in the jubilee year as it starts with Baertsoen, a popular fin de siècle painter in Ghent and continues with a large exhibition on Theodore Rombouts, a Caravagist of Antwerp but also connected to Ghent,with works that hold the middle between Caravagio and Rubens.
“I am myself Dutch but I am not the person to say we are showing only Dutch or Flemish art, no! We show them in an international context. The nationalistic aspects are a 19th century view on the past and we propose to show in our exhibitions this international, all European context in which art is created and is spread.” Important to him are also the different extra murosprograms his staff developed in collaboration with citizens of some 14 to 15 districts in the city, especially with those citizens who did not come to the museum before.
Working on Cultural citizenship.
“You can call me naive and an optimist but I believe in cultural citizenship. I think that this is extremely valuable and it is also an asset to include a public which normally does not come to a museum. If you work with outreach programs, if you work with certain districts of the city, certain target audiences, it is a long term work. Where I do not believe in is to have activities which have a sudden effect whereby we have a group of 200+ people visiting the museum and then nothing much afterwards. No, it is the long term effect we are aiming at. Setting up structures with certain parts of the population where we use our jubilee year as a starting point but are aiming to find contacts and to find structures that will work in 2, 3 or 4 years. That costs time. We have a staff member who is working only on this subject.”
When asked if he can tell us some specific experiences he answers he does not know about Individual stories.” You have to ask my community workers. But I hear a lot of enthusiasm despite real practical problems. They see it in simple things. Certain parts of Ghent, near the harbor e.g., not the districts where the most wealthy people live, are quite far from the center. There we hear that getting from these parts of Ghent with children and adults from 12-15 years to visit a museum is far more problematic than we had thought it would be. Sometimes things are not simple: finding e.g. a way to be subsidized for your help in getting these people to the museum itself. Surprisingly in certain parts of the city where a large part of the population have an African or Turkish background, there really is an interest, a lot of potential, but they also think a museum is not for them and it is also too far away. There you have to find ambassadors among certain parts of the population. So we are training now who would like to do this. We are training new guides, coming from different backgrounds, who have experience with such outreach programs to show these people that it is worthwhile to come and visit, that there are universal stories in our museum which also refer to their experiences and their background. One of the examples which I always give to my pupils and collaborators, is that if you have a Christ hanging on a cross and you have a Maria standing next to the cross mourning the loss of her son, use this kind of universal story in which everybody can recognise own stories, as a starting point to access the work with its specific cultural,historical and artistic background. It is also the way our guides work now: not only telling the visitors like 5 or 10 years ago, on Jan Van Eyck who lived from to, used these techniques,etc. You still need to tell your public all this but then you ask them first to tell you what they do you see, get their stories why this woman is weeping and then only you give the historical background. We are setting in this way small steps, small seeds which I think are very important in spreading the word and the universal value of the cultural heritage which we display.”
Future proofing of the museum?
When asked he agrees this is part of the exercise to future proof what a museum displaying Western art can do: defining the scope, scale, and specifics of how it can evolve. It means also looking at how to meet critical challenges in climate change, nature loss, and mounting inequality and deliver true value across social, environmental, cultural and economic dimensions.
In this sense we have to see the organization of LGBTQ tours, the collaboration with the neighboring university museum GUM and the botanical garden, etc beside the internationally well known SMAK and the STAM…The MSK subscribed also the charter of sustainable entrepreneuring which is an initiative of VOKA, the Flanders’ Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Durability is a concern in all activities and the museum also takes part in the circular economy when building up its exhibitions (re-use of exhibition material, durable marketing materials, etc.
A confession of faith in Europe
“Yes, I am a true believer in Europe and the EU. I look with a certain sense of sadness to other tendencies that push in another direction not only shown in Brexit but also in some other parts of Europe. I am even more convinced that it is worth it, when I look back in history and see how artists and not only painters but also writers and craftsmen traveled from one side of Europe to another and were in contact.. We have so many archives, records of 15th and 16th century painters etc traveling without we are even knowing their work as it is often lost. There has been so much traveling around and not only from the upper part of the society. That is something very important for a museum to help people understand that culture and artifacts of our history and culture are so much more multilayered and so much more international than we often realize. That has been a ‘fille rouge’ , a common thread in my exhibition activity these last 20-25 years.”
Contribution of museums to European citizenship?
What we can do is to show to the citizens and even more important to the policymakers and politicians that we transcend the national boundaries. Transcending our national boundaries gives us creativity and is a source of energy which could be very positive. This is one of the strengths we have and one of the aims that we have as museums to show that it is worthwhile to have a broader international scope and that to confront art is not only pleasing but can raise questions. One of my mottoes is that a good exhibition gives you more questions than it provides answers. This is what we add to the public debate on Europe, broadening the scope, posing questions, suggesting directions, not answers that would be naive but suggesting possible roads, answers, ways of looking at international problems and beside that, in troubled times, art can be a source of solace as well. I can give one example from the second world war when in the National Gallery in London all art was taken out because of the constant bombing by the Germans they gave lunch concerts and they also had a micro exhibition of one work of art whereby tens of thousends people came to these events which were only during the daytime. One piece of art was exhibited and that gave a token of hope in very troubled times and that is where we can have a role as a token of hope, of promise of another future.
To conclude we asked him to give his personal reasons why the MSK “Vaut le détour” as a world famous cultural guide classifies important monuments.
“The building. We get so many remarks by our visitors that they like our building. It is on a human scale, the lightning, the rhythm of the rooms is really a fine example of 19th century museum architecture. I think it is one of the best museum buildings in Western Europe and I thought this already long before I came to lead this museum. For the collection his preference goes to ‘Christ carrying the cross’,although the authorship of Jheronymus Bosch is in dispute, and to the portrait of Dr Adler by Kokoschka while of course the third phase of restoration of the Ghent Altar by tyhe brothers Van Eyck not only’ vaut le détour’ but also the voyage.”