Art Museums and Social Hierarchy – Part I


This is the first of a two-part post. The second part, which takes the issues to the Caribbean and Jamaica, can be found here.

Museums are managers of consciousness. They give us an interpretation of history, of how to view the world and locate ourselves in it. They are, if you want to put it in positive terms, great educational institutions. If you want to put it in negative terms, they are propaganda machines.  –  Hans Haacke

I grew up going to museums, and to art museums in particular. I was born in Bruges, Belgium, and it is often said that this city is a museum in itself. Its well-preserved late medieval city centre is an accident of history: Bruges’ harbour silted up rapidly after the 15th century and the subsequent economic decline resulted in a lack of the sort of new building activity that later transformed the face of other Flemish cities such as Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp. Bruges was in its heyday a centre for what we now call Early Flemish painting, with artists such as Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Hans Memling in residence and patronized by Bruges’ wealthy merchants. Bruges is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist site, which attracts some 9 million tourists per year, which is remarkable when compared to its population of about 120,000 in the town centre (and a total of 250,000 if the greater metropolitan area is included.)

Jan van Eyck – The Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436), Groeninge Museum, Bruges

I am aware of some 26 museums in Bruges and environs, big and small, and public and private, and several of these have significant art holdings. The best-known of these is the Groeninge museum, which is the main municipal art museum and which exhibits the work of Flemish and other artists from what is now Belgium, from the 14th to the 20st century. It features such well-known works of art as van Eyck’s The Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436) and Portrait of Margareta van Eyck (1439) and The Death of the Virgin (c1472-1480) by Hugo van der Goes, along with modern works by artists such as James Ensor, Rene Magritte, Marcel Broodthaers, Roger Raveel and many others.

When I was growing up, my immediate family was not professionally involved in art or museums (I had a great-grand uncle, Camille Poupeye, who was a fairly well-known theatre and art critic but he was elderly and lived in Brussels and he was not part of our daily experience). Museum visits were however a fairly regular part of our family outings, as appears to have been the norm for most families in our social cohort. Bruges’ municipal museums had (and I believe still have) free admission for local residents on Sundays, which was of course an incentive to visit, and we also visited the local museums with school. We also traveled quite a bit within Europe and museum visits were invariably a major part of that. One of my earliest museum recollections outside of Bruges was a visit to the Louvre in Paris. I must have been about 10 years old at that time (which would place that visit in the tumultuous year of the 1968 student uprising and I remember seeing heavily armed police officers with riot shields and my mother explaining that it had something to do with the students at the Sorbonne).

Medici Cycle
Pieter Paul Rubens – Marie de’ Medici Cycle (1622-25), Richelieu Wing, Louvre Museum, Paris

The Egyptian mummies at the Louvre would haunt my dreams for months to come, and not in a good way, and strolling around in that very large museum was in itself a challenge for my young body. I remember vividly how much my shoulders were hurting after walking around for several hours and that I was actually crying, having just had my fill of my first Louvre experience. But my mother would have none of it and she was adamant that we were going to see Rubens’ Marie de’ Medici Cycle (1622-25) before we left because, as she put it, we were Flemish and had to see the work of Flemish artists. I hated Rubens for a long time. Subsequent museum visits were not so traumatic and we saw many of Europe’s major museums during our vacations. Our visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was particularly memorable to me and I was mesmerized by the Botticellis there – an experience which contributed actively to my decision to study art history and to make a career in museums.

Sandro Botticelli – The Birth of Venus (1484–1486), Uffizi Gallery, Florence

My family was average middle class, a large family (according to Belgian norms) with five children and no money, and we were not particularly involved in the art world. We had some art works on our walls, but these were family heirlooms, that shared wall space with family photographs and a small, cheap copy of the Mona Lisa – a souvenir of one of our Paris trips. We did not buy art, nor did we go to exhibition previews and I don’t think my family knew any professional artists. The only art event I ever attended while growing up was a special viewing of an exhibition of the Anonieme Vlaamse Primitieven (Anonymous Early Flemish Painters) exhibition at the Groeninge in 1969, to which my family was somehow invited (I don’t remember why exactly but it was some special initiative).

Petrus Christus - Potrait of a Young Girl
Petrus Christus – Portrait of a Young Girl (1465-1470) Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

We may not have belonged to the inner circles of the European art and museums world but this did not deter our museum visits. With Early Flemish painting, there was the additional attraction that the people in it looked like us. I was told many times that I looked like the girl in the Petrus Christus portrait (1465-1470). When I look at photographs of myself as a young girl, there is indeed some resemblance, especially the high forehead about which I was teased so often. We embraced our connection to this heritage and we were comfortable that this was about “us” but did not dwell on its broader significance, as our symbolic ownership of it had not been substantially questioned, at least not in my lifetime. And we were not overly preoccupied with our social status either, other than being aware that we were not affluent and that we were not “big people” in society, but we had everything we needed, including access to good, nearly free education, which provided my siblings and I with solid tools for social mobility.

Looking back, and now wearing my Museum Studies hat, my family’s relationship with museums surely warrants further analysis. It would have been interesting, for instance, to apply Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural and educational capital to our museum-visiting habits and to consider how this reflected, and affected, our place in the social pecking orders of Flemish Belgium, historically or in the present. Tony Bennett, drawing from Michel Foucault, has called the museum, in its classic, conventional form, a “reformatory of manners,” designed to produce “good citizens,” and Carol Duncan has similarly described visiting the universal survey art museum, such as the Louvre, as a “ritual of citizenship.” The manner in which I was dragged, against my will, to see the Medici cycle at the Louvre sure illustrated the extent to which my family’s museum visiting was motivated by a sense of civic obligation and a strong dose of cultural nationalism. Whether we were aware of it or not, visiting these museums was part of how we learned to be Flemish, Belgian, European and, by implication, also white.

Early installation view, Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium

I have written, in earlier blog posts, about the controversies and contentions that surround art museums in North America and the UK. Belgium appears to be curiously devoid of that sort of activism, with recent controversies focused on inappropriate political interference into the affairs of a major cluster of public art museums and the inclusion of forgeries in an exhibition of Russian modernism, but there seems to be very little agitation pertaining to the politics of museums and cultural representation. This is remarkable, given Belgium’s turbulent social and political history and its rapidly changing demographic make-up as an increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-racial society.

The only major exception thus far pertains to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, which has its origins in Belgium’s colonial history with the Congo, an enterprise which involved significant exploitation and crimes against humanity. There has been agitation, coming mainly from the Congolese community in Belgium, for this museum, which appeared to be frozen in time, to acknowledge and interrogate its colonial premises and to play a lead role in making contemporary Belgium more aware of, and prepared to confront its very problematic colonial history. The museum, which holds a major collection of Central African art along with, of course, natural history specimens, has been closed for refurbishing since 2013 and is now scheduled to re-open in December 2018, with a major re-installation which promises to do just that. It will be interesting to see what form this will take and even more so how the results will be received, in Belgium, in the Congo and beyond. It will also be interesting to see whether and how this will raise awareness in Belgium of the social role of museums and encourage further museum activism.

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