Rain: buckets, mops, wet feet at Brussels museums

The Louvre and Booijmans van Beuningen are not the only museums. But their evacuation of art under threat, was temporary. The situation in a few Brussels museums and historical buildings differs greatly.

Musee des BA 1Take for instance Brussels imposing Royal Museums of Fine Art, also known in Flemish as Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België and in French as Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. During a visit to its main building at the beginning of this year, I noticed a lot of empty spaces on the first floor, where medieval, renaissance and baroque masterpieces can be found.

There were no notifications like “on loan, temporarily removed”, “temporarily removed for exhibition”, or similar signs. These inform visitors a masterpiece is temporarily removed, because it is part of an exhibition elsewhere in the world. There were also no notifications telling disappointed visitors paintings had been removed for restoration.

Instead, walls and panels sported discoloured squares, rectangles, the occasional oval, where paintings had hung. There were also other traces. There were clear streaks running in crazy patterns from top to bottom on walls and exhibition panels. Occasionally the streaks could be seen running through the coloured patches where paintings had been removed. These streaks had clearly been left by water.

Articles in Belgian papers like “De Morgen” and “De Standard” confirmed my suspicion. Many of the paintings which I had come to re-admire, had been removed to prevent water damage. The Standard claimed 16 paintings had been removed because of heavy rainfall and a leaky roof. My impressions were, far more paintings had been lifted off walls.

According to Jan Debackere, Brussels’ Fine Art Museum is not the only one, forced to evacuate works of art, place buckets and use mops whenever it rains. The Cinquantenaire Museum (also known as Jubelpark Museum, or Musée du Cinquantenaire) actually has holes in its roof. A few can for instance be found above rooms containing the costume collection and egyptian sarcophagis.

Unlike the threat of flooding at the Louvre, or pond water seeping into rooms at the Booijmans, the situation in Brussels is not a recent one. The Belgian press started writing alarming articles on the state of historical buildings and museums as early as 2013. The charming Chinese Pavillion, which is part of the Museums of the Far East, had to be closed to the public in 2013. Parts of the roof and walls threatened to collapse. It remains closed to visitors.

Rain not only forces Brussels museums to remove art, to strategically place buckets, mop floors. In 2011, Brussels Royal Conservatory stopped being used as venue for the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition for young musicians. Humidity in its historical building is such, fungi and mushrooms flourish in the building. However, the good news is, that renovation work will start – in 2018.

Brussels’ museums and other cultural institutes which are housed in period buildings are not solely responsible for maintenance. The Belgian Regie der Gebouwen (a government agency responsible for maintenance of historic buildings, statues, etc) holds the purse and approves maintenance requests. But as early as 2014, the Belgian Court of Audit reported, this Regie lacks fundamental knowledge of the buildings and other cultural heritage it is supposed to maintain.

The Regie put the blame on the museums. But it also promised improvements. It promised to recruit 150 new employees. Such an increase in staff will enable it to be more pro-active and diminish a back-log of problems.

A visitor picking the wrong day and having to keep one eye on wet floors and full buckets, while using the other eye to admire say Egyptian art or Flemish Masters, may well raise an eyebrow – or two. Seriously? One hundred and fifty new employees, despite budget cuts and a back-log in maintenance jobs covering years – if not decades? For surely a Royal Conservatory building does not turn into a successful mushroom-farm overnight?

Scepticism does not disappear on reading that the Office of the Minister of the Interior claims “… For us, the priority is to find a definite solution. …” Or that the Minister of the Interior has personally ordered a study to be conducted. It should result in an inventory of solutions – in the long-term.

One notes no date is mentioned when the study will be completed and a report published.  But then, anybody with some experience of officials and politicians, is aware “a study into”, “inventory”, “long-term” simply mean quick fixes and long term solutions will never materialise.

The problems of closures, buckets, mops and evacuated art will be allowed to drag on indefinitely. What may now still be repairable damage to historic buildings, museums, art, will soon become irreparable damage. This time not through flooding and freak weather, but a simple lack of necessary maintenance and a true dedication to care for cultural heritage and pass it on to future generations.

Een bui en daar zijn de emmers al”, Jan Debackere , De Morgen, 2016
Brussels Royal Museums of Fine Art
Brussels Royal Museums of  Art and History
Website for all Brussels Museums

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