CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator's Project

A Renewed Permanent Exhibition for Museum Hof van Busleyden

May, 2024

Museum Hof van Busleyden, housed in a magnificent Renaissance city palace in the historic heart of Mechelen, had the outer shell of its building renovated in 2022-2023. The museum closed its doors, and took advantage of the opportunity to freshen up the – rather recently renewed – permanent exhibition. A new museal concept was developed, with attention to sustainability, inclusivity and diversity. The original concept, with the Burgundian Renaissance as its core theme, had to be interwoven with these considerations. This set of requirements, criteria and conditions was successfully combined in a renewed permanent exhibition. At the end of February 2024, Museum Hof van Busleyden opened its doors to the public once again, with At Home in Burgundian Mechelen as its core theme.

View of the building and garden of Hof van Busleyden in 1938 Collection City Archives Mechelen, Collection Berlemont, inv. B37-52. © Regionale Beeldbank Mechelen, beeldnummer SME001013416

View of the building and garden of Hof van Busleyden in 1938
Collection City Archives Mechelen, Collection Berlemont, inv. B37-52. © Regionale Beeldbank Mechelen, beeldnummer SME001013416

From City Museum to Burgundian City Palace

The Mechelen city collection, originally composed of works of art from churches, monasteries, artisanal societies and guilds of Mechelen, forms the basis of the collection of Museum Hof van Busleyden. The Burgundian city palace owes its name to one of its earliest residents: Hieronymus van Busleyden (1470-1517). As a new member of the Great Council, he welcomed nobility, humanists and politicians as his guests. The city collection has been housed in the palace since 1938, but the collection grew and the building soon turned out to be too small. In 2010, the museum closed its doors for a thorough renovation and refurbishment, in which more space was created for the collection and at the same time, the museum’s activities and approach were completely reconsidered. In 2018, the museum reopened its doors to the public as ‘Museum Hof van Busleyden’, with a focus on the Burgundian Renaissance.

The Renovation Following the Renovation

In 2022, only four years after the extensive renovation of 2010-2018, the museum closed its doors once again to renovate its roof and windows. Since it was not possible to predict the impact of vibrations, dust and fluctuations of temperature resulting from this work, the galleries were emptied and the collection was secured.

The museum seized the opportunity to introduce a few improvements in one fell swoop. The world had changed fundamentally, after all, since the reopening in 2018: topics like inclusivity and diversity had become much more prominent. In addition, some aspects of the museum had become dated or were in need of improvement, such as, for example, the routing throughout the building and the readability of the narrative content. The museum did not want to proceed solely on the basis of its own internal evaluation, and for that reason organized a survey of the public. Shortly before the museum closed, various target groups were asked about what could be improved.

A New Concept For and By the Public

In order to reach as many people as possible and gather as much information as possible in the survey, customized methods were used to approach each target group. The target groups comprised museum staff, residents of Mechelen, teachers, millennials, academics and scientists, museum professionals, marketing experts and storytellers. The results of the survey revealed in particular  four striking needs of the public : a clearer and more explicit museum narrative, more works of art of a higher quality, more diversity and the implementation and integration of  contemporary art.

These criteria were at the basis of the development of the renewed concept for the permanent exhibition. The museum immediately encountered  a few crucial obstacles and restrictions, however. Clearly, the available budget for the renewed exhibition had its limits. From the viewpoint of sustainability, the museum opted for an improvement over a comprehensive renewal. Still, in many cases, limited improvements proved to be more expensive than complete renovation. In addition, the museal collection has its limitations with respect to the Burgundian Renaissance – rendering the addition of other quality objects difficult. Finally, although the museum building itself is one of the most important objects of the collection due to its unique character as a Renaissance city palace, it also has many limitations as such on account of its small spaces, many windows and complex routing. In order to convert all of these criteria, limitations and obstacles into a high-quality and feasible renovation concept the museum decided to work with Studio Louter, a content design studio for museums. After several brainstorming sessions, a new core theme was adopted: At Home in Burgundian Mechelen.

<em>View of the entrance, garden and building of Museum Hof van Busleyden</em><br>© Stad Mechelen

View of the entrance, garden and building of Museum Hof van Busleyden
© Stad Mechelen

At Home in Burgundian Mechelen

This particular core theme was chosen for several reasons. First, the building as a Renaissance city palace plays a central role: it is one of the few “homes” from the period that has been preserved. It was also the “home” of Hieronymus van Busleyden in the sixteenth century. The museum pays attention to other groups and people who felt “at home” in Burgundian Mechelen, too. Who was part of that society? How and to what extent were their stories recorded and can the museum provide a place for these stories in its permanent exhibition? Besides this, the question of the extent to which people of a non-European background feel connected to the history of Burgundian Mechelen is also addressed. How can the museum be a “home” to visitors and tell a story that connects us all?

Against the Grain

An essential aspect of this renewed permanent exhibition is its attention to diversity as an extra, added layer. The clearer museum narrative, departing from the core concept At Home in Burgundian Mechelen, gains depth from the focus on diversity. But how does a museum introduce diversity on a period from our past for which predominantly the elite has left sources? How do you make diversity, which certainly existed, more visible? A source of inspiration in answering this question was Über den Begriff der Geschichte (1940), a text in which the German Jewish cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin opposed so-called historicism: a movement in historiography aimed at enabling people to empathize with the past by means of a reconstruction which is as exact as possible. According to Benjamin, historicism led especially to sympathy for the rulers and conquerors. They created most of the sources and controlled their tradition. The historian’s view of the past should be critical and detached, and go against the grain of history.

A detached view does not prevent a fascination with the past and its cultural treasures. It does not, with respect to the design in a museum, have to hinder the telling of great historical stories and displaying works of art of extraordinary aesthetic value. Yet, such a perspective creates conscious detachment, based on a critical awareness of the power structures underlying the stories and the objects. In the renewed permanent exhibition of Museum Hof van Busleyden, this critical perspective has been applied in several ways.

Hushed Voices

The museum decided to look beyond traditional history as recorded and told by powerful, largely white, male figures. This has created room for other characters in history by exhibiting objects and stories of individuals or groups not part of the elite. For example, the Mechelen artist Maria Faydherbe (1587-1643), an important transitional figure between the sculpture of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. She is one of the earliest known women artists in Western Europe, and one of the oldest women sculptors in European art history known by name. Hardly any of her work has survived, and yet, in the renewed exhibition, no fewer than two of her works are on display. Both are signed, and one is even dated. It is extremely unusual for a signed sculpture by a woman artist of the seventeenth century to have survived.

Another example of remarkable characters who are rarely present in museal collections is the model the museum had made to visualize the presence of different demographic groups in Burgundian Mechelen. Instead of merely focusing on the powerful elite and the court, it also depicts the people who lived on the margins of society. They were not members of a fraternity or association, they were not immortalized in portraits and no trace of their names survives. They therefore rarely appear in historical sources. The museum nonetheless searched through anecdotes in chronicles and ledgers, and on the basis of this information, their presence in the city was visualized on the map accompanying the model: a home for foundlings, the homeless of the St. Rumbold’s Church (who were not welcome anywhere else), the execution of Protestants by the hangman, the Romani, who were expelled from the city … In this way it becomes clear the city was not only a place for the wealthy and powerful, but it was a melting pot of people from all social classes.

Broad View

Besides showcasing hushed voices, the museum’s aim is also to expand the visitors’ view by focusing on a broader context within which the central theme At Home in Burgundian Mechelen can be located. After all, the world extended – and still extends – beyond Mechelen. With this in mind, the museum opens with a room dedicated to the year 1507, the year in which both Margaret of Austria (1507-1530) and Hieronymus van Busleyden came to live in Mechelen. There was, however, much more going on in the world. This is illustrated by means of the world map of German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller (ca. 1470-1521/22), who was the first to use the name Amerika on a map. On this huge map of the world, the visitor sees the city of Mechelen, capital of the Burgundian Netherlands, among all of the world’s large and powerful continents. Some events taking place elsewhere in the world at that time are indicated on this map. This, too, contributes to the acknowledgement that – however important Mechelen was at the time – the world extended beyond this city.

View of the gallery with the world map of Waldseemüller and the contemporary artwork “Left Eye, Right Eye” by artist Subin Son © Sophie Nuytten

View of the gallery with the world map of Waldseemüller and the contemporary artwork “Left Eye, Right Eye” by artist Subin Son
© Sophie Nuytten

Contemporary Art

Finally, there is the integration of contemporary art, contributing to a fresh perspective and a topical, socially relevant point of view. Contemporary works of art have been integrated throughout the permanent exhibition, all carefully selected and related to the historical art on display and/or the core theme. In the first gallery, for example, a work by the artist Subin Son (°1992) is displayed opposite Waldseemüller’s map of the world. Entitled Left Eye, Right Eye, it shows two glass spheres, one dull, the other shiny. The title refers to the difference between the left and the right eye of the artist herself. The shiny sphere reflects its surroundings in sharp focus; the dull sphere gives a clouded image. In this way, the work confronts the visitor with how people look at the world and with the impact of their viewpoint. The work mirrors the visitor, others present in the room, the room itself and the world map. The visitors’ view is broadened, while the work of art also reminds them how small they are in relationship to the rest of the world(map).

The Result

With its core theme At Home in Burgundian Mechelen,  Museum Hof van Busleyden keeps to the subject that has been central since 2018: the Burgundian Renaissance, with Hieronymus van Busleyden and Margaret of Austria as protagonists. The museum showcases sixteenth-century Mechelen, but looks beyond its magnificent churches and palaces. Visitors gain insight into the diversity of its society, the role of its trades and associations, the relevance of religion and how all of this is not so remote from our society today. There is, of course, a special place for the evocative Enclosed Gardens of the Sisters Hospitalliers, and the museum as a whole is enhanced by the integration of and dialogue with contemporary art. With its clear museum narrative, focus on diversity and the approach that goes against the grain of history and makes hushed voices heard, the renewed permanent exhibition introduces the visitor, in a refreshing and yet familiar way, to a piece of history that although it seems distant to many, is closer than we might suspect.

Hannah Thijs is Head of Collections & Exhibitions at Museum Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen. She has been a member of CODART since 2021.

The renewed permanent exhibition was curated by Samuel Mareel and Magali Elali.

Translated by Kate Eaton