CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Elsje Janssen

How to Entice People to an Altarpiece
Elsje Janssen, Scientific Director of Collections at the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, Antwerp


The Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (KMSKA) closed for major renovation in 2011. The arrangement of its works is also undergoing renewal. Although the collection’s focus is on Flemish – and more generally on Belgian – artists, it also contains works by important international masters. In recent decades, however, the KMSKA has often been seen primarily as a temple of Baroque art, partly because of its magnificent altarpieces by masters such as Rubens, Jordaens, and Van Dyck. Today the museum suffers somewhat from the fact that religious paintings of this kind are not really regarded with much excitement. Furthermore, much of the public lacks the religious background that would enable them to immediately grasp what such works depict.

While renowned art galleries such as The National Gallery and the Prado, as well as the Rijksmuseum, which reopened after extensive renovation in 2013, divide and display their artworks by century, the KMSKA has opted for a new thematic arrangement. Not only have we abandoned the purely chronological setup, in which Old Masters were displayed by century or by “school,” but we have also decided against keeping all our altarpieces in one place. Instead, works are clustered on the basis of subject matter – around universal themes such as “mother and child,” “prayer,” “suffering,” “evil,” “salvation,” “power,” and “morality.” The underlying rationale is that these themes are not linked purely to the Christian religion but are universal. While society is constantly changing, religion continues to play a role. The museum hopes that this approach will appeal to visitors with different religious backgrounds, and seeks to bring people together through these shared themes. The views of Jongbloed, a group of enthusiastic young art lovers, are frequently consulted.

Another innovation is the appointment of a number of “Artists in Residence” – not visual artists, but nineteen individuals or ensembles from the worlds of theater, dance, early and contemporary music, and one writer-poet. They derive inspiration for their creations, productions, and performances from the museum’s collection. All this brings a new, fresh perspective to bear on the collection, giving visitors an exhilarating new experience.

About Elsje Janssen

Elsje Janssen studied art history and archaeology at Ghent University and social and cultural anthropology at Leuven University. Her training in textile conservation at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in Brussels led to a number of appointments in this field. Besides working at the Rubenianum in Antwerp and serving for a period as Head of the Rubens House, she launched – and became director of – the overarching Department of Collection Policy, Conservation and Management for the city of Antwerp, also working as curator of the collection of the City Hall and the historical collection. She was involved in the construction of the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), was the curator of the visible storage in this museum and was responsible for the relocation of all the collections involved. Elsje Janssen was awarded a PhD in Art Sciences by the Free University of Brussels on the strength of her thesis on Tapestry Art in Belgium after 1945. She has served as curator of textiles at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels and at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Since 2014 she has been Director of Collections at the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen.

Elsje Janssen has contributed to numerous catalogues, yearbooks, and other publications, and possesses wide-ranging experience both as a lecturer and in the organization of exhibitions. She served for ten years as a member of the Topstukkenraad, the Council for the Preservation of Movable Cultural Heritage of the Flemish Community. She is active on a number of boards of directors (VKC, FARO, CODART) and academic committees (MoMu, FoMu).

Elsje Janssen has been a member of CODART since 2011 and a member of the Board of CODART since 2017.