Museums in the margins = marginal museums?

Daniel Christiaens

The Maagdenhuismuseum in Antwerp, formerly an orphanage for girls, is owned by the Belgian Openbaar Centrum voor Maatschappelijk Welzijn (OCMW). This is a large organization aimed at social care (hospitals, rest homes, service flats, home food delivery, etc.). Although the Maagdenhuis has been in existence since the early origins of the OCMW (1458), it is often forgotten. It is not seen as “useful”, or “in keeping with the core business”. A schizophrenic relationship exists between the OCMW and both an important museum collection and a monumental heritage site: the museum is tolerated, but should keep a low profile.

Such a specific institution functioning as a minor part of a large administration is not unique. The same problem occurs elsewhere in the country and abroad (for instance, the Musée de l’Assistance Publique in Paris was closed in the summer of 2010).

Key questions are:
• How can we improve our situation, and create better opportunities for a more professional working relationship?
• How should we cope with the international trend favoring larger museums and the danger of being closed and/or incorporated into these – relatively new – “city museums”?
• Discussion: We are in the midst of an economic crisis and must adjust to reality: museums are closing everywhere. Small museums, whether or not installed in a historical building, are a “luxury” and can function as well in another, new context.

The Maagdenhuis courtyard

The Maagdenhuis courtyard

About Daniel Christiaens

Daniël Christiaens received his M.A. in art history at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in 1982. His thesis on 20th-century fashion, The relation between fashion and the visual arts during the Interbellum: with special attention given to Sonia Delaunay, was a first at that university and parts of it were published in various magazines and bulletins. He has also lectured on the topic and currently advises students working on fashion history. In 1984 he began working for the Belgian OCMW, initially curating an exhibition on the history of medical instruments and technology in 1988. From 1988 to 2003 he was a staff member of ELZENVELD, a socio-cultural center and exhibition space (part of the Antwerp OCMW), where he co-curated various exhibitions on contemporary artists from Belgium and abroad. Christiaens has been senior curator at the Maagdenhuismuseum since 2006.