Serious incident at the Musée d’Art Ancien in Brussels

1/2/09 – Heritage – Brussels, Musée d’Art Ancien – About 150 works on panels from the Musée d’Art Ancien in Brussels suffered from a breakdown in the hygrometrical system which went undected for almost three weeks. The affair was disclosed by the newspaper Télé Moustique which published a detailed and well-written article.

This grave incident took place in a room which had been transformed into a temporary storage facility for the duration of the work to clear the building of asbestos and install the “Musée Magritte”. Due to this refurbishing, part of the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts (the Musée d’Art Ancien is in fact a department of it) had been closed. Responsibility for the events has not yet been determined. In Belgium, maintenance of public buildings is managed by the Régie des bâtiments de l’Etat, an administrative entity which has undergone budget cuts every year. The cause of the problem might be found in these measures. We were told that when the air conditioning breaks down for example, it sometimes takes several days for it to be repaired. We should also point out that the storage facility had been set up by an outside contractor.
However, the museum cannot escape its part of responsibility as the problem should have been detected much earlier. It is particularly unacceptable that the information should have been revealed by the press while the establishment continued to cover up the disaster, discovered two weeks ago. The accidents affecting art works constitute part of their history and should never be concealed. Now that the media has focused extensively on the incident, the museum organized a press conference three days ago, including a visit to the storage room. The damage concerns essentially cracks and swelling of various orders.

On a more general note, we at times wonder if an excessive caution in handling works is not in fact more prejudicial in the long run. These pieces have come down to us through the centuries with relatively little damage, surviving without the help of air conditioning. Another worthwhile question would be to ask just how necessary it is to create a “Musée Magritte” within the Musées Royaux, a very expensive undertaking in today’s restricted economic environment. The various repairs in the building, the transfer of works to different part of the museum and the installation of a temporary storage facility are also a result of this remodeling.
It is highly regrettable that the Musée d’Art Ancien should be the victim of such an accident, as its conservation team has always adhered to strict ethics in managing its holdings, generally refusing to move the collections about without a real purpose (however, the director, Michel Draguet, had sided enthusiastically for the Louvre Abou Dhabi project and had recently pronounced himself in favor of “alienating” certain works, a debate which has resurfaced in Belgium – a few months after having been abandoned in France [1]).

Version française

Didier Rykner, dimanche 1er février 2009


[1] We will soon return to the subject of the dangers threatening the inalienability of art works in Belgian museums

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