The Exhibition "L’Héritage de van der Weyden" : the Opaqueness of the Musées Royaux


Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464)
Portrait of Antoine de Bourgogne
Panel - 38.4 x 28 cm

2/11/13 - Museums - Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts - We received the official press release from the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts today announcing the definitive closing of the exhibition "Les suiveurs de Roger van der Weyden". But the story behind this statement is not quite as clear as the museum’s communications department claims, and also indicates much more serious problems.

In fact, since our collaborator Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges is away from her desk and hard to contact, we had not made the connection with the information she received last 8 November. Our source informed us, with no further details, that "it was raining in the exhibition rooms", that the sound of jackhammers could be heard and vibrations felt in the museum galleries ! She had at the time called the person in charge of communications at the museum, Anne Goffart who was not, she claimed, aware of any of this. Then Bénédicte reached Barbara Porteman, press attaché, who simply stated that "there had been some small technical problems but everything is back to normal". When asked : "What technical problems ? Flooding ? A leak ?", she answered : "No, technical problems", giving the impression that it might be due to the construction work nearby for the Musée Fin de Siècle.
As for the museums which lent works, they were informed by Michel Draguet in an email that "no damage to the works has been observed", that "there is absolutely no danger concerning the stability of the ceiling" (that’s the least we might expect...) and that the rate of the four leaks which were identified "is not [...] abundant : a drop every 70/80 seconds" !

In concluding, we would say that this affair is extremely troubling and raises some questions concerning the management of the museum. Indeed, we would like to know what was done to protect the works between 8 and 13 November, when Le Soir announced the closing of the exhibition and why it took so long to make a decision. Above all, we would like to know why the museum is so opaque in communicating information : but not only, when we called on 8 November, we were told that everything was so to say, back to normal ; however, when we contacted the museum again this morning before writing this article, we were told by the communications department that everything was fine until 13 November, denying that anything had gone wrong on the 8th.

Furthermore, we cannot help but link these serious incidents to those which occurred in 2009 affecting the humidity in one of the museum rooms which had been transformed into a storage facility ; the problem was only detected about twenty days later, resulting in damage to several dozen works on wood. At the time, we had expressed our regrets (see news item of 28/1/09) not only about the tardy discovery of the accident but also the lack of transparency in the museum’s communication policy. Evidently, not much has changed in the last four years.

Addendum (22/11/13, 4:o4 pm)

Michel Draguet, director of the Musées Royaux, whom we tried to contact before writing this article, called us shortly after it was published. Here is his response to our questions :

"On 8 November, there was indeed an incident as a leak appeared in one spot. However, the noise of the jackhammers came from the work currently in progress in the museum’s auditorium. This space is far away from the exhibition but such noice carries easily throughout the buildings.
The technical services department, which we called to come see the water leak, told us that it was probably a condensation problem and not serious. Thus we finally opened at noon and this is probably the time at which my assistant talked to you.
The leaks returned. We then realized that the work had been carried out by drilling with a diamond which produces no vibrations but requires water to avoid overheating. We were told that the infiltrations came from this water and we just needed to wait until it was gone. We therefore decided to close for one week during which time the water level diminished.
We opened on Tuesday as normal, on Wednesday everything was fine, but during the night and early on Thursday it rained heavily in Brussels and the leak started up again, more heavily this time. We think that the company in charge of the work did not take care of the waterproofing correctly but it is impossible to check this out by simply looking.
Last night we decided to close the exhibition definitively since none of the experts consulted on the matter was able to assert absolutely that the situation could be solved. We cannot take this kind of risk with loans from outside museums and we warned the establishments in question immediately as should be, before publishing our press release.

We are part of a public administration, in a building which does not belong to us. We commissioned this work during the summer in order to cover up the skylight temporarily (this is indeed a temporary setup which will enable us to do multi-media projections).
However, behind the company in question, there is a long list of sub-contractors which was not communicated to us. We never asked to have the roof drilled and we became aware of it only after the work was finished.

Version française

Didier Rykner, vendredi 22 novembre 2013

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