The Plantin Moretus Museum and other top museums in Antwerp, Belgium
Belgium is known to have cranky weather, so when you plan a city trip here, it's best to have a backup plan for when it rains. If you're going to the city, you can always go shopping, but why not visit some Antwerp museums as well?
The following list contains most of the museums in Antwerp I've already visited myself. It doesn't include the MAS or “Museum aan the Stroom” nor the Fashion Museum yet but I'll add those later.
If you prefer walking, this historic walking tour is a good choice.
If you like to cruise around on two wheels, choose this bike tour of Antwerp's highlights.
- A tried and tested list of museums in Antwerp, Belgium
- 1. The Plantin Moretus Museum
- 2. FOMU Antwerp
- 3. The Red Star Line Museum
- 4. Muhka
- 5. The Rubens Museum
- Where to stay in Antwerp
A tried and tested list of museums in Antwerp, Belgium
1. The Plantin Moretus Museum
I've always been fascinated by old books and typography. Probably because I can't imagine how patient writers and illustrators were during the pre-print days. And even when book printing was invented… can you imagine what a task it would have been to place all those loose letters on a page?
What a world of difference from the speed at which we can type and delete words now.
The Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium reminds us of how it used to be. This 16th-century building used to house the Plantin Moretus Antwerp printing company. It was founded by the French-born Christopher Plantin who later found a partner and successor in Jan Moretus, who would also marry Plantin's daughter.
Both are considered pioneers of the printing press industry and even have an Antwerp street named after them: the Plantin-Moretuslei. There's also a Plantin-Moretus pool and plenty of other places in the city pay tribute to these distributors of the written word.
There's even an Antwerp typeface that's based on 16th century fonts found in the archives of the Museum Plantin-Moretus.
Today, the former Plantin Press it holds a collection of old books, maps and old printing tools. It also shows visitors what the rooms of the house used to look like, as the family Plantin also lived here.
This Antwerp printing museum is the only museum in the world that has been recognized as a Unesco World Heritage Site. That's partly because of how well-maintained the building is, but also because of the museum's rich collection. It owns the two oldest printing presses in the world, which are on display in the original printing workshop.
The Grand Library was also preserved. The Plantin family and their successors left behind a vast collection of documentation about their family lives and the art of book printing.
Those works, as well as other books printed before 1800 and manuscripts about book printing and graphic art, make up the museum's book collection and can be consulted upon demand.
What impressed me most, though, were the old maps and the leather walls.
Leather walls? Yes!
Like we use wallpaper today, wealthy families in the 16th century could use leather to cover their walls. I didn't know this and had never seen anything like it. Although it certainly was special, it does make the already dark rooms of the Antwerp print museum building even darker, as the leather used is almost black, although often with gold running through it.
If you need a break and some light, step outside into the garden. The original garden was created in the 17th century by Balthasar I Moretus, but the one you see today was only designed in 1992 and based on what the garden would have looked like in the late 16th, early 17th century.
It took me about an hour to see everything and at the time of my visit (a Sunday morning), I was almost the only person there. If you're not into books at all, this museum is probably not for you, but if you are even just a little, I'd recommend it. Especially because the building itself is really worth a visit.
2. FOMU Antwerp
In 2015, the FOMU or Photo Museum of Antwerp celebrated its 50th birthday. Even though I spent a year living there during my studies and visited many Antwerp art museums, I didn't discover this one during that time. Something that needed to be corrected as according to reviews it's widely considered to be one of the best museums Antwerp has to offer. So when I spent a weekend in the city with a friend, I decided to go and have a look.
I had no idea what exhibitions were on and so I stepped inside without any expectations.
“Shooting Stars” – Jan Hoek
The first exhibition I saw was “Shooting Stars” by Jan Hoek. Hoek finds his models on the street, through friends or over the Internet and portrays them outside of their regular context. He asks his models how they want to be depicted and constantly asks himself how he can photograph them without exploiting them.
Something interesting about this exhibition was that for each piece there was a collection of three photos of the same model. Around the photos was written which photo the model had like the best, the second best and the least and why.
“Masterpieces and Discoveries” – August Sander
“Masterpieces and Discoveries” was an overview exposition of the work of photographer August Sander. It's a combination of portraits, city views, botanical studies and more, all works made over the span of five decades.
Besides hosting temporary exhibitions, the Antwerp photography museum also has a collection of its own, consisting of photographs, photography equipment and books.
“Photography Inc” was an exposition entirely put together with pieces from the museum's own collection. It tells the story of how photography evolved from being a luxury product to being a mass medium, from being an art form for the patient to a quick capturing of moments by the Instagram generation.
50 years FOMU
Lastly, I saw a special “exhibition” in the halls of the famous photo museum Antwerp. It celebrated its 50th birthday in 2015 and had asked people to send in their own best photos. These were then printed and hung on the wall for visitors to judge.
Visitors received “like” stickers that they had to put under the photo they liked the most. Like Facebook, but offline. A cool idea, I thought, and it was fun to see what kind of photos people had sent in.
3. The Red Star Line Museum
Over 2.5 million. That's how many Europeans boarded the Red Star Line ships in Antwerp, Belgium to migrate to North America in search of a better life between 1873 and 1934. The Red Star Line company has long ceased to exist, but its buildings are still there and today they house the Red Star Line Museum.
My Red Star Line Museum review
I find it hard to give you a quick overview of what I saw at the museum because there was simply so much – it's easy to see why people rate it as one of the best museums in Antwerp and for me personally, it's maybe even the best museum in Antwerp.
It tells the history of the Red Star Line and the migration from Europe via Antwerp to North America from different angles and perspectives. Through photographs, audio recordings, objects, information panels and video I learned about the types of boats that were used, the process immigrants had to go through to be allowed on board and into North America and their personal stories.
The stories focused on at the Red Star Line Museum are those of third-class passengers. Only people with a third-class ticket had to go through to an extensive medical check and disinfection process before they found out if they could board.
So even if you had a third-class ticket, you weren't sure if you could travel to North America until you'd been completely checked and “approved”. These checks were very thorough because when they arrived in North America, the third class passengers needed to go through another check and if they weren't approved there, the costs for sending them back were for the Red Star Line company to pay.
Passengers with a second or first-class ticket didn't have to go through any checks and could simply arrive in Antwerp and board the ship. They obviously traveled in much more luxurious circumstances, although the conditions third-class passengers did improve somewhat over the years.
It was only after I'd already seen a part of the exhibition that I realized the route through the museum is the same route the migrants needed to follow to hand over their luggage, clothes and other personal possessions for disinfection, to shower and to get examined by a doctor before they knew whether they could depart or not.
It wasn't only interesting to see the exhibition this way, it also made it easier to take in the wealth of information shown. I don't like it when museums allows me to walk crisscross from one part of the exhibition to another without any guidance as to what I should see first, especially when there's a somewhat chronological order to follow.
Besides following the route the migrants took through the buildings of the Red Star Line company, the museum also takes its visitors from the lead-up to the migration flow and Antwerp's role in it to the transformation of the “migration ships” into cruise ships after the migration boom was over. It even touches on the topic of migration in today's world.
At the end of the tour, you can go through Red Star Line passenger lists on a computer to see if you have a relative who's ever migrated through here.
Afterward, you can climb the museum's tower for a view over Antwerp. And maybe a pensive moment about what's happening in the world right now.
I can't really say that contemporary art is my thing. Of course, “contemporary art” is a very large and flexible concept, but what I mean by contemporary art is the kind of art that represents something or “means” something more than it shows on the surface.
Does that make sense? A painting of flowers is a painting of flowers, but a toilet in the middle of a room that automatically flushes probably has a deeper meaning. Or so we are lead to believe.
That doesn't mean I can never appreciate “contemporary art”. Sometimes I see something that I like, but then I quickly realize I like it because it's “pretty” or cool-looking and probably not for the reasons the artist intended it to be liked. Or disliked. Who knows.
So it was with curiosity and a sense of reservation that I entered the M HKA, Belgium's Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp.
The MuHKA or “M HKA” is above everything a museum of art in Antwerp, but it's also much more than that. Aside from contemporary (visual) art exhibitions, M KHA also hosts lectures, has an in-house cinema and organizes workshops. It supports and participates in art research and has a library that's open to the public with over 32,000 books, catalogs, and magazines.
Have a look around:
5. The Rubens Museum
Rubens House or “Rubenshuis” is a remarkable building at the heart of the city that tells the story of the legendary Belgian artist. Peter Paul Rubens, one of Belgium's most celebrated historical figures, lived here between 1610 when he purchased the house and his death in 1640. It has now been restored to a high standard and is a great place to explore.
What makes it one of the most unique art museums Antwerp has to offer is its wide range of contents. Not only does it hold a wonderful collection of Rubens' own artwork and that of his peers (including Van Dyke, Brueghel the Elder, Titian and many more), but also a series of objects that give a fascinating insight into his day-to-day life. These range from grandiose gifts like ceremonial chains to everyday objects like his own canopy bed and his wife's own linen press.
As well as his legacy of artwork, Rubens was a talented and ambitious architect. The house and garden themselves were elaborately renovated and constructed according to his own Renaissance-style designs, in keeping with the fashion of the time. Now, you can look round his house, studio, courtyard and Baroque garden, and wander through the beautiful porticoes.
And that's it for my list of Antwerp museums. It's just a selection of the wide city's large offer and doesn't include, for example, the large and famous MAS or “Museum aan de Stroom” (“Museum by the Stream”) or the Fashion Museum. What it does include, are my personal best museums in Antwerp. I hope this post has put you in the mood to go discover some of them.
Make sure to spend at least a weekend in the city as there are plenty of things to do in Antwerp.
Where to stay in Antwerp
Check Booking.com for an extensive list of options for all budgets and needs.
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