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 Antwerp, you can always go shopping, but why not visit a museum or two as well?
The following list contains all of the museums in Antwerp I’ve already visited myself. I’ll add to it as I visit new places.
- A tried and tested list of museums in Antwerp, Belgium
- 1. The Plantin Moretus Museum
- 2. FOMU Antwerp
- 3. The Red Star Line Museum
- Practical information
- 4. Muhka
- M KHA
- Where to stay in Antwerp
- Pin for later
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 in pre-print days. And even when book printing was invented… can you imagine what a task it was to place all of those loose letters on a page?
What a world of difference with the speed at which we can type and delete words now.
The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium reminds us of how it used to be. This 16th-century building used to house the Plantin-Moretus 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 a street in Antwerp 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 Plantin-Moretus Museum.
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.
The Antwerp Plantin-Moretus 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 books 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 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.
Up-to-date opening times and entrance fees can be found on the website.
2. FOMU Antwerp
In 2015, the FOMU Antwerp or “Photo Museum Antwerp” celebrated its 50th birthday. Even though I spent a year living in Antwerp during my studies, I didn’t visit it during that time. Something that needed to be corrected and so when I spent a weekend in the city with a friend, I decided to go an 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 on the Internet and portrays them outside of their regular context. He asks his models how they want to be portrayed and constantly asks himself how he can photograph them without exploiting them.
Interesting about this exhibition was a collection of each time 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 FOMU Antwerp 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 Antwerp
Lastly, I saw a special “exhibition” in the halls of the FOMU. The museum 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 then offline. A cool idea, I thought, and it was fun to see what kind of photos people had sent in.
Practical information FOMU Antwerp
Please check the website for up-to-date opening hours and prices.
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. The museum tells the history of the Red Star Line and the migration from Europe via Antwerp to North America from different angles. 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.
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 capture the wealth of information shown. I don’t like it when a museum 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 and 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.
Red Star Line Museum
Check the website for up-to-date opening hours and entrance fees.
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 with contemporary art is the kind of art that represents something or “means” something else than it shows.
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 because of the reason the artist meant it to be liked. Or disliked. Who knows.
So it was with curiosity and a sense of reservation that I entered the M HKA, the Museum of Contemporary art of Antwerp here in Belgium.
The MuHKA Museum or “M HKA” is above everything a museum, 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:
Check the website for up-to-date opening hours and prices.
Where to stay in Antwerp
Check Booking.com for an extensive list of options for all budgets and needs.
If you’re looking for an apartment rather than a hotel, I would recommend checking airbnb. Sign up through my link and get a discount on your first stay!
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