Title: De intrede van het publiek. Museumbezoek in België 1830-1914
Other Titles: The Entry of the Public. Visiting Museums in Belgium 1830-1914
Authors: Nys, Liesbet; M9414468
Issue Date: 4-Jun-2009
Abstract: At the end of the eighteenth century the first museums were established on Belgian territory. At the beginning of the nineteenth century they op ened their doors to the public. Initially their accessibility was very l imited. After Belgium became independent the number of museums increased very quickly and access to these institutions became easier. That way v isiting museums could develop as a cultural activity. In my dissertation I studied this process. I describe the genesis and development of the p ractice of museum visiting in Belgium in the years between independence in 1830 and the beginning of the First World War in 1914. Diverse aspect s of this process are discussed. In the first place I analyse the ideas on museum visiting. Museum founders, museum directors, artists, art crit ics, civil servants, politicians, scientists, writers and journalists of ten had pronounced ideas about museum visiting. They reflected on the be nefits of museum visiting, described which instruments should be develop ed for the public, laid down how people should behave in museums, discus sed whether everybody should be allowed to visit museums or some people should be excluded. Sometimes they could influence the practices of muse um visiting. These practices are studied as well. The accessibility of m useums, the registration of museum visitors, the size and composition of the museum public, the public facilities and the museum visitors' behav iour are a few aspects that receive extensive attention. In the third pl ace the experiences of museum visitors are discussed. Travel journals, d iaries, autobiographies, correspondences and other egodocuments reveal w hat attracted the public to the museums and how that public experienced museum visiting. They show which museums were popular and which were not , and the reasons why. From the beginning expectations about museums were high. Among others th ings museums were supposed to enhance the training of artists, to bring about scientific progress, to increase national and local pride. Initial ly, most museums were open for the general public just a few hours a wee k. Only artists, connoisseurs and foreign tourists could visit museums m ore frequently. In many museums an entrance fee had to be paid. Museum r egulations were meant to keep order, silence and discipline in the museu m rooms. The museum staff concentrated on the acquisition and study of o bjects and did not show much interest in the visiting public. Public fac ilities, such as labels and visitor guides, or educational activities, s uch as lectures and guided tours, were almost nonexistent in Belgian mus eums during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Although the limited accessibility of museums was criticised sporadicall y before 1860, after that date this criticism increased strongly. Restri ctive opening hours, entrance fees, difficult accessibility, chaotic arr angements, missing or incorrect labels were all seen as unwanted obstacl es for lower class people, who not only had little free time and lack of money, but also – because there was no compulsory education yet – often were almost illiterate. However, precisely for these lower class people museum visiting was more and more considered to be a very useful activi ty. Social-minded citizens pointed out the role of museums as institutio ns of popular education. They advocated that museums be transformed into ‘palaces for the people’. Sometimes these pleas hid moralistic and disc iplinary aims. Museum visiting was thought to offer lower class people d ecent amusement, which could be an alternative for pub-going and other b ad habits. Museum visiting was supposed to develop the taste and the int ellectual capabilities of lower class people, but also to improve their morals. During the nineteenth century museums were increasingly allotted the tas k of educating the general public and gradually they started to go along with it. Collections were given a more methodological arrangement. Labe ls were put up next to the exhibited objects. In addition to scientific catalogues more and more non-specialist visitor guides were published. M useums, with the help of museum friends associations, also started to or ganise lectures, guided tours, temporary exhibitions and other activitie s for the public. However, the introduction of these educational facilit ies went quicker in one museum than in another. Sometimes lack of money, place and/or staff functioned as a brake. Furthermore not all museum di rectors were as strongly convinced of the necessity of this kind of publ ic facilities. The size and composition of the nineteenth-century Belgian museum public could only partially be revealed in this study. Scarcity of sources mad e it impossible to find out the precise social profile of nineteenth-cen tury museum visitors. However, by analysing a few remaining museum visit or’s books it was possible to get a certain idea of the composition of t he museum public at that time. For the first decades of the nineteenth c entury these books show a rather elitist public. Besides artists and con noisseurs most visitors were persons of independent means or with high p rofessional occupations. The museums of large cities were often visited by foreign tourists, many of whom were English. For the second half of t he nineteenth century the visitor’s books of museums point out a certain broadening of the museum public. More and more lower class people, arti sans for instance, started to visit museums. The pleas in favour of demo cratisation of museum visiting thus seem to have been successful to some extent, although it remains doubtful whether working class people, let alone uninstructed working class people, did visit the museums in signif icant numbers. While artists and connoisseurs had some difficulty retain ing their dominant position in the museum visiting public, foreign touri sts still grew sharply in number. From the beginning museum visiting was a cultural activity of both men a nd women. It is often said that middle class men and women lived in sepa rate spheres during the nineteenth century. While men operated in the pu blic sphere, taking up commercial or political careers for instance, wom en stayed in the private sphere of the family home. However, this view h as already been modified many times. Although women were supposed to spe nd most of their time in the private sphere, they were not totally exclu ded from the public sphere. From the middle of the nineteenth century on ward music-halls, theatres, public transport, department stores and also museums increasingly did offer middle class women access to the public sphere. Visitor’s books of Belgian museums show, indeed, that during the first decades of the nineteenth century women were in the minority, but afterwards they managed to keep pace with men. In the first half of the nineteenth century most women visiting museums had no occupations, afte rwards more and more women with occupations – this fits in with the proc ess of democratisation – did visit the museums. The source material does not reveal any moral concern about the increasing numbers of women visi ting museums. For both men and women museum visiting was considered to b e a respectable cultural activity. As regards the age of the museum visitors, the most striking evolution w as the changing position of children during the nineteenth century. Whil e initially museums were not particularly keen on receiving children vis itors - no doubt because of their noisiness and unpredictable behaviour - and sometimes even prohibited them to enter, at the eve of the First W orld War children made up a substantial part of the museum public. Under the influence of new pedagogical theories, in the first place the devel opment of the intuitive education and the importance of the ‘leçons de c hoses’, museum visiting gradually got introduced into school programs. T he national government and some city governments took measures to stimul ate museum visiting of schoolchildren. Even more than for other visitors museum fatigue was seen as a problem for schoolchildren. Only sufficien t preparation could prevent schoolchildren from returning back home afte r a museum visit totally exhausted and with a loathing for that institut ion. Egodocuments show that museum fatigue was a very common phenomenon for n ineteenth-century museum visitors. The practice of exhibiting all object s in the museum rooms was without doubt the main reason why museum visit ing was such an exhausting activity in the nineteenth century. Museum vi sitors also complained about limited opening hours of museums, high entr ance fees, bad visibility or bad preservation of the objects, lack of in formation, expensive catalogues, unfriendly museum staff, unreasonable m useum regulations. During the nineteenth century visitors more and more put pen to paper to inform museum directors about their complaints. Some times it moved museums to take certain measures. That way the museum pub lic actively shaped Belgian museums. Obviously museum visitors did not only have bad experiences in Belgian m useums. Many visitors were delighted about what they saw. Foreign touris ts for instance were often deeply moved by the beauty of de paintings of the national masters in Belgian art museums. The works of these masters – in particular the Flemish Primitives, Quinten Metsys, Pieter Paul Rub ens and Anton Van Dyck – were the most important crowd pullers of ninete enth-century Belgian museums. But visitors also were fascinated by the c olourful birds in the natural history museum of Brussels, by the instrum ents of torture in the museum of Ypres, by the local archaeological rema ins in the museum of antiquities in Tournai. Museum visitors attached gr eat importance to the atmosphere in museums. Many of them, for instance, enjoyed the intimate character and the cloister-like silence of the mus eum of Saint John’s Hospital in Bruges. The Museum Plantin-Moretus in An twerp gave many visitors the pleasant sensation of really feeling the pa st. Now and then museum visitors expressed their appreciation for the ed ucational facilities, for instance for the didactic presentation of the collection pieces at the museum of antiquities in Namur. How visitors ex perienced the Belgian museums depended on different factors, such as the ir background, interests and expectations. Also the time of their visit was of importance, because this had consequences for the way the objects were illuminated and the number of visitors present in the museums. Museums themselves did not yet show much interest in the experiences of their visitors. They did not extensively investigate the composition and the opinions of their public. Nor was it already a common practice for visitors to write comments in the museum visitor’s books. However, more and more museums started counting their visitors and sometimes the admis sion figures were analysed. In some museums the behaviour of the visitor s was observed. That way a primitive form of audience research was born. At the eve of the First World War museum visiting had become a common cu ltural activity in Belgium. Most visitors were still recruited in the ur ban middle classes, but also a small number of lower class people had di scovered museum visiting as a nice leisure time or educational activity. The First World War would strongly inhibit museum visiting. After the w ar the evolution that had started before 1914 would continue. Education of the public became more and more important for museums. In 1922 the fi rst education service was established at the museums of the Jubilee Park in Brussels. Other museums would soon follow suit.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: TH
Appears in Collections:Cultural History since 1750, Leuven

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