From scientific apparatus to natural history specimens, from artworks to archaeological artefacts, and everything in between, at Musee L you can experience a collection of all shapes, sizes and for all interests. Musée L is what I would term a “universal university museum”. It has no singular focus. Instead, it provides us with an overview as diverse as the community it serves, showcasing the breath of UCLovain’s various research fields, both past and present. The curious visitor will also glimpse paths leading us into the future.
While this eclecticism benefits the museum in its ability to speak to the university community that it serves, it also provides an interesting challenge for interpretation and curation. Rather than presenting the objects in conflict with one another, the museum stage their oxymoronic collection as a kind of poetic dialogue.
An Adonic Greek statue stands in contrapposto beside an elegant Madonna, a pristine plaster replica beside a fragmented wooden original. Just below these statues, an entomological collection is displayed in parallel to a series of abstract paintings, the colours and forms of the pinned beetles mirroring the painted canvases.
The collections on display complement one another while simultaneously expressing deep contrasts, a message that is repeated throughout the museum space. In fact, the museum in itself is an encounter between divergent fields, as it occupies a building originally designed to be the university’s science library.
The museum’s move to this building in November of 2017 saw the library space be reduced to hold a small art-historical reference collection on the second floor. The bookshelves and desks have been replaced by a series of display cases, and the building is currently home to 32,000 items. 1,500 of them are spread out across its 2.600 m² of exhibition space, with the rest kept in reserve in the museum’s three floors of storage rooms.
A unique feature of Musée L is that it’s collection hasn’t been built up by the museum staff. The majority of the collection comes from the division of assets in the split between the Flemish (KUL) and Walloon (UCLouvain) parts of the Catholic University of Louvain in 1968. This split was not particularly pleasant, and this is reflected in the collections. The university library was literally divided based on item number, with even numbers going to UCLouvain and uneven ones going to KUL. While the museum’s collections were treated more cohesively, the exact logic behind their division remains quite elusive.
Though there are only a few references to this rupture directly visible throughout the museum, the inquisitive visitor can find clues everywhere through the inventory numbers. These show us that the previous organization of the collections focused primarily on theological (MB - musée biblique), ethnographic (A – afrique) and classical (AC – antiquité classique) curricula.
A lot of effort has also been put into celebrating the amazing stories of UCLouvain researchers by showcasing a few examples which have had a broad impact on the community. These displays highlight the legacies of diverse individuals within the university’s current projects. In keeping with the wider curatorial poesis, excavations in Syria and Southern Arabia in the 20th century are placed alongside videos of archaeological work at Sissi just before the museum’s reopening.
Gonzague Ryckmans is one of these famed UCLouvain researchers. He was a cleric and an important scholar in the languages of the ancient Middle East. In 1951, Ryckmans alongside his brother Jacques, the famed British arabist and diplomat St John Philby and the Belgian explorer Philippe Lippens, undertook excavations at Qumran and surveys of the surrounding regions. Qumran is best known for being the site where many of the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. During their survey expedition, the team uncovered over 10,000 inscriptions, greatly contributing to our knowledge of the ancient Arabian dialects. Though Gonzague passed away in 1969, his brother moved to UCLouvain and continued the important work they had started together, inspiring numerous other scholars, and leaving his archives and collections to the university. To this day, these collections provide an important focus of research, as scholars like Perrine Pilette and Elynn Gorris continue exploring and disseminating the stories of their origins.
All collections accessioned after the museums opening were obtained through donations from old university staff and funders. Rather than shying away from this fact, the museum embraces the friction between private and public collections by dedicating their top floor to a single collector, Dr. Charles Delsemme. While clearly kitted out as a museum exhibition, the space is made to mirror the arrangement of works within Delsemme’s own apartment in Liège. They even went so far as to simulate the soundscape of his apartment by playing some of his favourite tracks in the background. This collection expresses most clearly the message of the museum, as well as its internal paradoxes. In a heterotopia between the public and private, amateur and specialist spheres, diverse pieces from across the world are positioned alongside one another to promote cultural comparison and contemplation.
In placing the focus on people rather than objects, Musée L speaks to our human creativity, connectivity and conflict, and challenges how we understand the place of museums within society.
Place des Sciences 3 - Bte L6.07.01
6 euros (5 for seniors & free for children and students)
Open Tuesday-Friday 1:30am-5pm and Saturday-Sunday 11am-5pm
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Annelies Van de Ven is a post-doctoral researcher at the Université Catholique de Louvain. Her research is on the museology of complex archaeological collections and she is an area convener for the Group for Education in Museums. Annelies obtained her PhD at the University of Melbourne in Australia where she also worked as a curatorial assistant in the Classics and Archaeology collection.