Museum M: Leuven, Belgium's Cabinet Of Old And New Curiosities

View of the Library Tower from the upper floor | Courtesy of Laura Tombolato
View of the Library Tower from the upper floor | Courtesy of Laura Tombolato
Wandering the streets of Leuven accompanied by the aroma of nearby cafés and the lights of the Central Library, it is impossible not to stop in front of a curious white construction that stands out amid neighboring Flemish-style buildings. Museum M does not look conventional at all.

Featuring white pillars, glass accents, and steps, Museum M’s entrance hall is a magnificent welcome to the city of Leuven. The bright white entrance opens up to a modern building behind glass doors, where the museum planned and designed by Stephane Beel stands. Yet Museum M boasts a long history far before the changes brought by the new millennium.

The Cabinet of Curiosities exhibits relics, works of art, and antiquities. A cabinet created in the Leuven town hall in the 18th century started to develop into the municipal museum that can now be admired and visited. Due to the lack of space, the museum was moved to the former private residence of Mayor Leopold Vander Kelen in the Vanderkelenstraat and, through generous donations, its content increased in variety and quantity. After undergoing a series of alterations and enlargements in the 20th century, the entire architectural structure of the museum was revisited in order to reflect its content.

Entrance of Museum M Courtesy of Laura Tombolato

The diversity of the collection, counting works produced in the Flemish Brabant during the Middle Ages and the late Gothic period, as well as contemporary artifacts, demanded a new style which was commissioned in 2004. The principal architect was Stephane Beel, a designer well known across Europe and responsible for the expansion of the Centraal Museum in Utrecht and the pavilion of the Rubens House in Antwerp, among others. The result is the curious mix of four buildings: two old, namely the former Vander Kelen-Mertens residence and the former university college of Saint Ivo, and two new. Even the contemporary entrance hall is announced by an old structure which belonged to the former faculty of science.

The first of the three floors gradually introduces visitors to the Flemish paintings and objects of the Middle Ages. Recreating the atmosphere of a cathedral, with high ceilings and suffused lights, Museum M shows statues, stained-glass windows and religious garments from different churches and abbeys in the region, before introducing the most vivid and impressive collection of this floor: a room where the Flemish primitives are the absolute protagonists, and becomes difficult not to halt in front of Dirk Bouts’ meticulous works, trying to grasp every detail.

One of the rooms of the collection Courtesy of Laura Tombolato

The big contrast between 15th century and 19th to 20th century paintings is enhanced by a sudden change of light. Spacious and modern salons, where the white walls and the combination of artificial and natural light mislead visitors over their real dimensions, host paintings and sculptures by Constantine Meunier, a renowned Brussels artist, who lived and taught in Leuven. The environment changes again after a few rooms when a small corridor leads to the former Vander Kelen residence. Beel has given the residence its ancient splendor, by using the original colors and parquet, and removing additions that had been made to the original structure.

Accessible through an elegant wooden staircase, the upper floor opens its doors to two very different temporary exhibitions: on the one side, an introduction to the Brussels painter Hendrick De Clerck, also described as the spin-doctor to Archdukes Albert and Isabella, and a contemporary of Pieter Paul Rubens. The exhibition also presents his original cabinet of curiosities, the core idea on which the Museum M developed.

Hendrick De Clerck exhibition Courtesy of Laura Tombolato

On the other side is the New York-based contemporary artist Sarah Morris with her Astros Hawke, in which she analyzes the unreliability of surfaces and façades, investigating beyond the physical. Dark rooms where her films are shown juxtapose with the bright rooms in which her colorful geometrical paintings are showcased.

On the third and last floor, visitors are beckoned by the natural light and the modern terrace. From there, on sunny days, the marvelous view of the Central Library tower, the pinnacles of the old town hall, and the inner garden of the museum offer the perfect closure to such a unique visit.