KAAN Architecten have created new white volumes in the heart of the historic museum. This provides visitors with two worlds in one. Or two museums in one. We continue this division in the way we display our artworks. When you enter the museum upon reopening, you are immediately faced with a choice. Do you want to see the old masters or do you prefer the modern iconoclasts? In the historic galleries you get to see art created before 1880, in the white halls you can enjoy James Ensor and art created after 1880. The total package amounts to some 650 works. In this article we take you through the historic galleries.

On August 11, 1890, the KMSKA opened its doors to the public after six years of construction. Architects Jean Jacques Winders and Frans Van Dijk designed a museum tailored to the existing collection of the Antwerp Academy Museum, which was bursting at the seams. ‘Tailored’ can at times be taken very literally. The Rubens and Van Dyck Galleries are perfect for exhibiting the colossal altarpieces. In addition, the management likes to impress the public with crammed walls that display the abundance of the collection.

Such a style of display is less suited to modern art. Modern art benefits from being viewed at eye level, painting by painting. There is no room readily available for that, not least because the museum collection continues to grow. The solution comes along several years after W.W. I with an internal renovation of the patios. It is not just a matter of rebuilding, the entire interior is tackled. Gone are the crowded walls! For the first time, the museum no longer displays its old and modern paintings together, but on different floors.

Full, fuller, fullest
A modern mounting in the mid-1920s.

Persistent lack of space

Although the 1924-1926 redesign is never repeated with the same impact, the museum is always in transition. If only because there are no real exhibition halls. Designing temporary exhibitions always requires creativity. Or because there is not enough storage space for the ever-growing collection. Or because the museum's functioning changes along with the needs of the visitor. Where should the museum café, the restoration workshop or an audience engagement team be located? Time and again we have to improvise and move. And to adapt museum rooms, fill them in with walls or shelving. This gradually turns Winders and Van Dijk's straightforward floor plan into a chaotic maze.

Back to basics

KAAN Architecten's master plan does away with all of that. Thanks to the infill with new volumes on the site of the old patios, the museum will gain 40% more space for its collection. The halls on the first floor of the museum will become dedicated exhibition halls. Grand café, shop, depots, restoration workshop, reading room, studio spaces, offices, it's all in the master plan.

All the museum galleries used to be filled up with the collection.
After the renovation we will have eleven halls for temporary exhibitions.

And above all, it will be wonderful to once again stroll around the historic galleries on the upper floor. By removing all the walls and shelving, you can again follow the entire route through the galleries. Winders and Van Dijk envisioned these as enfilades. A series of successive galleries with doorways on a long, continuous axis provides impressive vistas. Obviously KAAN Architecten does more than remove partitions. They have all the woodwork - doorframes, panelling and parquetry - refurbished or restored. After research, KAAN Architecten select wall colours that do justice to the historic colour scheme. The result once again feels very 19th-century. Whereas much contemporary restoration work was involved.

Vistas on either side of the museum.

Making choices

While the contractors demolish and build, behind the scenes we begin to select which artworks we will display in the halls at the reopening. We decide to carry on KAAN Architecten's twofold museum world. The historical galleries will contain narrative art from before 1880, and the new halls will house art created after 1880 when material experimentation began to take precedence. This roughly corresponds to the art created before the museum was built, and that made after. And that works extremely well for our collection. James Ensor is the figure connecting the two worlds.

Time travel through themes

The wealth of very tangible materials in the historic galleries forms a beautiful canvas for our old masters. They usually presented a story as the starting point for their work. A story from the Bible, from history, mythology or from current events. Each of these works is a short journey through time. We arrange these works by theme, not by art school or era. Connections between works of art are the basis, as are the stories that are still relevant today.

Altarpieces in the Rubens Gallery and old masters in historic galleries as rendered by KAAN Architecten. We are keeping the final presentation under wraps as a surprise.

The large altarpieces remain in the Rubens and Van Dyck Galleries, where they form one ensemble with the wall colours, woodwork and gold decoration on the cornices. On either side of these monumental galleries, we divide the works along two axes. One axis is provided for religiously inspired themes such as Madonna or Heaven. The other axis bundles more secular themes with still lifes, landscapes and portraits. In the De Salon gallery, for art from the 19th century, we return to the wall-to-wall presentations of the past. So we are not entirely abandoning history.

It is often difficult to choose. That‘s how it goes when you have to reduce a collection of 8,400 works to a manageable selection. Yet not all the halls will be jam-packed. In some galleries we provide more serenity and hang only three works, as in the Madonna Gallery. In other halls we will integrate sculptures, objects and music. In this way we continue to surprise. We refer to the past; the museum is a place full of memories. And we provide variety, tranquility and exuberance, 19th-century ambience and contemporary perspectives.

Follow the renovation

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