Museums of Brussels

Picturesque centre of Brussels
Picturesque centre of Brussels!

Hello! I am back with another museum review guide. This time around, it’s Brussels. Not because I visited all museums in Brussels actually, but because I visited a handful which I have particularly strong opinions about. In this post I will review:

  • The Magritte Museum
  • The Musical Instruments Museum (MIM)
  • The Parlamentarium
  • The House of European History

(Significant museums missing, in my opinion, are the Brussels Comic Book Museum, and possibly the (rest of the) Royal Museum of Fine Arts)

Ceci n'est pas une pipe
Ceci n’est pas une pipe!
Explaining the The Treachery of Images
Explaining the The Treachery of Images

Magritte Museum / Musée Magritte

(2019) Admission: adults € 10 students € 3 and apparently Eurostar passengers can buy a ticket and get one for free

I actually visited this museum back in 2016, when I was finishing up my PhD thesis and starting to apply for jobs. I had one of my worst interview experiences to date, so I cannot say I remembered Brussels extremely fondly up until now. However, after sitting on a park bench for 10 minutes feeling sorry for myself, I decided to cheer myself up with a visit to the Magritte Museum, which made up for a lot.

For those who do not know, very briefly: René Magritte was an early 20th century surrealist painter. I am not a huge fan of surrealism, but something about Magritte’s philosophy strikes a chord in me. I do like how The Treachery of Images (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe“) challenges our perception of reality, no matter how many touristy t-shirts it is printed on nowadays. (The original of which is, by the way, currently, apparently in Los Angeles; as many reviewers on TripAdvisor note with disappointment.) The museum is relatively new, as museums go, having opened in 2009. It has an extensive collection, with around 200 works by Magritte – so if you are a fan, you will not be disappointed. The space was plenty, and clear; the lighting was good; and the exhibition varied: it included Magritte’s experiments with photography and film as well.

Personally, I do not remember the ‘famous’ works missing from the collection. Perhaps they were never there, perhaps they were and are on loan now; or perhaps people are attaching too much value to specific titles & originals. (Van Gogh did also paint a lot of sunflowers, you know; if you want to see only one specific set of them, you will spend a long time looking.) I feel like I got an excellent impression of Magritte’s life, views, and body of work and I recommend visiting the museum if you find yourself in Brussels.

Outside the MIM
Outside the MIM
Beautiful Art Nouveau building
Beautiful Art Nouveau building
First floor of the MIM, with traditional musical instruments.
First floor of the MIM, with traditional musical instruments.

Musical Instruments Museum / Musée des instruments de musique / Muziekinstrumentenmuseum (MIM)

(2019) Admission: adults € 10 students € 4 (the ticket says art & archaeology students only, which actually I am/was, but no one checked in our case)

This museum is probably more famous for its stunning Art Nouveau exterior, than the collection inside. It is located in the former Old England department store (and still says ‘Old England’ on the facade), constructed in 1899 and combined with an 18th century neo-classical building. The building has 10 floors, which can be ascended via lift or by climbing the beautiful sets of stairs. Three of the floors house the musical instrument collection, which adds up to around 8,0000 pieces, of which 1,100 are on display. The rooms were only accessible via double doors, which I presume has to do with temperature control (?), although this was not sign-posted. It is probably a little tricky to navigate if you are a wheelchair user, but not impossible.

The basement floor (-1) called ‘sound lab’ houses instruments from Belgian’s recent past, i.e. mechanical and electrical instruments such as add proto-synthesizers. ‘Sound lab’ made me think there might be some instruments to play and try out? But that was sadly not the case (not on our visit anyway). The first floor (+1) is dedicated to traditional musical instruments, take you through the developments of flutes, violins and also bagpipes. (Bagpipes do not age well I have to say.) I spotted an Irish tin whistle, African drums, and so forth. One thing that really stood out to me, is how much more beautifully and intricately and colourfully instruments were decorated in the past; why does my recorder not look like that?!

On the second floor (+2) the exhibition moves toward the more classical side of musical history, going through the instruments the Great Composers must have worked with. My sister and I debated for a long time what the difference between alt and bass violins and various cellos really are, never having realised they look so similar. Then on the fourth floor (+4) (the 3rd floor is the gift shop) the entire space is dedicated to keys. There are beautiful pianos (including ‘giraffe’ pianos, presumably designed by Dutch musicians to fit into narrow Amsterdam houses) leading on to classic German synthesisers. The walls are decorated with quotes in multiple languages (Dutch/Flemish, French and English, but also e.g. German) (it is very satisfying to be able to read all of them!) which really gives the exhibit character (e.g. Tom Waits “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)”).

Do take some time to enjoy the building itself as well. There are beautiful decorated edges to pretty much everything, and also an amazing view over central Brussels. Also, apparently there is a rather expensive cafe/restaurant at the top, which we did not venture to explore. Bonus: if you are reading this in a place ridiculously distant from Brussels, it is possible to browse the collection online (http://www.mimo-international.com/MIMO/) – which is great of course, because it is about musical instruments, so you can click on bits and bops to listen to.

At the Parlamentarium
At the Parlamentarium
A look inside the EU parliament
A look inside the EU parliament

Parlamentarium

Admission: free

This is the visitors’ centre of the European Parliament. My hope was to experience a comprehensive overview of the creation of the European Union, and leave with a better understanding of the way in which it functions today. The first was a disaster, but the second turned out ok, I think. The visitor centre is huge and spacious and rather nicely designed. Audio guides are available in all 24 official EU languages, and I was happy to find a little booklet in Irish. However, this is also the major weakness of the ‘museum’: the only way to view the exhibits, was with an audio guide. I asked if there was anything else we could use (I mean, deaf people?) and the answer was no. Personally, I really prefer it when museums give you a variety of options, so you can browse however you like. Also personally, I detest audio guides. I find them a hassle to use (having to hold something, stick something to my ear, not be able to talk to my company properly, etc.), and it is just not the way I process information: I prefer skimming text, on selection; I really dislike having to listen to someone else explaining what I am seeing, and usually also explaining this really slowly, and obviously. I just hate the whole situation. The only place for an audio guide, for me, is in a music/film museum. I am a huge fan of linguistic diversity, and I am in favour of the EU using and promoting all of its member languages – but this is just really not the way to go about it.

Anyway this meant that I did not understand anything about the carefully designed historical overview. Fortunately, at the end of the exhibition, there was also a room made to look like EU parliament, where we could sit down for 10 minutes, and watch a surround-video about the meetings that take place there; how motions are built up, and passed or rejected. That was rather good. Next to it was a room with individual stories by people who have won awards and grants from the EU. Most of them did not interest me, but I do not suppose you were meant to look at all of them. We selected one story by an Irish school teacher, which was actually rather nice to watch, and made the entire, huge, overwhelming, structure that is the EU a bit more personal again.

I am not sure I recommend visiting, unless you really love audio guides.

Photos not allowed so... here's the exterior of a bit of the EU buildings
Photos not allowed so… here’s the exterior of a bit of the EU buildings

House of European History 

Admission: Free

Confused by the Parlamentarium, we wandered on to the European History museum. The first thing I noticed is that photographs and film were not allowed – which, yes, does annoy a museum reviewer such as myself. I could not see anything about the building or exhibit that warranted it either – copyright on some pieces, perhaps? Not security, I don’t think. Anyway, unfortunately, this was another audio guide situation – I refer you to my rant above. Except, it was worse, because there was no redeeming set of videos to tie it all together at the end. It was literally audio only, zero information signs to read. I took even more offense here, because this museum displayed actual artefacts, and it was so frustrating to find out what they were. Time-consuming, mainly. We were given a tablet this time, which was even more difficult to walk around with. As I said, I like to decide for myself what I am seeing, I do not like someone in my ear telling me; and I also like to access this information instantly, instead of scrolling through a tablet to find it. Not to mention the fact that there was way too much information. The Louvre, I can go back to a dozen times, and discover new things each time; this museum, I would have to go back a dozen times, because I could not find anything the previous eleven visits. The amount of information was both overwhelming, and difficult to understand.

The exhibition was spread over several floors and really beautifully designed. I think this is one of the reasons I am so angry, because it is such a waste of excellent museum curation to then ruin it with terrible, non-existent actually, sign-posting. We did not understand the chronology of what we were looking at, accidentally skipped the entire second world war, and to make things worse, the bits and pieces we did read about, we already knew. We learned nothing new. I think the only redeeming feature of this museum was a tiny Brexit exhibit on the top floor. It did entertain me that they keep their European history so up to date. However, of course, we found nothing sensible to actually read about it.

Another reason I am taking such offense, is because very good EU money mist have been spent on this. As before: if you love audio guides, do visit. Otherwise, avoid at all cost; it was actually a waste of time. Fun side-note: their review forms, of all things, were printed, in 3 languages, on paper. For a museum that has its entire exhibition on a bloody tablet, the review could not be on one? Or multi-lingual? Thus I conclude my possibly most critical museum review to date.

Author: Zen

Archaeologist & adventurer. Interested in vegetarian street-food, avoiding tourists and road-trips into the unknown. Originally from Holland - then Durham, Cambridge, Würzburg, Istanbul, Erbil - now London. Always learning a new language.

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