On my return visit to Ghent, I was fixated on one thing – giving it a second chance. My first trip to the Flemish city near Brussels didn’t go well, one might say it was a travel disaster. My second visit was better coordinated and longer, and those two details made the trip a success. One of the highlights was something I don’t always enjoy, the museums.
Let me back up, I like some museums. I love history, so anything in that category is usually a sure bet with me. My ability to consume massive quantities of artwork though is severely limited and I usually rush through art museums; they can’t just hold my interest. So it’s probably no surprise that my two favorite museum experiences in Ghent had nothing to do with art, well not much at least.
The Ghent City Museum (STAM) is a wonderful example of telling a story in a way that is engaging and interesting. Housed in a 14th century abbey, the new museum opened in 2010 to great fanfare. As I learned, the critical acclaim is well earned. While the architects kept the architecture of the abbey intact, they also seamlessly infused the museum with modern touches.
A visit to the STAM starts off in the map room, a massive aerial photo of the city with detail so fine that residents can find their houses. A walk through the rest of the exhibits is a journey through time as every stage of Ghent history is revealed in detail. Also in each room are computers, allowing visitors to learn more about the eras if they so choose and to see where the historical buildings would have stood in modern Ghent. I think that’s what I enjoyed most about the museum. Sure, it’s a way for visitors to get a better understanding of the city, but it’s always meant to educate the citizens of Ghent themselves. The museum organizers intended from the very start for the educational center to be for the people of Ghent, and they went to great pains to make sure they could be as captivated as the first time visitor.
At the end of the tour is a fantastic, interactive arena where visitors can splice together their own mini-documentary using footage from old news broadcasts and then watch the movie on the overhead screens. Believe me, I speak from personal experience when I say that this feature is addictive and a lot of fun.
The STAM isn’t a stand alone building though, it’s part of the larger Bijloke complex that today is home to the museum, convent buildings, a music center and a Gothic refectory decorated with pre-Van Eyckian murals.
My other favorite museum in Ghent couldn’t be more different than the STAM, the Design Museum of Ghent.
Housed in an 18th century mansion, the Design Museum focuses on showcasing the best of 20th century decorative arts. For a lover of design and decorative arts from the first few decades of the last century, the museum was a visual treat.
One of the most unusual features of the museum is the bathroom wing. Built after a lost battle with city government to approve an expansion, the museum constructed an outside set of bathrooms in an enclosure made to look like a giant roll of toilet paper. If that’s not the perfect example of Flemish passive aggressiveness and sarcasm, I don’t know what is.
Inside the museum though I was mesmerized by the displays, everything from avant-garde chairs to mock-up rooms that were truly drool worthy. Even though I was skeptical at first, the Design Museum was one of my favorite stops during my visit to Ghent.
Ghent is home to many museums, thanks in part to the university as well as just a natural curiosity among the citizenry. The result is a rich assemblage of things to do for visitors, including these two museums that I personally think are the best in town.
What types of museums do you like to visit when you travel?