Toilet Paper and Crypts: Two Not to Miss Museums in Ghent, Belgium

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.

Ghent, Belgium

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?

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

7 Responses

  1. Julie McNamee

    Beautiful photos, Matt. I think every public bathroom should be shaped like a toilet roll.

    Reply
  2. Monique

    Sometimes you need more than one visit to thoroughly enjoy the visit, it’s almost like a reverse “la petite mort”, n’est-ce pas?

    I do like art, but I agree with you that there is a limit of art intake – unless it’s Van Gogh!

    Ghent is on my list of places I want to visit, just really don’t know when that will happen yet.

    Thanks for sharing the pictures, great as always, and it was very nice meeting you at TBEX!

    Monique

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Great meeting you too and yes, you should definitely visit Ghent.

      Reply
  3. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures

    Wow these photos are terrific! I used to LOVE museums, now I’m kinda over them. I prefer to just sit at a cafe and people watch. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Annick

    Well, you just captured two of my own favourite museums – and being born & raised in Gent, this means something 😉
    By the way, did you know that behind the gigantic toilet paper, the sign that sais “de pot op” means actually two things in Dutch?
    Literally, it means “to go on the loo”; so go to the toilet. But it’s never used in that way. The other meaning means, “screw you” – which is how we always use it 😉 I pass by this spot daily on the bike to & from work, never ceases to make me smile!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Very cool information! Thank you for sharing it

      Reply

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