<iframe src="//www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-PWMWG4" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden">
Advertising Feature

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp makes room for the new

10 September 2022

From the September 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

From the outside, little appears to have changed at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (KMSKA), since ambitious renovation and extension plans – at €100m, the largest capital project since the institution was built – closed its doors in 2011. On 24 September, the museum finally welcomes its first visitors back through the familiar, imposing portico and into the grand neoclassical interior designed by architects Jacob Winder and Frans Van Dyck in 1890.

Through the entrance hall is the opulent De Keyserzaal space, named for the Belgian Romantic painter Nicaise de Keyser whose vast history paintings, hung high above the monumental staircase, form a welcoming party along with works by Anthony van Dyck and Rubens. At this point, however, visitors face an unfamiliar choice. Take the stairs, and they will arrive on the main floor of the original architects’ 19th-century museum, which has been comprehensively restored down to each parquet floor and oak door. The space offers a parcours of Flemish art, from the Primitives to the present. Or, visitors can continue straight ahead – where they will end up somewhere else entirely.

What was once a courtyard has been transformed by the team at Rotterdam-based KAAN Architecten, led by co-founder Dikkie Scipio, into what they describe as a ‘21st-century museum’ within the museum – a space that exists in ‘contrast and dialogue’ with its 19th-century room-mate. Where tints of dark pink, green and red predominate upstairs, in the new space lies a series of white exhibition spaces. Daylight floods in from four large ceiling wells, together comprising 198 triple- triangular roof elements, designed to diffuse the light evenly through the space before it reflects off a series of glossy resin floors.

The decision to house the new museum entirely within the footprint of the old – it is invisible from the outside, unless viewed from above – preserves the exterior of one of the last significant neoclassical public buildings in the southern quarter of Antwerp. For the general director of the museum, Carmen Willems, this was a necessary part of the project: ‘The KMSKA thrives in uniting innovation with tradition, keeping our heritage current and relevant. The renovation of the museum focused on making art tradition accessible to a wide audience within the grandeur of an inspiring historical building, so a typical extension in the form of an annex outside the original museum building was not an option._

Winder and Van Dyck conceived the original structure as a kind of plaza, where views of the wider city would be available at each stage of visitors’ course through the space. The extension has met with political opposition at various points in the last two decades, frequently halting its progress. But before 2003, the building had been slated for demolition – what the overhaul has achieved is a clever compromise between engaging the future and future-proofing the past.

The dividing line between past and future is not always clear-cut. The complex new plan includes marble-inlaid walkways that lead the new museum through the old. On an inter- mediate level between the extension and the main 19th-century galleries is a new space, where deep blue cabinets, illumined by the lightwells, house the collections of prints and drawings. Subtle but transformational engineering works have improved the potential for moving and redisplaying artworks – there are tall doors hidden within the panelling, and a nine-metre dividing wall on the first floor now pivots to allow for large-scale artworks to be moved in and out of the museum via the lift.

For citizens of Antwerp, the reopening of the museum is a chance to reacquaint themselves with the 8,400-strong municipal collection. ‘We are very much looking forward to once again displaying our world-class collection in this fantastic building for the people of Antwerp,’ says chairman Luk Lemmens. The museum also offers the potential for new discoveries, which will keep visitors coming back time and again.

KMSKA reopens on 24 September. To book tickets, visit kmska.be

From the September 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.