The new MAS Museum in Antwerp, Belgium
The city of Antwerp, supported by its Port Authority, city government, locally-based shipping companies, and a knowledge partnership with the University of Antwerp, has invested mightily in the last decade in the development of its 3.5 mile Scheldt River waterfront strip as a bridge to a sustainable tourism future. Travel Agent Magazine’s visit to the September opening of Antwerp’s new Red Star Line Museum , which vividly recounts the history of 19th and early 20th-century Belgian and European emigration to America, revealed only the latest in a much wider city initiative.
Antwerp is on a mission to establish itself as a cultural tourism destination in Belgium that can rival the country’s more popular visitor cities of Brussels and Bruges. It also wants its tourism to accurately reflect the city’s claimed status as the second-busiest cargo trading port in northern Europe after Rotterdam.
The tourism mission is focused on the riverfront. This is not limited to the $25 million spent on the reconstruction of the three original Red Star Line Museum terminals to create the new museum in the same space where 60 years of history unfolded. A short walk along the Scheldt River brings visitors to the new MAS Museum, the newly constructed Antwerp maritime and city history museum opened in 2011 after a five-year construction.
The MAS Museum
The MAS, which stands for Musuem Aan der Straam (“Museum at the River”) (www.mas.be ), was constructed with a total investment of 56 million Euros (US$ 75 million) in a combination of city government, Flemish national government and private investor support. Combining the two waterfront museums, the city partners have invested US$ 100 million. More will happen as 2014 marks the beginning of the World War I Centenary being commemorated over the next four years in Antwerp and throughout Belgium.
As one example, a temporary pedestrian bridge will be constructed across the Scheldt River to mark 2014 ceremonies climaxing in the Oct. 3 through 5, 2014 commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the siege of Antwerp by German armed forces in 1914, from whom the city was not liberated until 1918.
“This new [MAS] museum is situated in Antwerp’s old port district, called ‘het Eilandje’ (“the little island”) which was transformed again into a bustling part of the city,” wrote Dr. Annick Schramm, a professor at the University of Antwerp who was “expert advisor” to Antwerp Deputy Mayor for Culture Phillip Heylen in a 2011 published report called “Museums and Local Government: Sustainable Partnerships and Development.” Schramm added that “people want to live in this district, companies want to set up offices here and tourists, together with the citizens of Antwerp, like to visit ‘het Eilandje’ to enjoy the city and the river Scheldt. The construction of the (MAS) building started in 2006, was completed in May 2010, and the building is already a new landmark.”
Indeed the best panoramic views of Antwerp are found from the observation platform at the top of the distinctive red-brick block MAS building, visible from many parts of the city, and a second overlook from the top of the Red Star Line Museum’s former smokestack converted to observation deck.
U.S. Tourist Goals
Antwerp Tourism Minister Koen Kennis described the city’s immediate tourism goals at the opening of the Red Star Line Museum. “We are trying to attract more individual tourism,” said Kennis. “We aim for 10 percent more overnight visitors from North American cities….Antwerp is a fashion city, a diamond city and it has incredible joie de vivre. It is the perfect destination for the contemporary traveler.” Currently Antwerp attracts 50,000 American overnight stays per year with the target being 5,000 more in the first year of the Red Star Line Museum’s operation.
During our walking tour of the city with tour guide Rick Phillips, media guests saw other waterfront sites including the oldest surviving city building, the riverfront Hetsteen Castle dating from the 12th century. It has served as a fortress, a castle, and a former maritime museum, and is now a venue for city cultural events.
Inside the Eugene Van Mieghem Museum in Antwerp
Nearby is the fascinating Van Mieghem Musuem (www.vanmieghemmuseum.com ), located at 9 Ernest Van Dijckkai opposite the river. It is dedicated to the works of local artist Eugene Van Mieghem (1875-1930), who grew up with his family in an Antwerp waterfront café opposite the Red Star Line terminals. Van Mieghem was a people’s artist who painted the third-class passengers arriving to board the Red Star Line ships to America. There are over 150 of his works, including World War I sketches of soldiers, displayed in the museum, as well as artifacts from passengers of the Red Star Line. The building itself is a former townhouse of the Masonic leader Gustav Albrecht built in 1896 with a riot of interior mosaic tile, stained glass and exotic wood floors and wall coverings that make the building itself a treasure house to experience. Private tours can be arranged by contacting Van Mieghem Museum curator and director Erwin Joos, who also acts as resident docent and historian.
Shopping, Jewish History
Antwerp offers far more attractions than can be experienced in two or even three days. The “Stadsfeestzall” (“State Festival Hall”) was built in 1905 in the city center as a place for celebrating Belgian independence and other festivals. After a fire in 2000 the space has been restored as a luxury shopping mall, complete with every international fashion designer to be found in the world’s great shopping cities. This golden-domed showcase of shopping is not to be missed by the serious luxury shopper. “There are more fashion shops here than in Amsterdam or Brussels,” promised city guide Phillips.
"Staadsfeestzall" is an ex-festival hall turned luxury shopping mall.
The Rubens House (www.rubenshuis.be) , home of Antwerp native Peter Paul Rubens was built between 1610 and 1615. It was here that Rubens and his students created 3,000 paintings and, while many were on view during our visit, some of Rubens’ own works were out on loan to exhibitions and will be returned by the end of this year. The Notre Dame Cathedral of Antwerp, named for St. Mary the patroness of the city, is larger than Notre Dame in Paris according to Phillips. It contains four original Rubens pieces and 30 other 17th-century religious paintings by Belgian masters.
Rubens House, home of 17th-century Antwerp painter Peter Paul Rubens
The Antwerp diamond district and Jewish quarter, both located south and west of the city’s historic landmark Central Station, are key areas to be seen for a true understanding of Antwerp history. Rabbi Aaron Malinski gave us a visit to his community including his synagogue Romi Goldmuntz, open to individual visitors (but not groups for security reasons) and named after the prominent Jewish diamond merchant who helped rebuild the community after World War II.
Malinski noted that Antwerp, due to its heavily Jewish-owned diamond polishing industry, was known as the “Jerusalem of the North” before World War II. He said 67 percent of the Jewish population was deported by the Nazis in 1942, most to Mechelen and onward to concentration camps. The other third were hidden by Antwerp’s Gentile community which rallied to help its Jewish friends.
Napoleon's Chocolate Shop, Antwerp, is touted as Belgium's finest
After the war, during which Jewish synagogues were not destroyed, Antwerp invited its Jewish diamond merchants to return and today the population has swelled to more than 20,000 in the city’s heavily orthodox community. A moving Holocaust memorial was erected by the city in 1997. It contains ash from Auschwitz Holocaust victims imbedded behind its Jewish star and stands in a square near an elevated extension of the nearby Central Station from which most victims were deported.
“Today we have Jewish hospitals and 12 Jewish schools, including 10 religious, which is more than in all of Germany and Holland combined,” said the rabbi, who has been honored for his work in holding ecumenical meetings with leaders of Antwerp’s Moslem population of more than 75,000 people. “We have good relations,” said Malinski. “Press reports of anti-Semitism in Antwerp are overstated.”
UNESCO World Heritage
In this writer’s opinion the most important Antwerp museum after the new Red Star Line experience is the Plantin-Moretus Museum (www.museumplantinmoretus.be) close to the cathedral square. This building, in the factory of the printer Balthasar Moretus (1620-1672), shows and tells the story of Belgium’s earliest, most important printer of humanistic and scientific works of the 16th century. Among other historic displays, the museum includes original printing press equipment in the rooms where they operated, 12 Rubens portraits, including one of Pope Leo V, a collection of 16th-century Belgian-tapestries, many of Europe’s earliest printed maps and atlases, and a print shop that sold books starting in about 1700. Anyone interested in publishing or the printed word most make the Plantin-Moretus an essential stop in Belgian.
Ironically the Plantin-Moretus displays a plaque noting its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its service as a “Memory of the World.” The UNESCO honor was conferred on Sept. 4, 2001, exactly one week before the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and Washington’s Pentagon, one of the most widely-published news events in history.
Plantin-Moretus Museum printing presses - a UNESCO World Heritage site
A best way to enjoy as much of Antwerp as possible in a short time is to obtain the Antwerp Card for 28 Euros (US$ 38) which offers free admission to city museums, and discounts on shopping and other attractions for 48 hours. If time is limited a good choice would be a three-museum pass, priced at 12 Euros (US$ 16) for combining visits to the Red Star Line Museum, the Van Mieghem Museum and the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Contact the Antwerp Tourist Office (www.visitantwerpen.be) for information. You can also download the Antwerp City Card app at the iTunes store or at the Socio Mall for Android.