New-look M in Leuven rethinks what a museum should be


After a five-month renovation, the art museum hopes to increase visual literacy among its visitors and increase interaction between the rooms and the collection of objects held in storage

What do you see?

With more than a million visitors since it was created in 2009, Leuven’s M Museum is one of the success stories of the art landscape in Flanders.

Displaying both old masters and contemporary works, the former Vander Kelen-Mertens museum building, neatly renovated and extended by leading architect Stéphane Beel, has become a real crowd-puller in the centre of Leuven, with as much attention given to the visitor experience as to the artists on the wall.

Even so, over the years small frustrations have arisen about the permanent collection, displayed in a sophisticated but very formal and rather old-fashioned style. In addition, the museum has only been able to show a selection of approximately 300 of the more than 50,000 objects in its cellar depot.

Now, with an ambitious makeover, “we have really killed two birds with one stone,” general manager Peter Bary says, a few days before reopening the museum after a five-month closure. “We will be able to use the potential of our vast collection while at the same time implementing our innovative and visitor-friendly philosophy about what a museum today should be.”

By replacing the permanent collection with five thematic clusters, all of them mini exhibitions, he hopes to “smooth the interaction between our depot and the museum rooms”.

Immediate impact

As you stroll around, the impact is immediately visible. Transcending historical boundaries has been always a prominent factor in M’s temporary exhibitions, and again, the intriguing solo show by French artist Aurélien Froment benefits from the 19th-century paintings and even the cannonballs he found in the museum’s depot. They back up the way in which his reflection on the methods of the German educationalist Fröbel is all about interconnecting, transforming and constructing images.

Removed from their historical context, classical distinctions between old and contemporary art are now also disappearing in the more permanent rooms, evoking new layers of significance, which are more than ever triggered in the head of the visitor rather than imposed by the curator.

At the end of the opening cluster, The Power of Images, a 14th-century Pieta in oak and a 15th-century Pieta in oil from the school of Flemish Primitive Rogier van der Weyden hang next to the conceptual “Himalaya Golf”, a silk-screen print by the contemporary artist Jan Vercruysse.

In front of the artworks stands a wide desk. Pencils and postcards with a series of questions encourage passers-by to draw their own story of the art. Six chairs are there to stimulate interaction between visitors.

“The best way to visit a museum is still with a sketchbook,” says Peter Carpreau, the curator of Old Masters who led the makeover. “Drawing allows people to see better,” he explains. “We want to raise the visual awareness of our visitors by confronting them with how they are looking.”

Above all, the museum wants to improve visitors’ visual literacy. “In a society full of images and affected by fake news, we consider it a social responsibility to encourage the visual skills of our customers, so they can cope with this inflation of images even when they are outside the museum.”

Visual literacy

Supported by international experts, the M staff have translated the concept of visual literacy to a museum context, shifting their focus from what the artist wanted to say with a work of art to what the audience makes of it. “With each new thematic cluster we are trying to develop the visual literacy skills of our visitors a bit further,” Carpreau explains.

It’s not always that obvious, but walking through the rooms focusing on The Art of Collecting, Masters of Sculpture or Form First, visitors learn about selective perception, about the fact that displaying art has always implied manipulation, and about the meaning of non-verbal aspects of human behaviour. To be a better observer of art, you have to do more than just open your eyes.

We are not an authoritarian museum. With co-creations like this, we want to get rid of the highbrow image of art

- Peter Carpreau

As a result, the museum has developed sensory labels, enabling visitors to touch or even smell the art. A surprising mirror window, including a variety of teapots, tells a story about social conventions and cultural differences. Vaporisers allow everyone to distribute the fragrance of their choice in the museum room, from strawberry and red wine to roast meat.

To develop these labels, the museum invited British museum guru James Bradburne. “He’s currently the director of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan,” says Carpreau. “But he wrote his PhD about museum labels and was a big inspiration.”

He helped to curate the new labels, whose main function is no longer to overwhelm visitors with often not particularly interesting detail, but to activate and empower them, often by asking questions about the works on display.

“Sometimes we don’t even mention the title,” says Carpreau. “When you consider that these were often inventions to fit a work of art into a catalogue, you understand that they’re not as relevant as we might think.”

Bring a child

Visiting the last thematic cluster, Boundless Hospitality, you can hear a woman called Blanca talk about a landscape by Flemish painter and sculptor Constant Permeke. This Mexican who’s married to a Belgian is one of the eight non-Western people living in Leuven who selected a work of art from the museum’s depot   and took over some curator’s duties.

The dark painting reminded her of her first Belgian winters, she says from a big video screen. “As I come from Mexico, my body really needs light, so you can imagine winters over here are difficult for me.”

“We are not an authoritarian museum,” says Carpreau. “With co-creations like this, we want to get rid of the highbrow image of art, and involve as many stakeholders as possible.” That could be “newcomers”, but it could equally be scientists.

A video shows how infrared scans taken in the local Gasthuisberg hospital reveal new information about a 15th-century wooden statue of Christ, which was, until very recently, attributed to an unknown master.

Thanks to a close collaboration with the Laboratory for Experimental Psychology at the University of Leuven and innovative eye tracking technology developed in the game industry, you can compare the way you look at art with that of the museum’s curator and that of an eight-year-old child.

And as if we needed extra proof that M is dropping the academic, 19th-century top-down approach, developing an experience-based vision for the future: “To really boost your visual literacy, you should bring not just a sketchbook but also a child,” Carpreau says. “Maybe we should introduce a rent-a-child service?”

Photo (c) Rudi Van Beek