New Belgian Academy helps explain country’s shared history


A new initiative aims to give a deeper understanding of Belgium’s past, through evening classes in English, city excursions and more

Not your usual stories

If you look back far enough in time, you’ll find there are perfectly logical reasons why Belgium is organised the way it is. Something to bear in mind, perhaps, the next time you try to explain the record-breaking gaps between governments to the folks back home, or stand in line at your fourth administrative office of the day attempting to deal with something ostensibly trivial.

Mirella Marini, a researcher from Limburg, will be tackling this and other thorny issues during her Academy of Culture and History. It’s an initiative aimed at teaching natives and foreigners about Belgium’s journey from Roman times to the present day, through evening classes, excursions and summer schools. The first series of classes begins in April at Muntpunt in central Brussels.

“The federal country we have today is a development that started somewhere in the 19th century,” she explains, “and that historical context is a bit lost on people when they complain about how complex Belgium is. It’s important to show people the reasons behind it, why people thought it was a good idea. I’m not saying they were right, but I want to give context to what people see every day.”

The idea for the academy was sparked by discussions with expat friends working at the EU and Nato. They professed an interest in understanding their host country, Marini says, “but when I take them with me on excursions, their interest is much broader than pure history and politics; they say, ‘oh there’s a world outside Brussels, this country is pretty different to what I thought it would be’.”

Not just for expats

Add to that her frustration with the shallowness of history taught in schools and the lack of knowledge demonstrated in the media or from politicians, and she hit on the idea of pairing her research interests with her love of teaching.

The great thing about research for her, she says, is all that discovery. But it has its limitations, and teaching was the obvious way to get round that. “You have insights, and you want to share them, but it takes a long time for it to become something that people teach,” she explains. “The only platform you have as a researcher is publications, but these aren’t widely read. So I started looking for ways to get away from these restrictions.”

I want to give a history that’s objective and that’s above a regional interpretation

- Mirella Marini

The themes of the classes are broad, but still detailed enough to be stimulating. “I don’t think there’s any point starting out with a lot of detail,” says Marini, who will share teaching duties with a roster of guest lecturers. “But I don’t want to presume that people aren’t capable of understanding detail. Everybody, given the right circumstances, is capable of understanding a lot of very different things.”

The lectures are aimed at both Belgians and foreigners; classes are taught in English, though Marini doesn’t want the academy to be seen as exclusively for expats. And given the news that the average Flemish person has substantial gaps in their knowledge of the country’s history, the timing seems apt.

“When you teach in Dutch or French, you can end up with the perception that you’re somehow biased,” she says. “I want to present a history that’s objective, that’s above a regional interpretation, and I think that’s easier to convey to a foreign audience, in English, than it is to Belgians, who are very much living the reality; they often don’t even appreciate that they have a shared history.”

More than meets the eye

Classes start in Brussels, but Marini plans courses in Antwerp, Ghent and elsewhere, as well as taking participants out of the classroom and immersing them in some of Flanders’ living history; she believes learning comes much faster with experience.

“I never liked the system of going to a lecture with 200 people listening for two hours and not being able to react,” she says. “I want discussion, I want lessons to be interactive, to appeal to the senses, and when I take people outside the classroom, I want them to feel history, to see it, to imagine what it was like.”

I want people to feel history, to see it, to imagine what it was like

- Mirella Marini

It’s important to her that these excursions offer a deeper understanding than anything a tour guide could offer. Watching groups of tourists follow a guide around Bruges, for example, she wonders what impression they must get of the place.

“I think what they take away is ‘very nice city, very old, everybody here lives from the lace trade’,” she says. “Instead, we might look at the connections between Flemish cities and the development of identities in places like Bruges. We’re going to the same places but telling the story slightly differently.

“Bruges is about more than tourism; Leuven is more than its university,” she adds. “That’s the challenge for me: to come up with more than just the usual stories.”

Photo: Horst Castle in Holsbeek, Flemish Brabant, is one of Belgium’s monuments with an amazing history

©Courtesy Academy of Culture and History