Award-winning database peers into Flanders’ cultural heritage


An online database from Limburg and Flemish Brabant has won a prestigious European award for the way it engages local communities in recording and safeguarding their cultural heritage

Model for Europe

An initiative that helps record cultural heritage in Limburg and Flemish Brabant has won a prestigious European award.

Erfgoedplus was among 29 winners of the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Awards announced on 5 April, and was the only Belgian project honoured. It is now in contention for one of seven grand prizes, each worth €10,000, to be announced on 15 May.

Erfgoedplus is an online database of cultural heritage from Limburg and Flemish Brabant. Among some 138,900 objects from more than 500 collections are paintings and statues, photographs and letters, kitchen implements and tools used in farming and mining.

But it’s the way the project engages with local communities and helps people record their collections that has earned it the award. “This outstanding platform has considerably advanced the standards of heritage documentation in Belgium,” the jury said, adding that it provided an effective model for the rest of Europe.

The project’s initial aim was to help Limburg develop its cultural heritage policy, by pinning down where objects of interest were located. Making an inventory from scratch was out of the question, so it was decided to bring together existing digital inventories.

Into the modern age

At the time, in 2002, the most effective way of doing that was by using XML technology, developed for building the internet. And if you are using internet technology, you might as well be online.

“The scope of the project was extended a little bit, so we were not just designing the database for the provincial administration, but also to share it with the public,” recalls Jef Malliet, one of two co-ordinators of Erfgoedplus at Limburg’s Provincial Centre for Cultural Heritage.

At each church, the whole process takes a month. It’s intensive, but it’s important that it happens

- Katrien Houbey of Erfgoed Haspengouw

They started building the database in 2005, working in particular with information previously collected from Limburg’s churches. “With around 120 inventories, the database covered maybe a third of the churches in Limburg and it meant there was something in the database for almost every neighbourhood,” says Malliet.

Limburg’s museums and some local historical societies also got involved, broadening the scope, and Flemish Brabant came on board as a partner. When the system went live in 2009 it was as a joint project between the two provinces.

But along the way it became apparent that working with existing inventories had its drawbacks. “Many collections did not have an inventory, or the inventory was not of a very high quality,” says Malliet. “So convincing people that an inventory is a necessary tool to manage a collection and helping them to make a good inventory gradually became the main purpose of the project.”

Spread the word

Initially the centre actively sought out collections to include in Erfgoedplus, but now it is growing without any prompting. One reason is that there are other people spreading the word, such as Katrien Houbey, a project manager at Erfgoed Haspengouw. This publicly funded organisation helps preserve and promote moveable and intangible cultural heritage in southern Limburg.

In particular, Houbey works on the area’s religious heritage and its long history in farming and food production. “Since 2013, we’ve been looking for collections,” she says, “trying to help the people who own them to conserve and manage them in a good way, and to make them accessible to the general public.”

Making inventories is an important part of the process, and, where possible, Houbey encourages people to use Erfgoedplus. This is partly because uniformity is helpful if you want to connect, compare and contrast collections, but also because it is an easy system to use.

The initial data collection for an inventory is usually done on paper, using forms that mirror the fields in the Erfgoedplus database. For example, a recent project to make an up-to-date inventory of the Saint Quentin’s Church in Gelinden involved four days of data collection, with Houbey working alongside a volunteer from the church and another from Erfgoed Haspengouw (volunteers are always welcome).

From every angle

The objects to be recorded are chosen according to the guidelines from the Centre for Religious Art and Culture in Flanders and Brussels. They range from paintings and statues to objects used in the liturgy, ceremonial garments and textiles.

“We take measurements, describe the object, give it a title and try to identify, for example, what saint is depicted if it is a statue,” Houbey says. “We also take photographs on a white background, so that we can see the object for different purposes.”

We’re a rather small museum and it was an opportunity for us to have our collection online. People can find us anywhere in Europe, and anywhere in the world

- Ann Delbeke of Het Stadsmus

Information is also collected on the origins and history of the objects. In Gelinden, for example, the Baroque furniture originally came from a Carmelite convent in Huy.

After the four days working in the church, Houbey spent another week doing additional research, then the data was entered into Erfgoedplus. “At each church, the whole process takes a month,” she says. “It’s intensive, but it’s important that it happens.”

For Gelinden, the final inventory consisted of 156 items, but it’s likely to grow. Houbey and the volunteers at the church can go online to add new information as it emerges, or include items that may have been overlooked. And specialists looking at the items online can also add comments, filling in gaps in the information.

Permanent exhibition

As a research tool, Erfgoedplus lets people see into otherwise obscure or inaccessible collections. Ann Delbeke, conservator at Het Stadsmus in Hasselt, uses it when putting together exhibitions, such as Miracles and Monstrance, a forthcoming show on the religious heritage surrounding the host.

“We have a lot of items in our own collection, but there were some that we didn’t have that I found through Erfgoedplus,” she says. “You have a picture, the measurements, the material, and where it is located. And if you want to ask a question, you can do that immediately, so it’s very useful.”

Het Stadsmus has been involved from the early stages of the project. “We’re a rather small museum and it was an opportunity for us to have our collection online,” says Delbeke. Better still, it is connected to the pan-European heritage database Europeana. “People can find us anywhere in Europe, and anywhere in the world.”

A further advantage is that the museum’s exhibitions can have a virtual catalogue on Erfgoedplus. “This means we can reach another audience even after the exhibition is over and all the objects have been returned to their owners.”

Eyes on the future

As well as encouraging collections that want to participate in Erfgoedplus, the Provincial Centre for Cultural Heritage also has initiatives to identify cultural heritage that is in the community rather than in collections.

The centre has run collecting days around themes such as the First World War or Limburg’s mining industry, during which people brought objects to document, photograph and add to the system.

The kids talk about the objects they find at home or elsewhere, and try to understand what they were used for

- Jef Malliet of Erfgoedplus

“It’s a kind of virtual collection, because people don’t turn in their objects,” says Malliet. “They come with their memories and share them, but take the objects home again.”

This can lead to some unusual discoveries. The collecting day on the First World War produced a letter from a young soldier, Jean D’Hulst, to his wife that still contained a pressed flower sent from the front. This flower, a daisy, is now used as the logo for the project collecting memories of Limburg during the war.

Another innovative use of Erfgoedplus has been in the schools in Dilsen-Stokkem, where children use the system to learn about the cultural heritage around them. “The kids talk about the objects they find at home or elsewhere, and try to understand what they were used for,” Malliet says.

Later, he continues, “the children describe them in the inventory module that we have, and discuss them in class and with volunteers from local history associations. They are then published on the website along with all the other collections.”

One goal for the future is to digitally preserve the collections on top of archiving their data. For example, the present database includes low-resolution images to help identify objects, but not the kind of high-resolution images that would record every detail. This would require considerable investment, both in technology and support.

Another goal is about connections. While Erfgoedplus links to databases with an overlapping interest in its region, it is not connected to the cultural heritage databases used in Antwerp and East and West Flanders. This means there is no overview of Flanders. “That is an aim for the future,” says Malliet. “Heritage does not stop at the border of the province, so it makes sense to have one bigger database.”

Photo: Eddy Daniels