Care and the community: Heritage Day looks at care through the ages


Flanders’ annual heritage event uses archives, stories and songs going back to medieval times to explore how our notions about care have evolved

Social service

Care is a pretty messy concept – a product of both a technologically advanced current age and historically shameful past. This month, Flanders’ Erfgoeddag, or Heritage Day, is exploring just how much our ideas about care have changed over the centuries

Heritage Day – not to be confused with Open Monument Day, which is in September – is an annual event in Flanders and Brussels that celebrates both regions’ historically rich patrimony. It focuses on movable and immaterial cultural heritage: archives, collections, stories, songs and so on.

This year the event, which takes place next Sunday, joins forces with hospitals, hospices, psychiatric centres and nursing homes to offer 800 free activities in 276 municipalities. Alongside such well-known venues as Ghent’s Museum Dr Guislain – a hotspot for the history of mental health – less obvious places are also opening their doors to the public.

The Brussels branch of social welfare office OCMW, for instance, offers a rare glance into its archives. These consist of paintings, artefacts and documents going back as far as the middle ages, proving that foundlings and leprosy were part of everyday life until recently.

The office is also the point of departure for a guided walk on the history of nursing leading up to and during the First World War. 

Doctor on board

In Antwerp, the Borgerhout district’s historical club is organising an exhibition on approaches to drunkenness, showing how moralising and punishments by church and state in the 19th century slowly evolved into a recognition of alcoholism as a disease.

The city’s Red Star Line Museum, which deals with the history of European migration to New York, is housed in the former medical facility for departing passengers. Mimicking the museum on Ellis Island in New York, the Red Star Line is showing an exhibition on how medical check-ups were carried out before departure, what doctors were supposed to detect and whether there were doctors aboard the transatlantic ocean liners.

Beyond the typical comparison between care in the past and today, this year’s Heritage Day also aims to show how heritage can offer help to those in need. “Heritage and the health-care sector can strengthen each other,” says Tine Vandezande, national co-ordinator of Faro, which organises Heritage Day. “Research has shown that heritage can help people suffering from dementia to remember forgotten parts of their lives. Being surrounded by scenes, music or objects from the past can foster reminiscence. So in fact, heritage fosters well-being.” 

People can come here, open the boxes, see and feel the artefacts and let the memories run freely

- Tine Vandezande

In line with these findings, local heritage teams have started compiling “reminiscence boxes”, containing material that helps to reconstruct scenes from the past. Teams in Limburg, for instance, collected suits, helmets, music and tools that were central to the often tough life of a miner.

“With friends and family members, people can come to our offices, open the boxes, see and feel the artefacts and let the memories run freely,” Vandezande explains.

Kairos Castle, an exhibition at Gaasbeek Castle in Flemish Brabant, is being made accessible for the visually impaired through relief drawings and audio guides, while the same thing is happening with the world of gothic ornaments and statues at the Academy for Visual Arts in Anderlecht.

By bringing the ornaments down from their usual height, people with visual impairments are invited to discover the style and structure through touch. The link between care and heritage, it seems, can be interpreted in many ways.

23 April, across Flanders and Brussels

Photo: Connecting with the past at the Lichtenberg residential care centre in Antwerp
©Mashid Mohadjerin