Digital project brings Flanders’ forgotten industries into 21st century


A European project aims to preserve the historical legacy of brickyards, textile factories and small breweries using a digital platform

Handmade history

There was a time when small-scale enterprises like brickyards and textile factories were the bedrock of society. Today, many of these sites have difficulty attracting tourists, and whatever remains of them languishes in obscurity.

A European project aims to change that by focusing the attention on the sites’ rich industrial and technical heritage. Genius Loci awards the sites with special digital labels, helping them step right into the 21st century.

The Industriana labels are affixed to the outside of the buildings and contain a QR code that can be read with a smartphone. A digital platform tells the sites’ backstory and contains a map with all the recognised places in Europe. In Flanders, 17 sites are already taking part in the project; in Brussels, one.

“People still think of castles and churches when they talk about heritage,” says Adriaan Linters, the driving force behind Genius Loci. “They don’t always realise the historical importance of the industries where people would get their hands dirty. But these industries spurred growth and had a profound effect on labour migration, contributing to the opening of the European borders.”

Linters is president of the Flemish Association of Industrial Archaeology (VVIA) and secretary-general of E-Faith, the European federation of organisations engaged in industrial heritage. Both organisations were involved in setting up the Genius Loci project with partners from Italy, Malta, Hungary and Spain.

Think small

Genius Loci is supported by the European Union’s Cosme programme, which aims to improve the digital visibility of industrial and technical heritage.

“We focused on the heritage of small and medium-sized enterprises, because larger ones, like coal mines, receive enough attention already,” says Linters. The project also concentrates on three sectors: the clay processing sector and the alcohol and textile industries.

We focused on the heritage of small and medium-sized enterprises, because larger ones, like coal mines, receive enough attention already

- Adriaan Linters of Genius Loci

“The three sectors are perfect for Flanders, because they deal with the important characteristics of our traditional industrial activity,” says Linters. The 18 sites in Flanders and Brussels were among the first in Europe to receive the Industriana labels in May.

The sites received a placard with a QR code, which can be scanned with a smartphone, providing access to images and additional background information. Altogether, 75 sites in the five participating countries and regions have received the labels. An additional 75 will be awarded at the project’s closing conference, in September.

Think big

Visitors to Genius Loci’s online platform can also see the sites’ exact locations on an interactive map and get a preview of what to expect when they get there. For now, the information is only available in English, but the creators plan to make it available in all European languages.

In the future, Genius Loci wants to set up tourist routes that would connect initiatives on similar themes. There are already plans to create a route between the clay processing sites in the south of Antwerp province; another would take tourists around the breweries in West Flanders.

Many Flemish organisations don’t look beyond the region’s borders. We need to think more European

- Adriaan Linters

Linters hopes to educate tourists, but also to broaden the mindset of the managers who run the sites. “Many Flemish organisations don’t look beyond the region’s borders,” he says. “We need to think more European.” He’d like to see government subsidies for translating the online content into other languages.

Sites that have received the Industriana label include the Must museum in Ronse and the Preetjes mill in the Kortrijk’s Heule district. Must (pictured) is a former textile plant with 40 functioning looms that charts the evolution of the textile industry from the 1900 to 2000.

Preetjes mill, on the other hand, is one of the last mills in Europe that is only used for flax scotching, a process that involves separating the straw and woody stem from the flax fibres before they can be span into yarn. The flax industry was once the fabric of life in the southwest of Flanders.

Beer, beer and bricks

Also in the Genius Loci network are several breweries, including De Hoorn in Leuven, Verhaeghe in Vichte, West Flanders, and Rodenbach in Roeselare, also West Flanders. De Hoorn is where Stella Artois was invented in 1926; today, the former brewery is an urban creative hub.

The Verhaeghe brewery has been owned by the same family since 1885 and continues to produce the award-winning Duchesse de Bourgogne. The typical West Flemish red brown ale matures in oak casks and is brewed using ancient methods.

The Rodenbach brewery, owned by the Palm company, houses a beer museum that also tells the story of the Rodenbach family. The cask halls house 294 oak barrels that have been designated industrial heritage, along with the restored malt kiln and the old brewhouse.

Among the industries that have long disappeared in Flanders are the brickyards in the south of Antwerp province. The EcoMuseum and Archives of the Boom Brickworks (Emabb) and the Boom Brickworks Museum ’t Geleeg are two local organisations trying to preserve their historical legacy.

From the second half of the 19th century until the 1960s, towns like Niel and Boom formed the hub of a thriving brick industry. The two towns profited from their strategic location along the Rupel river, because the clay found on the river’s banks was ideal for making bricks and tiles.

Love at first sight

“The bricks made here had a beautiful red colour that made them very popular, even abroad,” says Emabb’s president Luc Verbeeck. “The bricks of Boom were taken up the river to Antwerp, where they were shipped to the UK and the US.”

Emabb and ’t Geleeg museums contain information on  the technical and economic aspects of the defunct brick industry. But they also document the industry’s marks on the environment. In Boom’s Noeveren quarter, for example, you can still see the typical small houses where the brickyard workers used to live.

The industry also affected the natural environment, in the form of clay pits. At one time, the Flemish government planned to fill them with waste, but backed down after protests from the local community. “This region was once considered the bin of Flanders, but that’s over,” says Verbeeck. “One of those clay pits is now De Schorre, the site of the Tomorrowland music festival.”

Another site which received the Industriana label is the Feys-Callewaert brewery in Beveren-aan-de-Ijzer, West Flanders. The brewery used to make the award-winning Forte Brune and was one of the first in Flanders to use bottles instead of barrels, but it closed in the 1960s.

When the building began to deteriorate in the 1990s, its owner hired Hendrik Nelde to try to sell it. The real estate broker from Drongen, near Ghent, fell in love with the property and bought it in 2013. He has since devoted himself to restoring the building to its former glory and plans to bring back its trademark brew.

Photo courtesy Visit Flanders

More Indstustriana sites in Flanders and Brussels

When Cantillon was founded in 1900, Brussels was home to more than a hundred breweries. Today, all but Cantillon have disappeared. The brewery is also home to the Geuze Museum. Gheudestraat 56, Brussels

Het Anker
Located in a former begijnhof – a religious community for women – Het Anker dates back to the 15th century. Its brewing installations are open to the public. Guido Gezellelaan 49, Mechelen

Bocholter Brewery Museum
One of the largest brewery museums in Europe, Bocholter tells the history of brewing since 1758. Dorpsstraat 53, Bocholt

Jenever Museum
Opened in 1807, this distillery houses the Jenever Museum dedicated to the gin-like spirit for which Hasselt is well known. Witte Nonnenstraat 19, Hasselt

The distillery building from the end of the 19th century still houses the original distilling columns, alembics, casks, a steam engine and a boiler. The modern brewery is in the adjacent barn. Wilderenlaan 8, Wilderen

Lindemans brewery
The Lindemans family has been brewing its iconic lambic beers since 1822. The old brewery is now home to a modern brewhouse and bottling plant, but the old installations are still there. Lenniksebaan 1479, Vlezenbeek

De Snoek brewery
The only brewery in Belgium that hasn’t changed since it was built in 1871. De Snoek found itself behind the front lines, in the non-occupied part of the country, during the First World War and has remained intact. Fortem 40, Alveringem