Forty years of industrial heritage in Flanders


Back in 1975, the first industrial heritage site in Flanders was granted protected status. It was followed shortly by the formation of a Flemish association with preservation of this important social history at its heart. Four decades later, in the European Year of Industrial and Technical Heritage, an exhibition celebrates Flanders’ remarkable buildings, machinery and stories

A matter of identity

The idea that old factories and industrial sites deserve protection has only recently gained ground, with the first industrial building given protected status just 40 years ago. Over the intervening four decades, numerous such sites in Flanders have been preserved and given a new direction – an important step when you consider that this heritage tells a story that has fundamentally changed our society.

“I come from Hasselt,” says Adriaan Linters, a former social historian and president of the Flemish Association for Industrial Archaeology (VVIA). “In the early 1970s, there were plans to demolish the city’s old jenever distillery, with the aim of building apartments there.

“With a group of young academics, we successfully campaigned to protect the site: In 1975 the distillery was awarded the status of monument and became the first industrial building to be officially protected. Later it became the Jenever Museum, which is now a major tourist attraction for the city, but at the time, the city council was raving mad at us. The concept of industrial heritage had yet to be invented.”

Forty years later, things are different. E-Faith, the European federation of organisations engaged in industrial heritage, declared 2015 the European Year of Industrial and Technical Heritage. In Flanders, an exhibition has been set up, while the annual Open Monument Day will revolve around industrial heritage.

Inspired by England

As an organisation fighting for the preservation of industrial heritage, VVIA dates back to a few years after the first protection was granted and came into existence out of necessity. In the early 1970s, there was a national association that organised an exhibition on industrial heritage, which was a huge success, just like an appeal to the public to identify key sites in their neighbourhoods. 

You were almost declared insane if you talked about the importance of industrial heritage

- Adriaan Linters

But when Belgium was federalised and culture came under the authority of Flanders, the national association dissolved without a successor. “It was an untenable situation,” says Linters, “so we founded the VVIA ourselves.”

The passion was inspired by England, he explains. “Almost everyone who was involved at the beginning gained inspiration there. England was much more advanced when it came to protecting industrial heritage, while here the idea was still laughed at. The English approach, which relies heavily on associations and volunteers and less on the government, creates a strong dynamic. Later, we realised we couldn’t apply this approach in Flanders, as the legislation and the mentality here are different.”

Flanders has many examples of industrial sites that have been protected successfully and for which another purpose has been found. The Zuiderpershuis in Antwerp, for example, was once a power station and is now a cultural centre. Interesting things are being developed on former mining sites in Limburg, though a lot of the old buildings were demolished after the mines were closed.

It seems that the value of industrial heritage has finally taken root in the minds of developers and planners. That was different in the early years of the VVIA, Linters recalls. “You were almost declared insane if you talked about the importance of industrial heritage. It was pioneering work we did.”

Agreeing a definition

It seems easy to formulate a definition of what industrial heritage is all about. Old factories, right? But it’s not that simple. “In the early years there was some confusion about what we were talking about,” says Linters. “The British defined it as everything related to the Industrial Revolution, while the East Germans at that time saw it as the history of the proletariat culture.

“Later, a common definition of industrial heritage was agreed on, namely the material relics of the industrial period. That’s much more than just factories. For example, workers’ housing can be industrial heritage. And it’s about more than just buildings and machinery; the social implications are important. In practice, the premise is very pragmatic: What do we have left to preserve?”

Yet the struggle to ensure that the importance of industrial heritage is recognised isn’t over yet. Often the question arises why old factories should be protected, while no one would ask the same about a mediaeval castle, for example.

“Industrial heritage is essentially a question of identity,” Linters explains. “To take Hasselt again as an example, when we enforced the protection of the distillery in 1975 we received a lot of angry responses. Today the Jenever Museum is the pride of the city, and the identity of Hasselt is largely built on its past as jenever producing city. A campaign like Hasselt, City of Taste is built on this heritage.”

But the current approach also involves some problems, he warns. Too often, heritage is seen as something for tourists, with purely commercial motives. “Often policymakers tend to forget that local people have to be involved in the first place, otherwise you only have an empty box,” he says.

“The industrial past is painted too rosily, because tourists prefer a nice story. Take the mining sites. I’ve been underground when they were still in operation, and that was a living hell. How you sell such a story to the public is a big challenge. We pick certain elements of our history, often just the things that appeal to us. But at Ironbridge in England, for example, visitors are also taken to the cemetery to show them how short the life expectancy of workers was in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.”

To preserve heritage for the future, a new approach will be required

- Adriaan Linters

Another sore point for Linters is that there is too little attention paid in Flanders to examples from abroad. “The heritage sector is far too unaware of what’s happening in the countries around us. This is unfortunate, especially since many industries previously intertwined over the borders.

“Take the flax industry. Flax production extended over all the Atlantic coast, with the region around Kortrijk its heartland. But today, the story of flax is only told from a local perspective, which leaves out a lot of the historical facts. Our limited vision keeps us from learning from experiences from abroad. And that’s unfortunate, because to preserve heritage for the future, a new approach will be required.”

Industrial heritage may be a thing of the past, but at the same time it’s a matter that’s constantly evolving, he says. “We’re working on a project on nuclear heritage,” Linters explains. “The BR 1 reactor in Mol, Antwerp province, is the oldest civilian reactor on the European mainland and the International Nuclear Society has put it on the list as a historic nuclear landmark. But there is no precedent, no knowledge of how to deal with something as new as nuclear heritage.” 

Four decades of struggle

To celebrate the European Year of Industrial and Technical Heritage, the VVIA has set up an exhibition on 40 years of industrial heritage in Flanders. It tells the story of four decades of struggle for the protection of old factories, mills, breweries and other relics of the history of our daily labour and highlights the role played by citizens and associations in the conservation of these monuments.

The exhibition is travelling around Flanders and will be on display at some very symbolic locations. It opened during Flanders Week in a building at the former Lenin shipyards in the Polish port of Gdansk, the site where the Solidarnosc union was formed. The building, a valuable industrial heritage site, has been repurposed as the Wyspa Institute of Art.

The exhibition’s Flanders debut was at the Jenever Museum in Hasselt, formerly the Stellingwerff-Theunissen distillery. In 1975, the building was given the status of a monument, making it Flanders’ first protected industrial building. Currently, the exhibition can be seen in De Snoek malthouse and brewery in Alveringem, West Flanders, and then in Londerzeel’s library and Baasrode’s Maritime Museum.