Open Monument Day goes behind closed doors


As part of Flanders’ annual event, hundreds of castles, houses and museums across the region open their doors to visitors free of charge

Under the stairs

Next weekend, Open Monument Day will once again give people across Flanders the opportunity to peek inside some of the region’s most historic, beautiful and interesting heritage sites. Now in its 29th year, the event has become the biggest one-day cultural events in Flanders, with close to 1,000 activities in over 200 communities.

Last year’s edition drew 40,000 visitors. According to Liesbeth de Maeyer, communications co-ordinator for the Herita heritage agency, it’s not difficult to see why.

“It’s because people can see inside buildings that they normally can’t visit,” she says. “We try to have a lot of private houses on our programme, and we try to keep them exclusive for that day.”

In other words, people are naturally curious about what’s behind closed doors – whether those doors belong to a castle or a neighbour’s house down the street.

Another reason she cites is that people are always interested in the history of their local area. With so many activities in so many different locations, it’s easy to find something close to home.

Rare opportunity

One of the highlights of the programme is the chance to visit the three finalists of the annual Onroerenderfgoedprijs (Monument Prize). This year, the nominees were all privately owned and therefore not accessible to the public, making the Open Monument Day a rare opportunity to see them.

Boterberg Castle in Kalmthout, Antwerp province, was built in the Flemish Renaissance style in the 19th century and is now a shared housing development. A modernist house in Loppem, part of Zedelgem in West Flanders, was built by architect Marc Dessauvage in 1980 as his own residence.

The third finalist is a contemporary apartment that incorporates recently discovered elements of a medieval castle in Nevele, East Flanders.

People are naturally curious about what’s behind closed doors – whether they belong to a castle or a neighbour’s house down the street

It’s not just buildings that are open to the public, however. Historic trains and river barges are also on the programme. In Maldegem, East Flanders, the old train station is now a museum with the largest collection of steam engines in Flanders, while another former station is now a five-star hotel in Landen, Flemish Brabant, where you can sleep in an actual train car.

Those with an interest in watercraft and river transport can visit the Shipping Museum in Dendermonde, East Flanders, or a former barge that’s now a museum in Beernem, West Flanders. In Mechelen, an entire fleet of historic barges that are still in use as private craft will be open to visitors, with their owners on hand to answer questions.

And then there’s nature preserves and parks. These range from the landscaped gardens of Beauvoorde Castle in West Flanders to the unspoiled natural beauty of Molsbroek in Lokeren, East Flanders, to the green spaces of Leuven’s city centre. In most of these places, guided tours are offered throughout the day.

44 sites in 44 pictures

In Limburg, Open Monument Day marks the beginning of a photography project linked to both architectural heritage and the First World War. The Royal Institute for Artistic Heritage holds a collection of negatives made by Nazi occupiers during the Great War, showing the architectural riches of Belgium. Each of the 44 communities that make up Limburg province has chosen one negative depicting a building in that community.

On Open Monument Day, the 44 photographs will be exhibited in the 44 locations where each was taken. Local photographers are invited to take part in a competition to find 44 new images to be exhibited alongside the German photos in 2018.

We want to show how old buildings can have new possibilities

- Liesbeth de Maeyer of Herita

Participants are urged to document those buildings and monuments that are important to them today and that should be preserved for the future.

Finally, Open Monument Day coincides with the Day of Architecture this year, and the two events have joined forces to highlight a selection of buildings that combine contemporary design elements with the preservation of architectural heritage. “We want to show how old buildings can have new possibilities,” says de Maeyer.

Visitors can tour an old gas factory in Ghent’s northern industrial zone that’s now a lively project with shops, artists’ lofts and apartments. Or a chapel in Sint-Truiden whose ancient stone walls now contain a sleek architectural firm.

Everything is free of charge. See the website for a list of family-friendly activities, as well as activities grouped by theme, category and province.

10 September, across Flanders

Photo: Jan Verlinde