From the outside the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp looks like the epitome of convention. The grand neo-classical monument, modelled on a Greek temple, first opened in 1890 and bears all the pomp and circumstance of its age. Yet behind the imposing facade are some playful and surprising touches.
In one room, a painting hangs at a crooked angle. In another, a luminous green cat sits menacingly in a cage with the door ajar. Elsewhere, a wall “comes to life” as an eerie curtain of rustling leaves. It is all part of a visit to the Royal Museum, known as KMSKA, which reopened in September after being closed for 11 years following a €100m (£87m) renovation.
The museum now wants to entertain and amuse, as much as inform visitors about a rich collection that spans the Flemish Primitives, the Antwerp baroque and the largest number of works by the Belgian modernist James Ensor, who pioneered cubism, expressionism, futurism and surrealism.
It aims to turn a traditional museum into something less intimidating, more playful. “To pay a visit to this museum is a challenge,” said Carmen Willems, the director of KMSKA, citing the 2.4km of galleries where more than 600 works are on display. Academic research, she said, showed the average museum-goer looks quickly at a painting, for perhaps as little as seven seconds. One 2016 study found that viewers spent 28.6 seconds looking at a great work of art. Instead of visitors feeling obliged to tick off every painting, “we try to slow the tempo of looking at art,” said Willems.
One way to slow down comes through 10 art installations by the Belgian artist and opera director Christophe Coppens scattered throughout the museum, each taking a detail from a painting in the same room. The menacing cat comes from Ensor’s Still Life with Chinoiseries, while a plush, ruby-red camel that children are free to clamber over can be found by Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi. The museum hopes the search to match details in the paintings to the installation will make a visit more engaging for children and their parents.
Curators also hope to confound expectations about how art should be displayed. Paintings are grouped by themes – light, colour or form in the modern gallery, suffering, redemption and power in the old. Rembrandt’s portrait of a clergyman in an austere black gown is displayed next to a wild, colourful painting of a mandril by the 20th-century expressionist Oskar Kokoschka – a joke at the expense of the upstanding Dutch burgher.
Another quirk is found in the slanted hanging of a tavern scene by the Dutch golden age painter Adriaen van Ostade that shows a drunken man falling off his stool. “By presenting the painting crooked, we stress the comic and dynamic aspect of the painting, which was also van Ostade’s intention,” said Nico Van Hout, head of collections at KMSKA. “Nevertheless, we hope the visitor understands such jokes without explanation. Having to explain a joke means that it is a bad joke, isn’t it?”
In the modern gallery, a 14th-century gold-leaf image of Christ on the cross appears alongside Günther Uecker’s Dark Field, a 1979 work where hundreds of nails hammered at different angles into a wooden panel catch the light, creating an illusion of movement. Both artists – the unknown 14th-century master and the modern German sculptor – were playing with light, suggests Van Hout. “For me personally it is important to look through artists’ eyes. We don’t realise enough that these paintings are objects in the first place. You should look at paintings as paintings and not just as images.”
As part of the “slow looking” philosophy, visitors can also stand in a 21-metre long gallery, where tiny details of paintings are projected on four walls 10 metres high. Brought to life as video, museum-goers can be immersed in an eerie rustling curtain of leaves, or see amber jewels rolling off the walls.
Not everyone is a fan of the new approach. One local paper described the crooked hanging as a gimmick. Some art historians, too, have been a bit sniffy, suggests Van Hout. “They think it is not suitable for a museum of this importance to do these things. To them, I say, well I couldn’t care less, because I am not only working for art historians,” he said. He added, however, that he hoped specialists would visit and appreciate the restoration of more than 200 works of art.
The reopening in September was the culmination of a 19-year project to restore the building, which was leaky and falling into disrepair. Fake walls were knocked down, the rich, olive green and Pompeii red colours repainted, and fixtures that had lost their shine re-gilded. The facade was given a facelift, rescuing its original pink, orange, grey and blue from 120 years of grime.
At the same time, a second museum to better showcase the modern collection was built, adding 40% more space. But instead of tacking on an annexe, the Rotterdam-based KAAN Architecten proposed a modern wing inside internal courtyards – a sleek, glossy, white space with high ceilings and a dramatic 103-step flight of stairs.
Along the way, renovators also got rid of unwelcome features, including asbestos and a 1952 nuclear shelter – a three-month job for two mini-excavators bearing jackhammers.
While the building work was going on, the museum used the 11-year closure to investigate its links with colonialism. It found that 57 works from 18 donors, 3.3% of all donations, were “possibly or probably funded” by colonial money.
So far the renovation seems popular. More than 100,000 people visited in the first five weeks of the reopening, far exceeding expectations. “The most beautiful compliment that we get is that it is a surprising approach … and that it is not just for the art lovers, that it is a really a museum open to everyone,” Willems said.
And she is convinced people get the point of the crooked painting of the drunk: “Everyone who goes really looking at the painting, they understand the joke, they laugh.”