A cluster of dockyard cranes bow down to a magnificent Cubist tower of Indian red sandstone interlaced with swathes of curved glass. This is MAS, the Museum Ann De Stroom (Museum on the River) in Antwerp. It stands 60 metres high between the ziggurat roofs of the historic centre and the industrial sprawl of the old port. The opening of MAS in 2011 signalled the transformation of Het Eilandje (small island) from a neglected dockside district to an up beat, fashionable quarter. The docks were constructed for Napoleon in 1811 as a base for his planned naval invasion of London but by mid 19th century had fallen into disrepair.
I ride the escalator to the roof and pick out the city’s sights – the wide river Scheldt and the Gothic cathedral that houses masterpieces by Reubens. Yachts and sailboats bob about in the Willemdoc and Bonapartedoc below. In the distance liners nestle in the new port, built to accommodate larger vessels that had outgrown Het Eilandje.
‘At the heart of the story is the long history of exchanges between the city and the world beyond,’ reads the Museum text.
There is a Chinese sailor’s bilingual notebook from the 1920s to help him find work, women and somewhere to sleep; an image of a Congolese man strolling the streets of Antwerp in the 1950s; a painting of the Jain pilgrimage on Mount Shatrunjaya, Palitana, Gujarat, of significance no doubt to the 1300 Jain diamond traders in Antwerp today. Each floor is dedicated to a different theme – World Port, Metropolis, Power and Life and Death, bringing together an eclectic collection of maritime and urban history, ethnography, applied arts and pre-Columbian art amassed by Paul and Dora Janssen-Arts.
I love the theatricality of this Museum. Dockside aromas waft through the gallery of the World Port. A Jewish torah and several menorahs are interspersed with everyday Judaica and videos of the objects in use. The Museum even has its own music composer.
A magnificent Maori meeting-house, built by George Nuku from polystyrene and Plexiglas, places the Museum’s Polynesian objects within a sacred setting.
The Visible Storage Depot, with pull out drawers, allows glimpses behind the scenes. Four cases are set aside for local collectors’ idiosyncratic selections from the MAS stores or to exhibit their own collections.
There are plenty of interactives too. QR codes translate all the labels into English. In the gallery on Power well known figures flash before my eyes and I test how far I confront or avoid conflict, how adept I am at negotiating solutions. I am relieved. I am not a hooligan. I try to argue my case with reason.
But it is the low-tech touches that particularly appeal. I write a message in a bottle as I exit the World Port gallery. A secret message.
On the floor dedicated to Metropolis, I visit the exhibition, In Antwerp: 50 Years of Migration from Morocco and Turkey.
‘ It is about working and living. Love across the miles. Growing up in Antwerp, “ says the introductory text.
In 1964 Belgium recruited the first Moroccan and Turkish workers. 10 years later, due to the economic crisis, Belgium put up the barriers. Under the family reunification programme only women and children were allowed entry. Today it is the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those first migrants who live in this vibrant, multi-racial city. Lieve from Mas tells me how she recruited a group of local volunteer ‘trackers’ who were given carte blanche to research stories about the Moroccan and Turkish communities. The resulting display is eclectic and intriguing.
I try to identify the objects on car racks, typical of goods carried back and forth between Antwerp and the homeland, suspended from the ceiling. Nutella, European clothes and ground coffee are packed for journeys back to Morocco or Turkey. Carpets, olive oil, henna, a sugar loaf, sheepskin and the hand of Fatima are packed for the journey back. Such trips used to be made by car once a year. Now people travel by air all year round.
I watch a film by Hasna El Gazuani, In Search of My Father’s Footprints about Hasna’s father from Morocco who died when she was two and he was forty-six. She knew him only by a photo of a man in a suit and that he was loved.
Documents of a housing collective, set up in the face of suspicion by Belgian landlords, show that Hasna’s family moved 5 times in Antwerp. I peer at a picture of Hasna’s father attending meetings of the housing collective and a letter offering Hasna’s parents a flat.
It is heartwarming to hear from a nun about Pastor Verachtert who allowed Moroccan workers to build their mosque on land belonging to the church. 50 Muslims, beautifully dressed in white, turned up at the priest’s funeral and, much to the surprise of the congregation, asked to speak. The Moroccans had not forgotten the kindness of Pastor Verachtert.
I read the translations of intimate love letters between a wife and husband, contributed by their daughter, Birsen Taspinar. Hamza Taspinar and Saziye Cinar lived apart for a decade between 1967 and 1977.
Hamza writes to his wife,
Migration has spent my years
I will die if I do not see you
So let this photograph be a reminder.
Come and make me laugh
Because without you
Hours last for weeks
And days last for years
This touching, insightful exhibition has been put together with care. Instead of large blow up photos the originals, creased and ink stained, remain intact. Work permits and other migration documents are suspended artistically in a case.
There were two types of work permits – Permit B for a limited period with a specific employer such as with the glass blowing factory in Merksem where language lessons were given by volunteers or Metallurgie where Dutch lessons were arranged in working time but where the environment was unhealthy and dangerous. After a few years people could progress to Permit A that allowed stay for an indefinite period and with any employer.
There are plenty of educational opportunities too. Lieve shows me the art of Japanese storytelling, Kamishabai, using custom made illustrated panels depicting a traditional Turkish, Dutch and Japanese folk tale.
Young people, on a video, discuss what objects reflecting their culture and heritage should be preserved for posterity.
It is no surprise that MAS won the European Silletto Award in 2013 award for the best voluntary and community involvement in a museum. It was brave to allow the trackers carte blanche to pursue their research interests but it has paid off. There is no sense of tokenism with this temporary exhibition. Local communities have clearly influenced the permanent displays as well. So go to MAS and, ‘meet Antwerp in the world’ and ‘the world in Antwerp.’