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Archive collection tells the story of Dutch-speakers in Brussels
Today, the Flemish in Brussels are a firmly established community with a large network of organisations and prominent characters – but it wasn’t always that way.
The community took off in the 1970s, the period when the Archives and Museum of Flemish life in Brussels (AMVB) was founded. The AMVB’s collection, part of which is currently on display, offers a unique glimpse of the identity of Dutch-speaking Brusselaars.
The AMVB, logically located in Brussels’ Flemish quarter, functions as the memory of the Dutch-speaking community in the capital. It collects important documents and objects from influential people and organisations, going back to the middle of the 19th century, briefly after Belgium was founded. The heritage centre makes inventories and provides information to researchers, but also makes its collection accessible to the public through its online catalogue and regular exhibitions.
The archive was created in 1977 and built on the work of the Karel Buls Foundation. Buls, who became the city’s mayor, was a leading defender of the rights of Brussels’ Dutch-speaking residents in the 19th century. The centre holds a wealth of materials on the lives of such pioneers, and stays up to date by collecting archives of today’s prominent personalities such as current Brussels minister Sven Gatz. Its team also interviews important Dutch-speaking Brusselaars for its oral history archive.
In the second half of the 20th century, the politician Sändor Szondi proved that you don’t have to be born in this community, or even in Flanders, to become a Dutch-speaking figurehead in Brussels.
Szondi, who was born in Hungary but grew up in a Flemish foster family, devoted himself to improving the situation of Dutch-speakers in the capital after working as a civil servant there. He founded a union of Flemish civil servants and a kindergarten for the children of native Dutch-speakers.
But more than individual actions, it was the spontaneous assembling of people in associations that gave rise to Flemish autonomy in Brussels. “The community grew very organically, with small grassroots initiatives that gradually developed their outreach,” says Veerle Soens, director of the AMVB.
“From the beginning of the 1970s, the Dutch-speaking minority here became more and more united and outspoken.” This led to the creation of an official Brussels body representing their interests, the current Flemish Community Commission (VGC).
Cultural organisations played an important role in the Flemish movement. “Important examples were the chambers of rhetoric in Brussels, dramatic societies of which some still continue their activities, such as the theatre group Noordstar,” says Soens. “This tradition lives on in more modern forms such as spoken word poetry, often performed during poetry slams.”
The AMVB also holds unique documentation evoking the grandeur of the theatre hall Alhambra, which was at one time the biggest of its kind in Brussels but was demolished in 1977.
A crucial moment in the history of the local music scene was the acquisition of concert hall Ancienne Belgique (AB) by the Flemish Community, at the end of the 1970s. The AB would go on to become the capital’s main music temple, a position it still holds today.
“Our AB collection contains an impressive number of concert posters and photos, apart from the administrative files,” says Soens. In the current BLIJVEN PLAKKEN expo (see below), the AMVB displays a memorable poster from a 1988 concert by the American rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Also in the 1970s, pioneers such as Jari Demeulemeester, general manager of the AB until 2011, launched the trailblazing annual Dutch-language music festival Mallemunt, referring to its location at the Muntplein. After a break of a few years, the festival was started up again in 1990 under the new name of Boterhammen in het Park (Sandwiches in the Park), and still takes place every year in the Warande Park – though this year is an exception because of the Covid-19 crisis.
When it comes to Dutch-language education institutions, the Lodewijk de Raet Foundation was one of the most influential. “Since 1952, it’s offered all kinds of courses to adults and so contributed strongly to the democratisation of education,” explains Soens. The foundation organised courses in various fields, from creative expression classes to coaching lessons on how to participate in policymaking.
The general Dutch-language education system has evolved significantly in the past decades. In the past five years, the number of students in Brussels’ Dutch-speaking school network has increased by more than 12%, to about 50,000 students.
“An important aspect of its growth is the increasing popularity among families who are not native Dutch-speakers,” says Soens. The AMVB itself also contributes to the spread of Dutch in the capital by organising activities and internships for non-native speakers who want to fine-tune their Dutch-language skills.
The centre is currently preparing an exhibition to put the history of Dutch-language education over the past 200 years in the spotlight. The AMVB has a long tradition of exhibitions for a general audience. Last year, it set up the popular Velomuseum Brussels show, which traced the history of Brussels’ cycling culture back 150 years.
At the moment, the AMVB is showcasing the history of the Flemish community through iconic posters, in its exhibition BLIJVEN PLAKKEN: Affiches in het Brusselse straatbeeld (Sticking Around: Posters in the Brussels street scene). Especially eye-catching are the posters of the Mallemunt music festival by renowned illustrator Ever Meulen and those used to announce events at cultural strongholds such as the AB, the Royal Flemish Theatre (KVS) and the Kaaitheater.
Another remarkable piece is the poster promoting Dutch-language lessons among foreign workers. And don’t forget to spot the humble, hand-written poster inviting people to a truly classic Flemish event – a waffle feast.