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Museum life: Discover a treasure trove of collections just beyond Brussels' borders
Brussels may be home to both world-class and quirky museums, but in the surrounding province of Flemish Brabant, lie many fascinating and lesser-known collections.
Nevertheless, the province’s landmark institution is the Africa Museum, Belgium’s refurbished testimonial to its colonial past. The former Royal Museum for Central Africa has been welcoming the public and national and international delegations since its reopening in December 2018.
Now casting a more critical eye on the country’s colonial history and focusing on the depth and vibrancy of contemporary African culture, it’s a beacon for visitors to the leafy suburb of Tervuren. The neo-classical style buildings, complete with a new reflective glass visitor centre, preside over French-landscaped gardens stretching to the 205-hectare park and ponds, a sumptuous green paradise and a jewel in the region’s crown.
Inside, display cases – many of them interactive – include unique collections of colonial artefacts, prized African objects, stuffed wild animals and presentations of some of the continent’s diverse riches and challenges. There are deliberate juxtapositions, such as the crocodile room, which has been left intact to show the museum’s former paternalistic view of life in Africa under colonialism.
Among the less familiar museums in and around the periphery, the MOT (Museum of Older Techniques) in Grimbergen offers a rare insight into the past and present working heritage of the region (pictured above). Within its three sites, exhibitions cover a wide range of skills, crafts and professions, such as woodwork, blacksmith and bread-making. It also runs workshops and holiday stages for adults and children. The site includes the Guldendal, a former castle farm, where an exhibition of scaffolding and stone has recently opened.
While in the area, why not visit MIRA Public Observatory for a stargazing experience. Located in a purpose-built extension within the Grimbergen Abbey estate, it’s the oldest observatory in Belgium. While events are currently suspended due to coronavirus restrictions, it’s possible to join the site live online for special occasions. Two fixed telescopes, plus an array of astronomical instruments, make for an out-of-the-world trip.
Dive into the world of craft beers at De Lambiek Visitor’s Centre in Alsemberg (Beersel). The centre (pictured, above) opens to the public one Saturday every month (22 August, 26 September, 24 October, 28 November, 19 December). Discover the ancient brewing process of De Lambiek artisan brewery, involving spontaneous fermentation and aging in wooden casks. It produces slightly sour gueuzes and cherry and raspberry flavoured beers, typical of the Senne valley and Pajottenland. Guided tours are a refreshing experience with a chance to taste one of the brews, while a brewery shop is open for purchases.
An alternative view of local culture awaits visitors at FeliXart in Drogenbos (pictured, above). The museum is dedicated to pioneering 20th-century artist Felix De Boeck and set in the green domain of his former home. It is currently showing until 2021 the exhibition Abstract art, a bird’s eye view. The show places De Boeck in the context of the modernist and abstract movements in Belgium. Other artists featured include the Brabant Fauves, active before World War One, and contemporary artists influenced by the abstract movement. Ixelles Museum in Brussels has loaned works, including De Boeck’s famous ‘Pigeon (2017)’, as well as the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp.
Opening times and access details may be affected by Covid-19 regulations so check directly with each museum before visiting.
If you don’t own a car, there are regular bus and local train services linking the towns to Brussels.
Tervuren Tram 44 runs from Montgomery to Tervuren Station in front of the museum. There are also several parking areas around the park, some free.
Grimbergen De Lijn bus services run from Vilvoorde train station and from Brussel-Noord train station.
Alsemberg Take the De Lijn 137 bus (running every 30 minutes) from Brussels or the S train service from Brussel-Noord train station to Sint-Genesius-Rode.
Drogenbos There are regular Stib-Mivb bus and local train services from central Brussels.
Photos: Africa Museum © Bert Dekelver; MOT Guldendal and De Lambiek Visitor's Centre © Lander Loeckx; FeliXart © CedricVerhelst