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Proposed regional distribution of exhibits raises concerns for Brussels' Military Museum

Picture shows part of the exhibition detailing World War I at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO ERIC LALMAND)
06:33 14/07/2021

For several years now, the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History (MRA), its curators and the Tervuren-Montgomery committee of local residents which supports it have been battling to protect the museum's collections against — what they call — a siphoning of the Brussels museum’s heritage towards Flanders and Wallonia. They fear that the resources and attractions of the Royal Army Museum are being reduced in favour of regional museums.

These fears have increased recently after a strategic plan to distribute the MRA’s exhibits among smaller institutions was tabled by defence minister Ludivine Dedonder, who oversees the War Heritage Institute (WHI), the federal body that brings together all of Belgium’s military museums.

The MRA houses 95% of Belgian museum pieces related to the military, totalling around 150,000 artefacts – many of which are coveted by other museums around the country.

Paul Dubrunfaut, the curator of the MRA, believes the plan tabled by Dedonder is the logical continuation of a campaign to undermine the museum. "We are creating regional museums for the confederal Belgium of tomorrow,” he said. “This means that we will continue to empty the rooms of the MRA.

"There is a hidden agenda for siphoning off the collections. The plan is to empty the halls under the pretext that there will be work done to them. The MRA is undoubtedly, today, a museum too centralised for the taste of some."

Dubrunfaut fears that in the future, if this campaign he believes is underway succeeds, the MRA will no longer have the financial means to survive.

An investment of €3 million for the military museum sector has been proposed by the government, with “a large part” going towards the MRA, according to Dedonder, but the exact percentage of this distribution has yet to be determined. Those associated with the MRA are underwhelmed with the overall figure and believe the final sum destined for the MRA will be inadequate.

Dedonder confirmed in a statement that the strategic plan had been validated by the WHI board of directors and a communication on this subject would follow. A meeting with the 150 staff members of the MRA will also take place sometime in early September.

The minister added that the other WHI institutions do not depend on the Royal Army Museum and that visitors to the MRA represent about one third of the total number of those who visit all the military museums under the WHI umbrella. She said that all sites deserve to be equally served, and that the collections are owned by the federal state and the WHI determines where it establishes and stores them.

In other words, the MRA will have no say if parts of its collection are temporarily moved to regional repositories. However, this seems inevitable with the renovation work planned as part of Belgium’s bicentenary celebrations.

However, Dedonder insisted that the future distribution of exhibits presented in the strategic plan is very balanced and adds value to all WHI sites.

Charles Six, co-coordinator of the Tervuren-Montgomery committee, admitted to being alarmed by the news. "The law of possession will apply,” he said. “Once they have left for these other sites, the heritage treasures will no longer return and will then belong to Flanders and Wallonia."

Six also fears that some of the MRA staff will be relocated to the regional sites because the hangars at Beauvechain, in particular, which have been rumoured to be the destination for the MRA’s air force collection, are not currently equipped to function as a museum.

"Some people will probably be relocated or worse lose their jobs so that others can get hired,” Six said. “There is also a volunteer structure at the MRA. If the collections go elsewhere, the added value of these volunteers will evaporate. I see only an enrichment of the Walloon and Flemish heritage in the short term."

On this point, Dedonder is clear: the reinforcement of personnel at the sites will be done mainly with military personnel, who will be able to request a secondment from the WHI from a certain age and under certain conditions. No MRA staff will be removed from Brussels and moved to other sites. On the contrary, she said, the MRA site will also have its own site manager with additional floor and reception staff.

Those associated with the MRA, however, remain sceptical. For them, the fight to keep the museum alive not only continues but now intensifies.

Written by Nick Amies