Very unconventional art museum.. from rolled elephant skin to proverb lids…

The Museum of Contemporary Arts (MAC’s) is located in the UNESCO-listed Grand-Hornu mining site, near Mons (Wallonia, Belgium). It’s considered as one of the most amazing neoclassical industrial heritage in Europe (at least, that’s what they pretend :-)).  In the past, it was one of the largest mining company in Belgium, and it was exporting a lot of coal in the North of France. After the second world war, the business stopped completely and 20 years ago, the French speaking community in Belgium decided to establish the future Museum of Contemporary Arts in this site, as a way to preserve the national heritage. 20 years later, the Grand-Hornu site is now one of Belgium’s leading cultural centre, dedicated to contemporary creations.
I had the opportunity to visit last week the current exhibition, “That Most Curious World Museum”, as part of a team-building activity organized by my work. It was raining so much that day, impossible to walk outside… I was a bit disappointed as the mining site looked really interesting !

The exhibition is based on the Royal Museum for Central Africa’s collections. By choosing specific objects from the collections, they wanted to highlight what men have done and created in that part of the world to be able to connect with the gods, ancestors, nature and animals. Ceremonial masks, music instruments but also animals, insect collections or termite mounts were exposed, in a very peculiar way.

They are several objects that really caught my eyes :

  • The Pende masks. The Pende (an ethnic tribe from Congo) used different type of masks to communicate with the spirits during rituals. For example, the 4th mask (black and white, with a twisted mouth) represents someone who has been bewitched, and is considered as a “sickness mask”. It is a symbol of misfortune that can afflict someone. Our guide explained to us that on the black eyelid, the marks of smallpox have been depicted and the face is twisted to illustrated someone with facial paralysis.
  • The strange wood carving that looks like a bear (I’ve heard someone next to me saying “oh it looks like a platypus”.. I can’t really see a platypus to be honest :D). It’s a complete mystery, it was also probably a mask but we don’t know the meaning. It’s the oldest wooden sculpture that has ever been found in Central Africa and it is supposed to date from 750 AD.
  • The proverb lids were also amazing. That was the first time I was hearing about them. The pot lids are carved with proverbs and were used as a way to express a thought, a reproach or advice within a family. It was difficult to take pictures as they were placed under a glass but this one is supposed to represent a trap used to catch rodents. The proverb illustrated is : “A willow rod can be used as a rat trap, but only near ponds“. And the meaning is : “If you want to be a charmer, do it far away from the marital home” :D

The Goliath beetles were impressive ! Several specimens had holes in their wings because they were captured by people using hunting rifles.

I was also really surprised when I saw an elephant skin rolled in the middle of a room. Apparently, the skin weighs more than 500 kg. The fish nets were very well placed in a dark room.

All in all, it was a nice visit. I almost forget that it was an art museum, not a natural history museum. Even if they exhibit some specimens, skulls and insects, they were more interested by the aesthetic of them rather than by the scientific value. Thus, they are well placed in the room, well lit, it’s beautiful, but in my opinion, it lacks information. We had a guide and I think a visit without a guide is useless since there is no written information next to the objects.

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25 responses to “Very unconventional art museum.. from rolled elephant skin to proverb lids…

  1. Wow, there is always something intriguing about going to museums ~ a bit of insight into the local culture and the people. While I always feel a slight pang of guilt for the sacrifice of the animals, seldom am I disappointed at what I see (for the better or worse I suppose). Nice post!

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    • I can relate to that. I love going to Natural History museums, I’m never disappointed, because I learn so much, but I always think that these animals would have been better in the wild. Thank you for stopping by ! Have a nice weekend :-)

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  2. Wow, that’s an incredibly unique museum! I couldn’t handle seeing the animals like that.. I’m such a baby! But wow, the masks are so cool, and the proverb made me laugh!

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    • I’m kind of working in a place where there are tons of jar full of weird animals, so it was not the highlight of the exhibit for me. The masks and proverb lids were, there are full of history ! I would love to know more about the other proverbs :-)

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  3. This is certainly an unconventional arts museum Gin – a pity they didn’t give much written information but perhaps that is the idea to get you thinking in your own way about the exhibits!

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  4. What a shame there was a lack of written information as it looks absolutely fascinating. The hand in the jar and those animals (what are the?) in the other jar caught my attention. I love this kind of exhibition!!

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    • Yes ! I think without the story, it is less interesting. You wouldn’t know the meaning of the carved lid or of the masks if no one tells you about it… As for the animals in the jar, we tried to look at the tag inside because we were really curious.. It’s coming from the Antwerpen zoo but the species was not mentioned. It’s feline for sure, maybe leopard ?

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  5. Grand-Hornu is on my list of places to go (because of my UNESCO project), but until now I’ve had a hard time of convincing the Dearest to visit. Maybe your blog post will change his mind – the exhibition looks quirky enough to interest him. ;)

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    • I think the outside is really worth it. I couldn’t take any picture of it, but the industrial builings look so awesome to take pictures. I would go back just for the outside, it’s really beautiful ! I hope you will manage to convince him :-)

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  6. Given my recent experience try to photograph a loaf of bread in Switzerland, I’m really surprised you were allowed to take photographs of these wonderful exhibits. Fascinating stuff. I do understand that such things are necessary for they educate and instruct but I always feel badly when cultural pieces such as this are presented out of context. It’s very much like going to the zoo. The artifacts mean so much to the people who created them , and they have been taken away to a far away place, for people to look at. But, as I say, these things teach us important lessons about people and places we will never meet and see … and that is important. Great post.

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    • We were allowed to take pictures without flash. According to the museum’s director (he made a speech), art is made to be seen, to be shared so they strongly encourage us to take pictures and share them :D So different from your very weird experience in Switzerland (I still don’t understand why they stopped you seriously, it will remain a mystery). It didn’t stop people from buying their catalogs, with all the objects taken in pictures. So I think it’s a good way of seeing things.

      Concerning the place of these artifacts in museums, I have the same mixed feeling. It’s a bit the same for natural history museums… It’s a bit sad that animals are removed from the environment, artifacts from local tribes, etc But when you think about it , and like you mentioned in your comment, it’s useful as memory for other generations. It will educated people, allow them to know more about the world. So, I have mixed feelings, but I admit that it could be useful, so we won’t forget. The museum of Royal Africa is a striking example that illustrates my mixed feeling about that. Everything exposed in the museum is a sad reminiscence of Belgian (brutal) colonial past.. but there are a lot of good things that happened too… and it’s part of history. We need to remember.

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    • It was very strange. I’m not a very big fan of art museum in general, because, it’s just not my thing. But this one, it was very pleasant. I loved hearing all these explanations about the artifacts. Very interesting ! :-) Do you like art museums in general ?

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    • When they told us the story about how they shoot the insects with a gun, I was completely astounded ! A gun for insects !!? :D But they are huge (maybe they were scared), I should have placed my hand next to it to have an idea of the scale.. damn it ;-)

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    • The huge difference with natural history museum is that it lacks information. Everything is placed there, but there is no sign, we don’t know what it is. Even for the animals in the jars, there is no name. At first, I also thought that, it appears to me as natural history museum, but then I realized it was really and art museum, because all that mattered was the esthetic :-) For example the proverb lid, there is no explanation about it. The guide told the story, but for people who don’t bother to pay for a guide and an audio guide, they will miss everything.

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