Paying homage to Antwerp’s nautical history, the MAS is the latest and greatest museum to burst onto the international scene and steal the spotlight, deemed one of the best new museums worldwide.
And, it’s clear why.
The Museum Aan de Stroom is striking, a masterpiece of wavy green glass and bright red sandstone piled high, a stark contrast against its older, greyer neighbors. A capstone building, it is the exclamation mark on the pier, a bright refuge of culture.
Contrary to the signposts stating that this is most definitively prohibited, Mimiche and Thierry carry Thibaut up and up the escalators in his stroller, each time, showing us more and more of Antwerp as we climb higher and higher above the city.
Our first enterprise is the fourth floor exhibit, Global Port: Commerce and Navigation, and upon entering the room, I am in museum studies heaven. The entire concept behind this exhibit is interactive, engaging, stupendous. From the touch-screen tapestry showing Antwerp in the 16th century to the armada of miniature ships sailing down the gallery, I am smitten with how the curators arrange the story of Antwerp’s past, present, and future, a city strategically located on the banks of the Escaut. Thibaut and I trace the outlines of the river, layers of history telling the tale of how since the 1500s, Antwerp transforms from a town of 100,000 with uneven, muddy banks to the crossroads of international trade, solidified with mega industrialization efforts post-WWII.
On the way between floors, we pass iconic vestiges of medieval Belgium, still in use in today’s parades and floats, papier mâché giants among the crowds. It’s The Neverending Story incarnate.
We leave the material world for the spiritual world via Pre-Colombian artifacts, which, I must say, feels odd to see pieces of the Americas here and in London, so far away from home. Yes, I realize the this is true for all foreign objects found in a museum, but to witness the story of Native Americans through a European voice feels askance, objectified, as if something might have gotten lost in translation.
It makes me think of the countless times I hear Europeans tell me that America has no history, that it’s not old like Europe. I wonder how they reach this conclusion when before me is a room full of sacred objects, rites of passage, depictions of pyramids, and on and on, as ancient and important as the cultures Europeans use as their measuring stick, a clear objection to their opinion. It’s true that in the Americas, so much of this history is lost to the jungles and the conquistadors, but the land and its people remember.
It’s just that the history books don’t, as they were written by people far, far away with an anti-“savage” agenda, determined to erect their own kingdom of heaven. It’s mighty Eurocentric, this thinking that an entire other continent could be void of the vestiges of time, of history, of development. To me, the biggest differentiator in thinking that one culture, say, the Romans or Egyptians, could be more or less (adjective of your choice) than another is all a matter of education and influence, not truth. It seems evident that our history books and newspapers and imaginations privilege some culture and not others, relegating to the recesses of obscurity. The less we know about a culture, the less relevant it seems.
Back to the spiritual world, I now walk through Asia again, relics of Hinduism and Buddhism organized in domes of information, living pieces propped up prettily for display. Africa and the Americas make an appearance with their shamanic beliefs, burials, and more. Here, we have a comparative review of the wolrd’s religions, culminating with the Abrahamic religions, threading together Jew, Christian, and Muslim.
It’s a philosophy-religious studies class in a nutshell, the answer to which my uncle Thierry posits the answer in regards to Buddhism–is it a religion or a philosophy?–and while I see the merit in holding this debate, of expanding beyond the confines of one or another, I am also at a loss for why one mutually exclude the other, why they can’t simultaneously be both.
Surely, our answer will change again in the near future as we realize that we neglected, overlooked, misunderstood this tiny, itty bitty little facet that means that (a) now equals (b) instead of (d).
Or, maybe I’m a cynic.
Despite whisking myself back in time via these exhibits and to use a term I hate but don’t find its synonyms suitable, the MAS is most definitely a first-world museum, the manifestation of a society with time, resources and desire to dedicate towards cultural and intellectual expansion and inquiry. Here, the artifacts tell the story; the story is not solely the artifacts. This is the Aston Marten of the fleet, and my, oh, my, things look a little bit different when the ride is smooth, silky and climate controlled.
Now, if only the museum weren’t entirely in Flemmish, it would truly live up to its reputation as an international powerhouse.