Museum Experience

A blog post from August 15, 2010

En route from Lille back to Utrecht, I visited one of the strangest museums ever. Can it be called a museum? You tell me. About every contemporary Dutch museum wishes to create an experience for its visitors. Well this institution most certainly offered an experience, but whether it was the good kind can be debated. Without grand reconstructions operations or ten years closure for refurbishments, the Iron Tower in the Belgian town of Diksmuide establishes what others institutions can only attempt to aim for. To let the visitor truly experience and remember what it presents on display.

The Iron Tower is a private institution, funded by private foundations and donors. The museum wants to present the atmosphere in which the people of Flanders lived from the First World War up to now. Upon arrival you walk over a bridge surrounded by water in which artificial bombs explode. This very much sets the tone for the rest of the visit. The Iron Tower is made out of brick and displays a sign with the letters AVV and VVK, abbreviations meaning Everything for Flanders and Flanders for Christ. Also the word PAX is frequently used. The tower counts twenty-two floors and the museum tour starts by taking the elevator up to the top floor. The view from the roof is quite spectacular and offers a sense of ultimate freedom. Paradoxically, a feeling of threatened freedom, force and oppression is what characterizes the rest of the museum visit. Slowly you circle down the tower’s twenty-two floors, following a time line that presents the history of Flemish people and the many forms of oppression they suffered. Two World Wars, civil conflicts between Wallonia and Flanders and the language oppression in Brussels are important themes. The museum is not afraid to use unconventional presentation methods. You can walk through a World War One trench, through a stroboscopic screening of the atomic bomb exploding at Hiroshima, followed by temporary exhibitions on (most likely Flemish) animals in wartime or an expose on universal human rights. Circling down the tower, every corner brings a new feature as the museum attempts to tell you a grand narrative from Flemish perspective.

The museum wants you to understand the forms of oppression Flemish people suffered from offering shocking and thought provoking experiences. However, halfway the visit it turns into you experiencing a feeling of forcefulness from the side of the museum displays. The fact that you are in a tower does not really help in finding sympathy or understanding for that what is displayed, but creates a feeling of no escape. Of course, that makes you want to leave. This much mismanagement can even over satisfy the interested cultural or museum professional. Unfortunately 11 more mandatory floors follow, without early escape. But then again, people in conflict situations don’t have early escapes either. On the ground floor, just before the exit a small feature presents you with a box carrying ‘the smell of death’. For a proper ending to this museum experience.

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