As a visitor, one sometimes has a tendency to think that a museum’s main function is to pass on information to the public, via its collections. In reality, a museum-type of institution carries out a lot of other tasks. According to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), it is a non-profit, permanent institution, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity. It is the key conservation mission that is under the spotlight as the ‘Object of the Month’ for June.
Following the Museum’s temporary move to boulevard de Berlaimont, the decision was taken to showcase certain items from the collection that fit best into the new museum space or which had simply not yet been shown to the public. This gave us the opportunity to research more closely into some parts of the collection while making sure that they would be preserved properly.
The first element that we took a closer look at turned out to be the model of today’s National Bank building that was constructed by architect Marcel Van Goethem at the end of the Second World War. It seemed quite pertinent to give visitors a general view of the building they are actually standing in at the time. Presented as an open-plan model of the Bank’s headquarters that was built by Henri Beyaert almost one century earlier, it gives a good picture of how bank architecture has evolved over time and gives a real idea of the size of the building. At the time, owing to the work on the railway junction connecting the Brussels North and South stations, it was possible to take the opportunity of various redevelopment projects in the district to acquire several plots of land on which the building that currently houses the National Bank was to be erected.
But to be able to present it in the Museum, it was first necessary to restore the original model, which was designed back in 1980s and was in need of refurbishment. To this end, we recontacted the Brussels architecture model workshop that had done the work at the time. It was decided to keep the colour white for the whole model so as to best reflect the sense of sobriety that the building imparts. On the other hand, some elements were added to make it more real. A plexiglass cover, referring to the glass ceiling that hangs over part of the Bank, was thus fixed onto it. At the far north and south ends of the building, the Kneeling Girl statue by Charles Leplae and Georges Grard’s Sitting Woman were also added. These model statues were made from existing polyester figures which have been remodelled to correspond to the profiles of the real-life sculptures. But the stone elements adorning the north and south façades could not be shown on the model, because of the small scale of the original design.
Among the Museum’s collections, there are several plaster models that served as a basis for these adornments dating from the mid-20th century. They were made up by sculptor and medal maker Marcel Rau, who strove to strike a balance between the natural lines of the building and the ornamental elements. As well as resembling the shape of coins, an undeniable link with the function of the building, these ornaments called méreaux are also given a symbolism that perhaps does not at first strike viewers. The name is in fact a reference to the tokens made by guild members in the Middle Ages on the back of which the crafts were depicted. Marcel Rau made 56 méreaux and thus flagged up 56 trades, some more modern than others. Among these, for instance, is a reference to the shoemaker, florist or even the railwayman. Generally speaking, these raised elements symbolise economic life in this way. The artist arranged for the different projects to be carried out one after the other so as to keep the inspiration consistent and offer a uniform series.
The three méreaux models that we have decided to showcase in the Museum were not just selected at random. The first one refers to the architecture, in line with the theme for the room in which it is being exhibited. The second one represents trade, while a beehive, associated with the profession of beekeeping, is depicted on the third. Here again, the choice was made very carefully, since the bee is a symbol of savings that is well engrained in the history of bank architecture.
The bee was actually a recurrent item throughout the National Bank building designed by architect Henri Beyaert who started construction back in the 1860s. To give the best idea of the recurrence of this theme and the symbolism in general in bank architecture, it was decided to exhibit a group sculpture from the building on Rue de la Banque and dating from the second half of the 19th century.
This plaster sculpture depicts two putti on either side of a hive with bees, still relating to saving. The first putto is holding a hammer, referring to work, while the other one is carrying a purse filled with coins. When linked together, these different attributes underline the importance of working to earn money. This sculpture was originally placed on a cornice overlooking the main stairway of the building. Since they were intended to be viewed from afar, the two youngsters have deliberately exaggerated features accentuating things like the expression on their faces.
Here again, it proved indispensable to have the group of sculptures restored before exhibiting them in the Museum. So, they were researched in the Bank’s archives so as to be able to give the specialists as much detail as possible. However, no trace of the artist’s identity could be found. From a conservation perspective, it was decided with the experts doing the restoration work to give the sculptures a general clean-up and to repair the paintwork which was peeling off in some places. Moreover, a choice was made to keep the original paint and just do some touching so the sculptures could keep its authenticity. Some defects nevertheless had to be reconstructed on the basis of a plate of the sculpture in its original form.
- Deblon V., The National Bank of Belgium and its modern architecture , Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, May 2012.
- Museum Definition – ICOM , 2010-2012.
- Maes A., « Marcel Rau, créateur des « méreaux » – Marcel Rau, schepper van de gildepenningen » dans Revue du personnel de la Banque nationale de Belgique, 2, 1952.
- Marcel Van Goethem. Architecte D.P.L.G. Œuvres et études. 1940-1959, Brussels, National Bank of Belgium, s.d.