The oldest museum in Belgium
The MSK was founded in 1798, even before Belgium itself existed. In 1802, it opened its doors to the public. This makes it the oldest publicly accessible museum in Belgium and one of the oldest in Europe. Over a century later, in 1904, the collection moved to the current museum building, specially designed for the occasion on the edge of Citadel Park.
Today, the museum holds almost 20,000 works of art from the Middle Ages to the present day. The MSK is particularly well known as a knowledge centre for (Belgian) art from the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. It also houses a very extensive collection of art on paper: drawings, graphic art, preliminary studies... The museum has its own research library, which is open to the public, a collection of valuable printed matter and its own archives.
40 galleries of art
Some 600 works of art are permanently on display. The oldest piece in the collection dates back to the 14th century, and the museum displays some absolute masterpieces of older art, including Christ Carrying the Cross by Hieronymus Bosch, Jupiter and Antiope by Anthony Van Dyck, Virgin with the Carnation by Rogier Van der Weyden, Portrait of a Young Woman by Frans Pourbus, or Allegory of the Five Senses by Theodore Rombouts.
About half of the museum galleries are devoted to art from the 19th to the mid-20th century. James Ensor, Auguste Rodin, Emile Claus, Thédore Géricault, Théo Van Rysselberghe, George Minne, Léon Spilliaert, Gustave De Smet, Oscar Kokoschka, René Magritte or Paul Delvaux... These are just some of the important names you will encounter in the museum. Old Masters hang alongside impressionists, surrealists and modernists, and in temporary exhibitions we combine our own collection pieces with international loans.
A 'transhistorical' presentation
In the galleries, the works of art enter into a more intense dialogue with each other and with the visitor. The chronological route is regularly interrupted by thematic rooms that invite reflection across the centuries. About poverty and wealth, the relationship between city and countryside, the image of women in art, or how people immortalise themselves and their loved ones in portraits. The museum shows how each work of art carries many stories within it: those of the artist who made it, of the world in which it was created, but also those that the viewer reads in it. The questions that people want to answer through art were not that different in the past from today. And when we look at their creations, we cannot help but add our own story to theirs.
For many years now, MSK has been working on a diversified programme that aims to let everyone enjoy art on their own terms. There are weekly guided tours and workshops, a permanent offer for families and people with visual impairments, a free multilingual audio guide, discussion moments for people suffering from dementia or chat tables for non-native newcomers. The museum thus also wants to take on an active social role, using art as a means of connecting people and prompting visitors to reflect on the past, present and future. Some of the public offerings are permanently available in the galleries, other activities can be organised on demand. Check the What's on for the full range of activities.
Ghent's museum district
With the Citadel Park on our doorstep and museum neighbours S.M.A.K., Sint-Pietersabdij, STAM and GUM, the MSK is located in the heart of Ghent's green museum district. Regular activities take place in the park and exchanges between the museum partners. The changing presentations, the public programme, the museum shop and the brasserie make it a lively place where we want everyone to enjoy art.
The Ghent drawing school run by painter Philippe Charles Marissal becomes the 'Académie Royale de Dessin, Peinture et Architecture'. From 1792 on it holds biannual salons and competitions. Works from the Academy remain in the museum collection even today, but it was not initially intended to be a museum.
Ernest Joseph Bailly wins the Academy’s first art competition with his work 'Contempt of hatred', which can still be seen in the museum.
When France takes over the Southern Netherlands, Ghent also comes under French rule. Churches and convents are systematically dissolved and their art falls into the hands of the state. Many of these works are assembled in a public collection in Ghent, first in the Baudelo Monastery and later in Saint Peter’s church. It is here that the 'Musée du Département de l’Escaut' - the oldest art museum in what would later become Belgium - is established on 9 September 1798.
The museum opens its doors to visitors on 22 November 1802 with a collection consisting mainly of 17th-century Flemish paintings, and this changes very little in the ensuing years. New works from Ghent’s city hall are added to the collection, some minor works are sold off, and a series of religious paintings are returned to the churches from which they were originally removed.
The 'Musée de l’Académie' opens in an upstairs gallery of the Augustinian monastery. The museum is now a designated municipal institution. Art students come to study and copy the works of their predecessors, and rules are set out to ensure that they behave themselves in the museum.
The Northern and Southern Netherlands are divided again on 20 December 1830, with Leopold I appointed as the first King of sovereign Belgium on 21 July 1831.
The museum purchases its first work by a living artist: 'Auction of Seized Goods' (1835) by Joseph Geirnaert. Starting in the second half of the 1830s, the city of Ghent begins acquiring contemporary works of art for the museum, mainly selecting them at the tri-annual salons of Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent. They reflect the conservative, late-romantic tastes of the time.
The museum purchases its first work by an Old Master: the 'Allegory of the Five Senses' (1632) by Theodoor Rombouts. The work depicts the five senses as rustic figures engaged in everyday activities. This painting continues to be a firm favourite among museum visitors even today.
A major trend for French art develops in the period from 1860 to 1880. From 1890 on the museum begins to acquire works by conservatively modernist artists, such as Emile Claus and Anders Zorn. Women, the working class, Ghent residents and tourists find their way to the museum. Benches are provided, opening hours are expanded and the museum organises various activities.
Two prominent Ghent residents, Fernand Scribe and Georges Hulin de Loo, establish the Society of Friends of the Museum of Ghent. The association purchases works by artists who have died at least 50 years previously. Even before World War I, the Friends help the museum acquire some absolute masterpieces, including 'Christ Carrying the Cross' by Jheronymous Bosch and 'Jupiter and Antiope' by Anthony van Dyck.
The city decides to commission a new building in which the collection can be seen at its best. Architect Charles Van Rysselberghe, brother of painter Théo Van Rysselberghe, designs an ingenious buildingon a human scale. Every gallery admits sunlight, and the floor plan is varied yet simple. A site for the building is chosen at the edge of the city, in the Citadel Park.
King Leopold II opens the museum officially on 9 May 1904.
The Friends of the Museum buy the 'Portrait of a Kleptomaniac' by Théodore Géricault at a public auction in Paris. It is one of the five remaining portraits of mentally disturbed people - the so-called monomaniacs - that Géricault painted at the hospital La Salpêtrière in Paris. 'Saint Jerome' is also purchased: one of only about 25 works attributed with certainty to Jheronymus Bosch.
For the Ghent World’s Fair of 1913, the museum is expanded with a U-shaped addition and two semicircular wings, doubling its floor space. The museum hosts the exhibition 'L’Art ancien dans les Flandres'.
Upon his death, Fernand Scribe donates his entire private collection to the museum, including works by Pieter Breughel the Younger, Tintoretto, Jacob Jordaens, Jean-Baptiste Corot, Constant Permeke and Gustave de Smet. This single donation adds over 220 paintings, sculptures and works on paper to the museum’s collection. About 10% of the art permanently on show in the galleries today, originally belonged to Scribe.
The museum closes on 16 August 1914 and the German army’s pharmaceutical service occupies the cellars (the current site of the office wing). The building suffers heavy damage throughout the war years.
To protect it from damage and theft during the war, the entire museum collection is moved to Pau, in the South of France. The building again suffers serious war damage.
The Society for the Museum of Contemporary Art is founded in order to keep pace with developments in the world of contemporary art, as its members feel this is not adequately represented in the MSK.
The museum building is declared a protected national monument.
The Museum of Contemporary Art is established as a division of the Museum of Fine Art, with Jan Hoet as its first curator. The new museum occupies ten of the MSK’s galleries for many years, until the S.M.A.K. opens its doors on the other side of the street in 1999.
The Flemish government recognises the MSK as a national museum.
The Flemish Masterwork Decree, intended to ensure that valuable Flemish heritage cannot be permanently removed from the country, takes effect on 24 January. Today the MSK collection includes around 50 of the works that are named in the Flemish Masterwork Decree, some of which are on display in the galleries.
In September 2003 the museum closes for major renovation work. The facades are cleaned, the roof and floors restored, and the office wing updated. At the same time, modern technologies are installed to manage humidity, temperature, lighting and security. Part of the collection remains on display at various locations in Ghent, including in the crypt of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and the Leopold Barracks.
Belgian artist Raoul De Keyser donates 187 works on paper to the MSK. He believes that the museum is the best place for these works, created between 1964 and 1979, due to its expertise in conserving works on paper and organising exhibitions of prints and drawings.
The outer wings and five lower panels of the Ghent Altarpiece undergo restoration in the MSK, carried out by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA). Visitors can watch the work behind a glass partition. The restoration shines new light on the altarpiece, as 40% of it is revealed to have been painted over.
The Autonomous Municipal Entity for Art and Design is founded, uniting the administrative bodies of the MSK, S.M.A.K and Design Museum Ghent. The newly created Autonomous Municipal Entity for Heritage is also founded to govern the StaM, MIAT (now known as the Museum of Industry) and Huis van Alijn.
Art collectors Jozef and Fernand De Blieck make an extraordinary donation of 25 rare paintings and sculptures to the MSK. These are mainly by artists who worked in Sint-Martens-Latem and the Leie region. Read more on this donation.
Artist Patrick Van Caeckenbergh donates 'The cigar box' to the MSK. Formerly his work space, this is now an inspired work of art that occupies a central place in the museum.
The museum goes through a difficult period at the start of the year due to a controversial loan. In the spring, however, the team can once again fully focus on organising the exhibition 'Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution', scheduled for 2020.
The MSK organises 'Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution', the biggest exhibition in the museum’s history. It attracts international media attention and brings visitors to Ghent in huge numbers, before the COVID-19 pandemic forces its closure after six weeks. It is awarded the prestigious Apollo Award for Exhibition of the Year.
The MSK launches a year of cultural festivities in celebration of its 225th anniversary and the 125th anniversary of the Friends of the Museum.
The museum wants to actively contribute to a socially, environmentally and socially sustainable society. We work on recycling and saving energy, and strive to remove barriers to culture and connect people with each other.