The History of the Museum
The very beginning of M is to be found at the town hall in Leuven. That is where, in 1823, an 18th century cabinet of curiosities began an evolution that would take almost 200 years, resulting in a municipal museum.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the museum was moved to the former private residence of Mayor Leopold Vander Kelen in the Vanderkelenstraat.
The collection originally comprised especially historical works, but thanks to a number of important donations, it developed into a fully-fledged overview of art produced in Leuven and Brabant starting in the Middle Ages. The museum’s various curators also provided it with (re)orientation. The main focus shifted from the historical to the religious and later to the civilian.
The museum building also underwent necessary changes. The exhibition spaces were enlarged significantly in 1928 and 1937. In 1960, the 19th century interior was covered by neutral walls and ceilings. Decades later, in 1990, the 'hôtel' was partly restored to its original state.
The collection of the Vander Kelen-Mertens Municipal Museum had become considerable by that point. Consequently, there was a constant search for space to present – increasingly larger – temporary exhibitions. This situation was proved to be untenable in the long term. The museum was reconsidered, both as an institution and as a building.
The notion of 'art as ambiente' – art as part of life and society – tied in well with the diversity of the museum and was the basis for the new museum concept.
This was translated into an architectural requirements plan in 2003 and at the end of 2004, Stéphane Beel Architects was commissioned to design the new museum complex. Beel divided six building layers across two existing buildings (the former academy and the Vander Kelen-Mertens residence) and two brand-new ones.
The depot, the permanent collection, the temporary exhibitions and the public relations offices are divided per layer across the whole museum site. The horizontal organisation provides a range of possibilities, with views across the other layers and the city, which function as guides that lead the visitor through M.