Issue three | the museum depot

Behind the scenes at M: the museum depot

Treasures in the basement

Issue three of M
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The collection pieces exhibited at M are, at best, a snowflake on the tip of an iceberg. Tens of thousands of other works of art are kept in the depot. But where exactly is this depot? What does it look like, and  what exactly does ‘preserving’ mean? Head of collections Marjan Debaene and depot manager Benedicte Dierickx explain.

When I started at the museum, the collection was estimated at 42,000 pieces. Nobody knew exactly Marjan Debaene

Marjan: “I have a love-hate relationship with the depot (laughs). I started working for the museum in 2006 – at that time it was still called City Museum Vander Kelen-Mertens. My first job was to move the entire patrimony together with colleagues and volunteers, because the renovation and restyling of M was coming up. In those months I held, photographed and packed just about every object. That’s how you get to know the collection (laughs). The depot management was not yet as it should be, because only a small team was working on it, with a very limited budget. This caused a lot of headaches, hence the love-hate relationship – but it is now mostly love, you know! Fortunately, depot management has become much more professional over these last 15 years. We now play an exemplary role in the field.”


Benedicte: “In M’s new building, there are three modern depot spaces: one on level -2, one on level -3, and one that runs over the two floors. That space is eight meters high, and we need it – some of our paintings are massive. They can’t even go in the elevator; there’s a pulley system that lets us hoist them up.”


“We always keep the three rooms between 18 and 22 degrees Celsius, with a relative humidity of 45 to 55%. Because we store very diverse pieces, we go for the optimal average climate. For metal, for example, it’s best to keep the humidity as low as possible, but for wood it has to be a bit higher. If not, you end up with cracks.”


“Very fragile pieces are packed separately. Our print cabinet, for example, is in acid-free boxes. But the sculptures are just on racks, so not in wooden crates or anything like that. The paintings are on wheeled racks, which are normally very close together. But you can move them to the side, so that a corridor is created and you can reach the paintings.”


Marjan: “When I started at the museum, the collection was estimated at 42,000 pieces. Nobody knew exactly, it was a reasoned estimate. Since then, we’ve focused very heavily on digital collection registration – on the computer, that is – and the counter is now at 53,000, a bit more even. I think we’re going to end up around 60,000.”    


“We now have two permanent collection registrars, who work full-time on the inventory. For some projects, we add temporary staff: volunteers, job students, interns... For example, that is how we tackled the print room. According to our current collection plan, we should be finished with the complete registration by 2030. That’s when there is a big party! After that, we can probably start filling up with more works (laughs).”    


“Correct registrations are hugely important, especially if, like M, you have regularly changing collection presentations. The better the pieces are entered into the database, the easier it is to look them up. Even I don’t know all the pieces in the collection. I’ve been working on it for 15 years, and sometimes I do think: wow, do we have that!”


“Also important: with proper registration, we can open up our collection to the outside world. Our database has recently become cloud-based. It is not publicly accessible, but we do open up our collection digitally via Soon, we also want to make the collection fully searchable online. Because if no one knows what you have, they’re not going to come to you for their thesis or doctorate either.”


Benedicte: “Registration is one of my daily tasks. If colleagues or researchers want to see objects, I set them up for them. I also prepare the pieces for exhibitions or loans: dusting, cleaning, checking the condition, sending them to the restorer if necessary.... For exhibitions, I give advice on how the piece should be handled by the art handlers, how it should be set up, what materials can be used... Of course, I help with the set-up itself.”

“I have a desk at the Ancient Art Department. If I have to work with the computer, I’m there; if I have to do something with the objects themselves, I’m in the depot. Many people think it’s an unpleasant place, without any daylight. But I don’t mind, you know. You sometimes come upstairs to eat. There is no have telephone coverage there (laughs), which is great.’’    


“We try to arrange it so that I work alone in the depot, so that we have to turn on the light as little as possible – most works of art don’t like light. In practice, my colleagues from Ancient Art and Contemporary Art do come by quite often as well, to look at and examine objects.”


Marjan: “In the museum world, research is a broad term. Registration, for example, is also part of it. You put the object under the microscope: you find out what it is, who made it, how long it has been in the collection... That is the beginning of everything.”


“Of course, you also have in-depth art historical research: students or scholars who come to see pieces for a thesis, an article, a doctorate...”


“Nowadays, there is also a lot of technical research happening. With pigment analysis and imaging techniques like infrared reflectography, X-rays and CT scans, we try to date objects, or learn more about the artist’s technique. This often yields spectacular information. When ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus’ by Dieric Bouts was restored, we had a very thorough investigation carried out. From that we learned, for example, that Erasmus’ cloak is completely discoloured, from the original blue to the black it is now.”

That you have to take off your coat in the museum is a preventive measure. The humidity would rise exponentially if all visitors were to come in on a rainy day wearing wet coats Benedicte Dierickx


Benedicte: “I am also responsible for IPM, integrated pest management: making sure no insects or fungi get in. There are insect traps all over the museum. Every two months, I do my rounds to see if there are more insects in there than usual, and if any harmful species have appeared. Woodworm is the best known, these are beetle larvae that make holes in wood. Paper and silverfish eat paper and cellulose. Moths can be dangerous to textiles. There is even a creature called a “museum beetle”: it eats carpet and textiles. If we encounter any of those species, we take immediate action.”


“Fortunately, it happens very rarely, thanks to all the prevention measures. Before you enter the depot, for example, you have to walk on a set of mats, so that no dust is carried along on your shoes: that attracts any of these creatures. New objects are thoroughly inspected before they are allowed to enter the depot, and if in doubt, they are quarantined. Woodworms, for example, only hatch after a few weeks, but you won’t see this on the outside. So: wooden objects we keep aside for a month or so.”    


“We can also do an anoxia treatment: you put the object in a bag and take out the oxygen. That kills the insects. We often do that preventively with wooden sculptures. You can also freeze some objects, textiles for example. Or we hire a firm for heat treatment: you keep the humidity at the same level, but let the temperature rise. The bugs can’t stand that. All our furniture is treated this way.”


“That people are not allowed to bring food or drink into the halls is another preventive measure: we want to keep out everything that could be food for insects and bugs. The same with bags and coats. It is certainly an anti-theft measure, but it is also meant to keep the humidity level balanced. That would rise sky-high if all the visitors came in on a rainy day wearing wet coats.”


Marjan: “Right now, lack of space is the greatest challenge in our depot. We are really struggling for space. This is not abnormal, because collections are growing – and that is also the intention. But you do end up in awkward situations. If a private individual wants to donate a large number of items, for example, you first have to consider whether we have room for them. Can we store it properly? It’s sad when you have to refuse things for that reason.”


“We are therefore looking at how we can store our collection even more efficiently and we are also looking for additional storage space. The Leuven Heritage Laboratory – a collaboration between 13 major heritage players – is now trying to set up a joint depot. But that is something for the long term.”


Marjan: “Conservation is also an important task for a museum. Each material has its own specific problems. Organic materials such as wood, textiles, paper..., they are the most fragile. They are much more sensitive to light, moisture and temperature fluctuations. Metal and stone suffer less from this, but then you have to watch out for other things. That means a lot of headaches, but it’s part of our job. We have to make sure that we pass the pieces on to our successors in the condition we got them, or maybe even a bit better. So that they can last another hundred years or so.”


Marjan Debaene is collection manager for Ancient and Old Art at M.


Marjan: “We have a very diverse collection in particular. It ranges from archaeological pieces from prehistoric times to paintings from the 21st century. In all possible materials: wood, stone, metal, paper, textiles, fire glass, tableware...”

“The seed of the Leuven city collection was sown at the end of the 18th century with a kind of historical cabinet of curiosities. After the French Revolution, this was expanded to include ecclesiastical art – many religious institutions were closed or disbanded at that time and part of the church treasures were assigned to the municipalities. In the 19th and early 20th centuries many donations were added, often work by artists who were not well known at the time, but who later have become big names. For example, we have some studio plaques by Constantin Meunier. He worked in Leuven, and those pieces have remained here. Those are now literally priceless.”


“During the 20th century, we also received many long-term loans from churches and monasteries. That was done for security reasons: those pieces are often precious and back then, breaking into a church wasn’t that difficult. We keep them, but they are still the property of the parishes or religious orders.”


“Our main sub-collections are the late Gothic and Renaissance, especially then painting and sculpture and fire glass. But we also have interesting manuscripts, books, furniture, goldsmith’s ware... And of course there are masterpieces in other subcollections.”

We manage a purchasing budget of the city of Leuven. This has increased significantly in recent years. A very good thing, I think, because now we can get a bit more out of the art market. Marjan Debaene

“Our ancient and old art collection is mainly local. We also have some Dutch, German and French artists, but the focus is still mainly on the old Duchy of Brabant.”


“When we buy new pieces, we mainly focus on filling gaps. For example, we’re not going to buy any paintings by Ensor. Certainly, if someone wants to donate one to us, we’re not going to say no. But buying: that’s more for the KMSKA or Mu.ZEE in Ostend – Ensor fits into their collection.”


“We manage a purchasing budget of the city of Leuven. This has increased significantly in recent years. This is, I think, a very good thing, because now we can get out a bit more on the art market. At the end of 2019 we were able to buy ‘Man of Sorrows’, a work from the studio of Dieric Bouts. Last autumn, we were able to acquire from an art dealer in London three early-16th-century stained glass medallions, one of which is attributed to the Leuven artist Jan Rombouts. Ten years ago, that would not have been so easy. A very nice evolution.


Eveline De Wilde is collection manager for Contemporary Art at M.


“M looks after Cera’s art collection. That’s a cooperative with 400,000 members, based here in Leuven. Cera is a major shareholder of KBC and also invests in art. The first purchases date back to 1998 and in the meantime the collection has grown to some 500 works by a hundred artists.”

“Cera wants to give opportunities to emerging Belgian artists who make relevant work but are not yet established artists. It also invests in work that has been important to Belgian art history in the last decades of the 20th century, but has perhaps remained somewhat underexposed.”   


“We also keep here at M about ten works from the contemporary art collection of the Flemish Community. For a few years now, the latter has been actively purchasing works by Flemish artists and giving them on loan to the major Flemish museums. In this way, they are kept in a professional depot and can also be shown to the public.”


“The majority of the collection of contemporary art that we keep in M consists of paintings, drawings and photographs. Those don’t pose any particular problems, in terms of conservation. We also have installations, but those can usually be easily disassembled and kept as separate pieces.” Modern media such as video do degrade. So you have to look at that regularly. A few years ago, we put everything on DVD and now we are about to have our entire collection converted to digital files. We look at it on a case-by-case basis. If the artist wants the footage to be played on pellicule, we don’t digitise, but seek advice from experts on conservation.”

Paintings, drawings and photographs pose no particular conservation problems. But modern media like video does degrade Eveline De Wilde

“The entire collection of contemporary art is registered and therefore easily searchable. Eva Wittocx, curator and head of the Contemporary Art department, for example, knows an incredible amount about the works of art and the history of the collection, not least because she was involved in the purchasing advisory committee before the partnership with M. Eva, her co-curator Valerie Verhack and myself still go and talk to the people at Cera a couple of times each year. We give advice based on conversations with artists, gallery visits and developments we see in the art world. But Cera decides, and Cera buys. That is a very unique situation: a museum that has a corporate collection in house, and works intensively with that company on the collection.’’

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Issue three


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