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Brussels considers selling off three heritage sites

09:07 17/11/2022

The City of Brussels is considering selling off three emblematic historical sites in the capital, in an effort to address staffing issues, according to an internal memo obtained by VRT.

The three sites up for consideration are the Halle Gate (Porte de Hal), the Chinese Pavilion and the Japanese Tower.

According to the internal memo from the management of the Royal Museums of Art and History, which operates these three sites, selling them would allow the institution to refocus museum activities on the Cinquantenaire plateau.

Bruno Verbergt, the interim director general of the Royal Museums of Art and History, confirmed to RTBF that he wrote the memo as part of an exercise on solving his staffing needs.

“After the last budgetary conclave, we know that we will not have more staff, although we have been experiencing a staff shortage for several years,” Verbergt said.

“In this context, my duty as director is to make choices. I have therefore proposed two things to the management committee: not occupying the Japanese Tower and the Chinese Pavilion, as is already the case, and also the Halle Gate.”

The way Verbergt sees it, it comes down to pure economics. “The Halle Gate museum has 16,000 visitors a year and we have a considerable cost, which is compounded by the energy cost,” explained Verbergt, adding that selling the sites “is an avenue that we are studying but which has not yet been decided”.

Thomas Dermine, the secretary of state for federal science policy, confirmed that considerations are being taken to redeploy a museum offer from the buildings on the Cinquantenaire plateau, indicating the shifted focus Verbergt is looking for.

This would mean that all the collections belonging to the Royal Museums of Art and History would in future only be accessible at two sites: the Cinquantenaire Museum and the MIM, the Museum of Musical Instruments.

While the collections of the Japanese Tower and the Chinese Pavilion have already been moved to the reserves in the Cinquantenaire Park several years ago due to unsanitary conditions, the Halle Gate collections remain there for now.

These collections contain a significant number of items from Belgium, including the stuffed horses of Archdukes Albert and Isabella of Habsburg and the cradle of Charles V. It is not yet certain that the Cinquantenaire Museum will be able to accommodate them, even considering renovations planned for the future.

Many have reacted to the potential selling of Halle Gate with surprise, considering the facilities were recently renovated and are also the birthplace of the Royal Museums of Art and History, with 600 years of history to boot.

Laurent Vrijdaghs, general administrator of the Régie des Bâtiments, which manages the site, said the plan would be to explore other solutions before selling the site.

“We have not received any strategic vision for this building,” Vrijdaghs said.

“It is the property of the federal government. We will try all possible uses by calling on other federal actors before the sale is considered.”

When it comes to the Chinese Pavilion and the Japanese Tower, it is owned by the La Donation Royale, the trust that owns royal buildings used by the state.

King Leopold II ordered the construction of these two sites, which have deteriorated since they were abandoned in 2013 after being restored at great expense in the 1980s.

Diane Hennebert, who directed the restoration of the Atomium and the Villa Empain, recently submitted a project to the Donation Royale for the Chinese Pavilion.

Her vision is to rename the site to the Silk Roads Palace, making the pavilion a venue for exhibitions, conferences and private parties. Many private sponsors have already offered to contribute to the cost of restoring both buildings.

Hennebert was surprised and upset to learn that these buildings may potentially be sold off.

“It seems we are better at destroying heritage than at making waffles or frites,” Hennebert said.

“We are the only ones with buildings of this quality in Europe and we are not doing anything with them. I was able to visit the Chinese Pavilion a few months ago and I was devastated to see the state of decay of the building.”

Written by Helen Lyons