My first sight of the museum inspires sheer awe- it’s a flight of fantasy in glass and hand- hewn red sandstone sourced from Rajasthan stacked like cantilevered matchboxes. Walkways and escalators twist around the different levels of the museum like a spiral. On the stone floors are metal medallions providing delightful accents. The spanking new MAS museum in Antwerp is in a once- derelict neighbourhood of Het Eilandje on the waterfront, symbolically placed between the old and the new harbours. Its design is inspired by the gargantuan warehouses in this district. MAS is the Dutch acronym for Museum aan de stroom or Museum on the River, and showcases the rich maritime history of Antwerp and its relationship with the world through the ages. Antwerp situated on the estuary of the River Scheldt has always been an important port, though its 50 miles inland from the sea.
The iconic design was the result of a competition and the work of a Rotterdam firm of architects. The undulating gigantic sheets of thin glass give you an intriguingly different kaleidoscopic view of the landscape with rising elevation- the river, the docklands, the cathedral and the domed central station. There is an entry free policy excluding the Museum which means the observation deck and the restaurant on the ninth level is open to the public.
There is art at play everywhere: one of them is the intriguing mosaic at the street level which just looks like some grey and black stone set in a pattern. As we go up to the higher levels, we realise that it’s a skull; macabre it may seem, but has a historical reference to an ancient plaque on the Cathedral of Our Lady. The building is decorated with thousands of metallic hands (the hand is incidentally a symbol of the city). MAS has some of the finest art ranging from Pre-Colombian art to Flemish art culled from many antiquated Antwerp Museums like the Ethnographic Museum, the Folklore Museum and the Maritime Museum as well as private collections.
Each Exhibition hall is divided into a series of rooms with music playing as you enter. The exhibition revolves around various themes. ‘Life and Death’ explores death rituals around the world. ‘World Port’ explores the evolution of Antwerp as a port. There is a unique Visible Storage display where the stories of collectors of art is explained. Also the museum can only display a portion of its collection: the rest is stored here and visible to the public. We walk through a temporary exhibition which brings together about 160 ancient masterpieces including Rubens and Van Dyck in black rooms and their modern counterparts in white rooms.
As we wind our way to the open observation deck on the 10th Floor, a panoramic view of Antwerp sweeps us away. The old and the new juxtaposed together and the sunset views make the whole experience a pleasurable one. This cultural space is going to be a roaring success, we can tell! And for those interested, there’s an online tour of the museum available till the first week of June!
Published in the New Indian Express 2011