The Royal Military Museum is a category two federal scientific institution (ISF/FWI), as well as a state service with separate management (SEGS/SAB). It furthers knowledge about military history and conflict history, in times of war and times of peace, through the unique and rich military heritage it manages on its different sites.
That heritage is movable, immovable and immaterial. In view of long-term conservation the collections are managed, preserved, analysed, interpreted and extended in a professional and scientific manner.
The timeframe stretches from the Middle Ages till the present; the geographical framework covers both the historic territories preceding the creation of our kingdom and present-day Belgium, in a European and international perspective.
The Museum benefits from public financing, private funding and personal revenue, and takes all necessary steps to reduce costs. The public can discover the many aspects of military history in various ways. As the Museum not only manages the site in the Jubilee Park, but also several external museums (Trench of Death, Mount Kemmel, McAuliffe basement, Gunfire) and remote storages, its name could be changed into “Royal Museums of Military History”, RMMH for short. This denomination would more closely fit the mission described above.
As a category two federal scientific institution the Museum eventually hopes to evolve into a category one institution. It also wishes to become a national and international experts centre for military history. It encourages scientific research concerning military history and heritage. It will extend, commercialize and promote public services, exhibitions and publications, as well as fully engage the digital dimension. In that way, the Museum will play its social part in a modern manner.
The Bordiau Gallery
The impressive Bordiau Gallery is dedicated to the large 20th century conflicts. A modern set-up shows the last months of the Great War, illustrates the interwar period and focuses on the Second World War. The presentation, unique in Belgium, gives the visitor the opportunity to admire both outfits of great men and personal possessions of anonymous soldiers or civilians.
A new presentation is coming soon…
The Royal Military Museum is to complete the permanent exhibition in the Bordiau Gallery with new presentations about occupied Belgium (1940-1944), the end of the war in Europe (1944-1945), Nazi ideology and race policy (1933-1945) and the war in the Pacific (1937-1945). In that way, the period between 1919 and 1945 will be fully covered.
A unique architecture
The hall housing the exhibition about the Second World War is the only remaining part of the project drawn up for the Jubilee Park by Belgian architect Gédéon Bordiau around 1880. All other buildings have indeed been transformed, adapted or demolished. The wing across from the Royal Military Museum, housing the Royal Museums of Art and History, originally was identical. However, shortly after the Second World War, it burnt down and it was replaced by a new construction in the fashion of the day.
Architect Bordiau used traditional building supplies such as granite, and classic elements such as vaults and columns. He nevertheless also integrated “modern” elements such as glass and cast-iron. The two rose windows of course catch the eye.
A tumultuous history
The “Machine Gallery” of the national exhibition in 1880 had quite a way to go before becoming the splendid aviation museum we know today. 170 metres long, 70 metres wide and no less than 40 metres high, this immense glass and iron construction has been the background for an extraordinary variety of activities, ranging from trade fairs to early aviation exhibitions, from equestrian events to warehouse for miscellaneous objects such as German bunkers or building debris. In 1972, the edifice started a new life as an air museum open to the public.
A large-scaled international exchange and publicity campaign enabled the department, which only possessed some thirty aircraft at the time, to collect and display an impressive 130 aeroplanes and about a hundred obsolete engines. This broad array of machines, from countries as diverse and unexpected as Canada or Sweden, is truly exceptional and turns this section into one of the most important air museums in Europe.
From the hot-air balloon ...
To fly like a bird : perhaps mankind’s oldest dream. In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers were the first to give concrete shape to this aspiration. Over a hundred years before the invention of the aeroplane, they succeeded in conquering the skies in a hot-air balloon.
Part of the first floor of the Air section is devoted to these ‘lighter-than-air’ craft. The Zeppelin L30, of which we possess two of the four nacelles, belonged to the new category of great Zeppelins of the German army. With a volume of 55,000 cubic metres and a length of 198 metres, the L30 had a top speed of 100 kilometres per hour.
In 1931, Auguste Piccard, a Swiss scientist and professor at the Brussels university, soared into the stratosphere in a pressurised aluminium cabin for the first time. After its landing, the nacelle, on display here, was abandoned in the Alps for a number of months, during which time it fell prey to graffiti-writing passers-by.
... to the F-16
Alongside the ‘lighter-than-air’ craft, the Air section also boasts an exceptional collection of planes from the First and Second World Wars or the interwar and post-war periods. With the precious support of numerous volunteers and of the Belgian Air Force, many machines have been restored and are now veritable little gems. Some of them, including the Nieuport 23, the Schreck seaplane and two German observation planes from the First World War are so rare and exceptional that specialists the world over envy us. A new section on aviation in 14-18 focuses on aeroplanes flown by Belgian ace pilots during the First World War.
In a reconstruction of the workshop of the Belgian manufacturer Renard, visitors can see a wooden aeroplane take shape, from the first sketches on the drawing board over the assembly of the fuselage to the moment of its first flight.
Visitors with a true pilot spirit will enjoy sitting at the controls of the Hunter MK6. Other prestigious planes such as the Spitfire, the Tiger Moth, the legendaryDakota, the MiG-21 and the F-16 trace the international evolution of aviation.
The 14-18 Gallery
Two galleries dedicated to the First World War house the biggest and most diverse collection on the subject in the world. With the exception of Greece and Bulgaria all belligerent countries are represented. For some nations, such as Belgium, Germany, Russia, Portugal, Siam, or for the Czech legions, the objects presented here are truly exceptional and often unique.
A worldwide reference collection
The Royal Military Museum possesses one of the largest reference collections about the Great War in the world. The guns, machine-guns and armoured vehicles often still bear their original colours. The flame-throwers and the bombers testify to the new inventions and technical improvements appearing on the battlefield.
Subjects such as the introduction of equipment in muted colours and the new personal equipment items (cuirasses, helmets) are also broached.
Different countries, different objects: weapons, uniforms and equipment pieces are completed with pictures and personal possessions.
Contrary to their British or French colleagues the Belgian soldiers had no contact with their families. The major part of Belgium was indeed occupied by Germany for four long years and people suffered from the fierce regime, as is to be understood from bills, ration stamps and souvenirs related to overseas food supply.
The Royal Military Museum also safeguards an impressive art collection with regards to the First World War. Belgian and foreign artists have, each in their own way, illustrated life at the front, devastated landscapes, boredom in the POW and internment camps or the hardships endured by civilians.
Arms and Armour Gallery
A spectacular collection of edged weapons and armours shows the (technical) evolution of armament.
The gallery illustrates a period stretching from the Middle Ages till the end of the 18th century. The core of the collection comes from the dukes of Burgundy and the Spanish Habsburg family, who had their heyday under Emperor Charles (1500-1558). Charles V headed an empire “in which the sun never set”. He managed his affairs from his palace in Brussels, amongst others.
The set-up presents the defensive armament of the mediaeval knight. The protection was first limited to a simple coat of mail and slowly evolved into a full armour, over partial equipment covering the upper body or the thighs. In the 17th century appear leather coats worn with gloves, protection for arms and legs, a cuirass and a burgonet.
Weapons have always been examples of state-of-the-art technology. Old weapons (artillery, fire-arms or edged weapons) are no different in that respect.
Weapons are not only linked to warfare, they are also used in times of leisure. A beautiful child’s armour, tournament weapons, hunting weapons and powder horns testify to that.
The Historic Gallery
The Historic Gallery is one of the oldest exhibition spaces of the Museum. It is dedicated to the Belgian army between 1831 and 1914. The enthralling story of the Civic Guard is also told there.
Over eight thousand collection items wait to be discovered! Showcases packed with colourful uniforms and headdresses recall a period when military fashion was not yet subjected to camouflage. Enormous portraits and busts of influential officers, impressive guns and countless regiment flags also draw the eye.
Moreover, the Historic Gallery presents a unique collection of items belonging to the two first kings of Belgium. Both Leopold I and Leopold II were commander in chief of the Belgian army and therefore received a special showcase, filled with uniforms and personal possessions. Additional eye-catchers are Leopold I’s camp bed and the tricycle Leopold II used in his twilight years in Ostend.
A window on the world
The Historic Gallery also offers an exiting and unique window on the world. Showcases filled with exotic souvenirs tell the story of the Belgian (military) presence in Italy, Mexico, Africa and China. The gallery is a portrait of 19th century Belgium, a glorious era in which the country belonged to the great industrial powers.
A museum within the museum
The Historic Gallery is often nostalgically described as a “museum within the museum”. The gallery was designed in the 1920s along a 19th century concept and in spite of several later renovations still oozes the charm of times passed. But from a museological point of view the gallery also is a product of its time. In the past museums did not work with storage facilities, as each and every collection item was put on public display.
In the years to come the Museum plans a renovation of the Historic Gallery. Great care will be taken not to disturb the specific character of the exhibition space. As a lot of museums from that timeframe have been remodelled and refurbished the Historic Gallery offers a unique insight in the museum methods of years gone by.