In Mechelen, the legacy of the enlightened thinkers that were the humanists is still very tangible. At Hof van Busleyden, a museum which is housed in the city palace of the eponymous intellectual, they continue striving for progression by looking at the past. With their latest project – The Ground of Things – and its linked exhibition The Neverending Park, they implement this philosophy in the entire city and beyond.

The 16th-century was one of wealth and progress for Flanders’ most charming city: Mechelen. Aristocrats like Margaret of Austria and Margaret of York settled here at the exact moment that great thinkers like Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus discovered Mechelen as well. Another enlightened mind which was drawn to the city was the wealthy humanist Hieronymus van Busleyden, who built himself a city palace in the heart of Mechelen. “His house became a fascinating place to think, discuss and be inspired,” says Sigrid Bosmans, artistic director of Hof van Busleyden, the museum which is settled in the palace today. “These palaces were places where they collected art, which they then used to trigger the mind, as a conversation starter. While gazing at these historic artefacts, the humanists philosophised about the future. They always actualised the past, connecting the future and the past, starting from the present.”

Museum Hof van Busleyden: Flanders’ last humanist city palace

Past and future

That same philosophy still lingers in the halls of Hof van Busleyden. Now a museum, the main goal of the institution is to inspire its visitors and project the humanists’ hunger for progression on the city. “Hof van Busleyden is a synthesis of what’s happening around us. It is about power and craftsmanship; about innovation and self-reflection.” Although it has plenty of amazing works against its walls, what makes Hof van Busleyden truly unique is the synergy between the museum and its visitors. “Experiencing art also means talking about it, finding a link with the actuality, learning from it…That is what we focus on. Where our biggest gem, Enclosed Gardens, is already spectacular by itself, we accentuate its brilliance even more by placing it next to contemporary art which is inspired by that 16th-century piece, like the work of Berlinde de Bruyckere. This exhibition, once more, made a connection between the past and the future.”

Museum Hof van Busleyden: Flanders’ last humanist city palace

The Ground of Things

Underneath the elegantly restored Renaissance palace, lies a modern, concrete basement in which temporary exhibitions take place. From 6 December until 15 March, this minimalist bunker will be transformed into a lush, green park for the exhibition The Neverending Park. “This expo is part of a bigger project, The Ground of Things, for which we collaborate with ARSENAAL/LAZARUS, Mechelen’s biggest theatre company. Looking back in time, you see that there has always been a group of people responsible for the city’s progression. Which made us wonder: who are those innovative minds today? To answer that question, we create a platform for citizens who want to make the city better. We give every citizen an imaginary square metre of land in the city on which they must make a difference. As one square metre is, of course, far too little to do that, they have to collaborate with others and combine their land and ideas with those of others.” Yet, the project isn’t purely theoretical. The city of Mechelen granted Hof van Busleyden and ARSENAAL/LAZARUS 20,000 square metres in the city to realise the most promising ideas on.

Museum Hof van Busleyden: Flanders’ last humanist city palace

Grass, trees and plants

In total, Hof van Busleyden received 206 project proposals. In a fully-democratic forum, they have selected the 80 most promising ones. In The Neverending Park, the citizens of Mechelen will make the final cut and select which projects will really be executed. “A park is the perfect place to make such decisions. It is a place that brings people from all layers of society together to talk.” Hof van Busleyden will, therefore, make sure that their Neverending Park is as real as possible, even though it is located metres underground. Decoratelier Jozef Wouters has designed this delightful place with grass, trees and plants. Artist Benjamin Verdonck turned the 80 project proposals into concrete, visible objects which visitors can inspect amidst the greenery. “On Sundays, families can come to our park for a picnic, to play badminton or to enjoy street theatre. On other days, we offer a fixed programme. On Tuesdays we will look for common ground between people, on Thursdays we will offer debates with both experts and politicians, et cetera.”

Although the entire project may sound like an internal affair of Mechelen, it is part of a global movement. “All over the world, people question the way we live and how our cities function and try to improve that. We, in Mechelen, try to do that as well, by looking at great examples from around the world and by getting inspired by them. This way, we hope that other movements will, later, be inspired by us and continue this amazing trend.”


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