The Mechelen Hundred

Portraits of a city's people, today

Nestled between Brussels and Antwerp, Mechelen has often been overshadowed by its larger neighbours. Yet teaming up with the City of Mechelen, our line-up of 100 of the city’s most prominent people, places and projects proves the extent of its potential. From artists and creatives to critical thinkers and fighters, these are the powerhouses driving Mechelen forward one step at a time.

Samuel Mareel

Samuel Mareel

Curator at Museum Hof van Busleyden

Can you describe what you do?

I work as a curator for Museum Hof van Busleyden, Mechelen’s brand new museum dedicated to Burgundian Renaissance and its significant relevance for today. Together with artistic director Sigrid Bosmans and a stellar team, I developed the concept and selected the works on display. I’m currently working on a number of exhibition projects for the near future, including one on youth and education in the early sixteenth century and today. I’m also developing a research programme for the Museum. Its main aim will be to translate fundamental scientific research into new and exciting museum projects that can appeal to a wide audience.

How do you perceive Mechelen? In your view, what kind of city is it? Its people, its cultural landscape, its vibe? How does it compare to other, similarly-sized cities?

It’s among the cities with the highest amount of protected historical monuments in Belgium. At the same time, there’s a remarkably high rate of young inhabitants with a migrant background. With this in mind, it’s a microcosm of Europe and has to deal with many of the same challenges that our continent faces today, just on a smaller scale. Much of the city’s vibe is determined by this interaction between a rich and fascinating yet mostly white and Christian past on the one hand, and a superdiverse present on the other.

What would you say is Mechelen’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

It’s a city that defies simple answers. Throughout its history Mechelen has repeatedly played a role that far surpassed its relatively modest size: it was the capital of the Burgundian and early Habsburg Netherlands. It’s the seat of the Catholic Church in Belgium. During the World War II it housed the most important Nazi transit camp to Auschwitz in our region. And finally, during the last decades it has been faced with more than its share of challenges brought about by migration. Much of this history is complex and undigested. However, the city has not tried to polish up the parts of its history that are easy to sell while ignoring the darker or more complex ones. Instead, it has embraced its complexity and heterogeneity.

How has Mechelen contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

Mechelen has given me the chance to play a significant role in the development of a museum that covers a historical period which has always fascinated me. When I was a child my parents took me to the Groeningemuseum in Bruges and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels to show me Hans Memling’s remaining portraits of Willem Moreel, the mayor of Bruges at the time of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian of Austria. My amateur genealogist uncle traced our family genealogy back to him. This must have made a lasting impression on me, because most of my university career was centred on the culture of the Burgundian Netherlands. Being involved in the development of a museum on this topic is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to me.

Many of this city’s cultural strengths lie in contemporary art, and in museum practices that were rather foreign to me, such as audience participation and working with minorities. My discussions with colleagues and specialists in these fields have further shaped me since I’ve started to work here. They have obliged me to think long and hard about why and how Mechelen’s Burgundian heritage still matters today.

When I was working on the opening exhibition for the Museum Hof van Busleyden, on art and law in the Burgundian Low Countries, Natasha Ginwala and Steven Op de Beeck from Contour Biennale 8 invited me several times to discuss my exhibition concept and selection of works with the contemporary video artists that they had selected. Those were some of the most inspiring and exciting moments for me since coming to Mechelen.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

I’m not native to Mechelen, so I feel hesitant to suggest what it could do better. I hope the cultural renaissance of the city will continue, with the same fascinating interaction between past and present and the same respect of the social fabric of the city. If I were based in Mechelen, I think I would like to see more concerts made available in the city. Mechelen has the excellent springtime Festival of Flanders and Maanrock in August, but no real concert hall with a year-round programme. I believe this could further boost the importance of the city as a prominent cultural hub.

If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what/where would it be?

The best thing you can do in Mechelen is to just wander around. Go where your whim and curiousity take you. I particularly like the downtown area north of the Grote Markt, where you have the beguinages, the refuges, some of the Renaissance city palaces. It’s a walk through the social, cultural and architectural history of the Low Countries, from the Middle Ages to the present day. You’ll have to use your eyes however, because the sights are not all nicely laid out and signposted. That’s part of its charm, though.