Constituting the photo library

The collection was gradually put together, with three major periods of acquisitions:

  1. Photographs taken between 1914 and 1918, as part of the inventory of Belgium's cultural heritage, begun by the German occupation authorities;
  2. Photographs taken by our photographers between 1940 and1945, at the request of the General Commission for passive air protection;
  3. The Photographic Repertoire of moveable art objects in Belgium's religious buildings. This initiative was launched by ministers Pierre Wigny and Renaat van Elslande in 1967 and was completed in 1984. The repertoire covers all the heritage objects of churches throughout the country.

Photos are constantly added thanks to our photographic mission and to restorations carried out at IRPA.

History of the Photo Library collection:

1900: The photographic laboratory at the Royal Museums of Art and History was created.image001_06

: The Royal Museums of Art and History created the Department of Belgian Documentation (Service de la Documentation belge), forerunner of the photo library.

On the eve of World War II, the Royal Museums of Art and History (Musées royaux d'Art et d'Histoire) had around 30,000 photographs of which nearly 12,000 were bought from Germany using an account in German marks blocked after World War I (notably 40 x 40 glass negatives).


1940: the Royal Museums of Art and History (Musées royaux d'Art et d'Histoire) start an urgent photographic inventory of the Cultural Heritage General Commission
for passive air protection ( Commissariat general à la Protection aérienne passive). More than 165,000 photographs are taken, mainly of monuments and religious art objects prior to 1840, civil and religious buildings, museums, laid down historical stained glass, removed church bells (from May 1943), works moved to shelters in Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and the Château of Lavaux Saint-Anne, masterpieces from museums in Bruges, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten) in Antwerp, the Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerp and the Antwerp Print Room (Prentenkabinet).


In 1967, the Culture Ministers Pierre Wigny and Renaat van Elslande asked IRPA to make a photographic inventory of works of art in Belgian religious buildings. They were worried because more and more movable works of art in churches were disappearing after the second Vatican Council decided to modify the liturgy. And so, 250,000 photographs were taken in the 222 judicial districts around the country, in order to make an inventory of all the pieces having a cultural, historic, archaeological or folkloric interest. The inventory started in 1967 and it took 10 years to be completed.

image007Furthermore, different photo collections were also purchased from private photographers or from other institutions to complete the collections, some of which date back to the 19th century. These collections are highly valuable for their information regarding the former appearance of a landscape, a neighbourhood or a construction. It is also possible to discover works of art or buildings, now lost or destroyed.

The photo library was also enhanced with the purchase of art documentary photo collections. This documentary collection contains other subjects such as astronomy, ceremonies, royal family, flora, folklore, sports and vehicles.

IRPA sometimes carries out missions abroad by photographing Belgian masterpieces.

In 1990, the photograph workshops started taking photos in color. Since 2000, the Institute has carried out digital photography. The photographic collections are being digitalized and an online photo library has been set up. Currently about two thirds of the photo archive is online in our BALaT database. The photo library is continually growing. In 2008, it reached one million photos!