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Art Historical Research and Inventory

A team of passionate art historians studies Belgium’s national heritage. Their sharp eye is the perfect complement to the material-technical analysis. At the same time, they are responsible for the continuous expansion and improvement of the photographic inventory.

The photo library: a visual memory of our heritage

One of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage's core tasks is creating a visual memory of the entire cultural heritage of Belgium. The photographic inventory or ‘photo library’ currently contains over one million pictures from 1880 to the present day. They show, among other things, visual arts, crafts, architecture, archaeology and even landscapes.

We are constantly expanding the inventory with pictures from our art historical studies and photographs of all the works of art that are being researched or restored within the institute. General inventory campaigns also feed into the photo library, for example, those in the framework of our cooperation with the Brussels-Capital Region.

The photographs are all digitised and available free of charge in our online database BALaT. You can also consult the entire collection in the reading room.

History of the photographic inventory

The photographic inventory has a long and fascinating history. The foundation was laid at the beginning of the 20th century by the Royal Museums of Art and History. Since then, the collection has grown considerably. A few essential phases in the growth of the inventory:

  • During the First World War, the German occupiers made many high-quality photographs of Belgium’s cultural heritage. The Royal Museums later purchased the negatives and developed the collection on a national scale.
  • During the Second World War, as our heritage was threatened by the war, Paul Coremans, the later founder and first director of our institution, organised major photo campaigns. Some of these 180,000 images are the only reminders of monuments lost in the war.
  • 1967-1984: the Second Vatican Council brought about many liturgical changes. Some cult objects and church furniture lost their function and gradually disappeared from churches. This prompted the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage to create an extensive nationwide photographic database of the contents of Catholic churches in Belgium. No fewer than 250,000 photographs were taken during this vast campaign.

Art historical research

The development of the inventory and art historical research go hand in hand. Our art historians are renowned experts of art in Belgium.

Our main areas of research are:

  • book illuminations from the late Middle Ages
  • the history of engraving and photography in the 19th and 20th centuries
  • Gothic and Baroque sculptures
  • stained-glass windows from the 15th to the 20th century
  • religious iconography
  • religious objects.

Studies are often carried out in cooperation with universities or museums. In many cases, they are research projects funded by the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office (BELSPO).

Physicochemical analyses cannot answer all the questions a work of art raises. For art historians, it is crucial to study a work of art in its totality. The acute, critical eye of an art historian is therefore invaluable.

Dominique Vanwijnsberghe, head of the Unit

Art history seminars

Since 2000, we have organised annual art history seminars on different art themes in Belgium from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Specialists from Belgium and abroad discuss the state of research and exchange knowledge and ideas.

Art historical advice

In some cases, the art historians at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage provide art historical advice on objects in line with their specialisation.

Do you have a work of particular value for Belgium’s cultural heritage, and would you like us to examine it? Contact us!

Do you have any questions, or would you like more information about the historical research in art and our inventory? Please contact us!

Dominique Vanwijnsberghe
Dominique Vanwijnsberghe
Head of the Unit

Our experts

Marie-Christine Claes
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Corentin Dijon
Caroline Heering
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Isabelle Lecocq
Géraldine Patigny
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Constantin Pion
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Oliver Kik