The history of the institute
Our federal scientific institution is the result of Paul Coremans' (1908-1965) interdisciplinary approach, bringing together art historians, photographers, chemists, physicists, and restorers with a common mission: to dedicate themselves to the inventory, scientific study, and conservation of our cultural heritage for the benefit of the entire country.
The institute has always been present during key moments in Belgium's history. Today, KIK-IRPA is evolving coherently to address societal changes, foster more significant synergies, strengthen its societal relevance, and continue its efforts towards sustainability.
From documentation to laboratory
The history of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage began in 1900 with the creation of the Photographic Service of the Royal Museums of Art and History (KMKG-MRAH), which solely catered to internal requests for reproducing artworks. In 1920, the Belgian Documentation Service was established, expanding its scope to cover the entire country by gathering photographs of artworks and buildings outside museums. It was in 1934 that Jean Capart, chief curator of the Royal Museums of Art and History, entrusted Paul Coremans with taking over the Belgian Documentation Service and creating a Laboratory of Physicochemical Research. This laboratory was intended to monitor the work of conservation and restoration workshops and conduct research on detecting art forgery techniques and excessive restoration practices.
The first inventory of Belgium's cultural heritage
In 1917-1918, German photographers carried out a photographic inventory of our heritage. This large-scale campaign marked the first national survey of Belgian cultural heritage. A team of over thirty German art historians, architects, and photographers, led by the curator Paul Clemen immortalised Belgium's most significant cultural monuments. Over eighteen months, from the summer of 1917 until the Armistice in November 1918, they took more than 10,000 shots. The Belgian State acquired the images in 1927. They remain the centrepiece of our collections today.
Traces of ruined heritage
During the Second World War, at the request of Stan Leurs, a professor at the University of Ghent, and Jozef Muls, the Director-General of Fine Arts at the Ministry of Education, a photographic inventory of Belgian cultural heritage was conducted by the Royal Museums of Art and History. These photographs would prove particularly valuable after the war to reconstruct damaged artworks. Nearly 160,000 negatives were produced, and some of them are the sole witnesses of works of art that were destroyed.
An independent federal public institution
In 1948, the Documentation Service and the Laboratory evolved into the Central Iconographic Archives of National Art and the Central Laboratory of the Museums of Belgium (ACL), which, in 1957, would become KIK-IRPA (Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage), an independent federal public institution dedicated to the inventory, scientific study, and conservation of artworks, benefiting the entire country. Bringing together different expertise toward a common goal facilitates creative solutions by exchanging complementary perspectives: this is the concept of interdisciplinarity developed by the first director, Paul Coremans.
A building designed for interdisciplinary research
Quickly, the premises provided by the Royal Museums of Art and History were no longer sufficient for the needs of the institute. Therefore, it was decided to construct a new building. The excavations began in 1958, and the inauguration took place four years later. With its six levels, accessible through a majestic central staircase, it became the world's first building specifically designed for interdisciplinary research. The challenge was to create an aesthetically pleasing structure that could accommodate workspaces with diverse volumes and equipment. The architect was Charles Rimanque. He followed the technical concept of the Laboratory's head, René Sneyers. The interior design was done by the decorator Stéphane Jasinski.
Protecting our liturgical heritage
In 1967, in response to the increasingly frequent disappearance of movable assets in churches, KIK-IRPA was tasked with creating a photographic inventory of furniture in the sanctuaries of Belgium. Nine art historians, one per province, were responsible for the task. Private photographers carried out the photography. 250,000 shots document all the works with artistic, historical, archaeological, or cultural significance. Initially envisioned for the entire heritage, the project had to be limited to churches due to the significant liturgical changes of 1963, which put their furniture at risk. From 1972 to 1983, 213 booklets, organised by county, were published. They serve as an essential collection management tool for church institutions. Today, the photographic inventory continues and covers the entire heritage of all Belgians.
Thanks to the experience gained in the conservation and restoration of many artworks, their documentation, continuous training, and international exchanges, KIK-IRPA has become a knowledge centre continually involved in developing new techniques and practices. The 1980s witnessed the emergence of systematic studies in laboratories and workshops concerning the consolidation of stone materials, protection against acid rain, water repellents, and cleaning methods. Similarly, radiocarbon dating has been refined and improved. In 2013, the institute acquired a state-of-the-art Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) device, the MICADAS (Mini Carbon Dating System), making it unique in Belgium.
IT and open source
The institute actively works towards establishing a policy of open access to its research data. In 1989, the computerisation of photographic archives began, and in 1995, their digitisation followed suit. Additionally, a campaign was undertaken to capture colour images of the most significant artworks in the country. In 2001, KIK-IRPA launched BALaT portal to share its knowledge, expertise, and all the information created and collected by the institute about Belgian heritage. It is a treasure of data for all stakeholders in the heritage field and for the general public.
A key player in local and international networks
To successfully conduct research activities, restoration treatments, and preventive conservation interventions, KIK-IRPA can rely on the support of structural partners since many years, both in Belgium and abroad. The institute also actively participates in research programs at the European and international levels. As such, it plays a vital role as an intermediary within the network of Belgian heritage and serves as a gateway to Europe and the world.
More than 20,000 intervention files
Since the Second World War, the research cells and studios of the Conservation-Restoration Department at KIK-IRPA have been dedicated to preserving the masterpieces of our country. Over 20,000 intervention records from studies, treatments, and laboratory analyses conducted by our restorers, art historians, and chemists on the works of our Belgian heritage, now encompassing both tangible and intangible heritage on increasingly diverse materials, are meticulously archived at the institute. These records witness our commitment for over 75 years to safeguarding our cultural heritage for future generations.
Responding to new challenges
In response to the rapid pace of the digital revolution, globalisation, and societal instability stemming from climate, health, economic, and energy crises, KIK-IRPA is proactively adapting to gain a deeper understanding of societal shifts, enhance collaboration, increase its relevance in society, and champion sustainability. The institute has strengthened its connection with society, actively promoting knowledge sharing through open access and undertaking vital projects like CHrisis, which addresses the country's disaster management requirements, and engaging in initiatives like the Heritage Challenge, which encourages Belgians to reflect on their perception of heritage. These endeavours fully align with KIK-IRPA's dedication to its mission.