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The Belgian Museum Opens New Wing Beside the Carmelite Convent
Exterior view of the renovated museum. Photo: Philip Dujardin.
CHARLEROI.- After its renovation in 1995, the Museum of Photography in Charleroi (Belgium) is preparing to experience a new evolution through the opening on 1 June 2008 of a new wing adjoining the Carmelite convent, cofinanced by the French-speaking Community Wallonia-Brussels and the European Union ERDF funds. The museum will become the largest and one of the most important museums of photography in Europe (8000 m2), with a collection of 80,000 photographs, more than 800 of them on permanent exhibition, and the conservation of three million negatives. Designed by l’Escaut Architecture, this contemporary wing greatly extends the exhibition area (from 1550 m² to 2200 m²) and allows visitors to have access to a new library, a projection room, a boutique and a “Museum Café” opening onto an enormous park.

In spite of the significant development that it benefited from ten years ago to adapt better to its new function, the former Carmelite convent of Mont-sur-Marchienne offered too little space to allow the Museum of Photography to increase its influence and to respond to new needs concerning exhibitions, programming, management and educational tools. Financed by European funds and by the French-speaking Community of Wallonia-Brussels, the new contemporary wing of the museum will see the light of day on 1 June.

These new exhibition halls will offer a new scale to the presentation of the permanent collections, making it possible to go more deeply into the history of photography and doubling the area of picture rails devoted to the leading pieces of the collection. The educational service will benefit from an enormous room facing the park, equipped for digital studios and in direct connection with the Discovery Path developed in the south wing of the former Carmelite convent. In the park, a new library (its former location will become a shop), an auditorium that will enable the presentation of multimedia works and “The Museum Café” will welcome the public independently of access to the exhibition. In the underground levels and on the second floor the technical rooms, photography laboratory, joinery and cutting workshops, storage areas for works and materials will all be located. The temporary exhibitions will be presented in the halls of the former Carmelite convent at the rate of three simultaneous exhibitions every four months.

The new building is the result of a long process of maturation that started at the beginning of the 1990s with Georges and Jeanne Vercheval and was supported jointly by Olivier Bastin and Eloisa Astudillo (l’Escaut Architecture), Xavier Canonne, director of the museum, and the Department of cultural infrastructure of the French-speaking Community.

Established in the park of the former Carmelite convent, the new wing will redistribute the functions both in the interior (programming) and in the exterior of the museum (the park will become public and will connect the adjoining public facilities) within a vision that encompasses the neighbourhood and spreads to the adjoining public areas. Designed in successive hollows, the new building combines the framing and view of the park and surrounding areas which consequently will become focal points or backgrounds for the spatial staging. The museography will take over this external experimentation and reproduce it in the form of multiple views.

The specific nature of this audacious construction is expressed primarily by two elements: its wooden structure (the techniques used are a first in Europe) and its envelope of aluminium, created by the Belgian artist Jeanine Cohen. This envelope will offer both a depth and a vibration, changing according to the light and the time of day. The building is in a permanent “photo composition”.

Thanks to these new tools for preservation, accommodation and development, the Museum of Photography of Charleroi (centre of contemporary art of the French-speaking Community Wallonia-Brussels) is consolidating its anchoring and its influence both on the local and on the national and above all international level, because it will become the most enormous and one of the most important museums exclusively devoted to photography in Europe.


1) A new hanging of the permanent collections
Besides the new spaces of the Museum Café, the library and the auditorium, the new wing of the Museum of Photography will allow a wider presentation of its permanent collection. With nearly 80,000 photographs and three million negatives, for too long a time the collection has been short of space, forcing it to an arrangement that is too reductionist. Numerous major works could not be exhibited there, leading to various gaps in its historical sequence. The collections of the 19th and 20th centuries have been entirely re-thought. New halls have been rearranged, offering a chronological and thematic hanging that is better structured on the ground floor and the first floor of the Carmelite convent. Photography in Belgium is now integrated better into a wider international context; illustrated period documents and works that helped in the dissemination of the photographic medium will be exhibited there, as well as excerpts from avant-garde films and experimental videos from the end of the 1960s. Naturally the new wing will see the hanging of representative works of the last twenty years. However, the amplitude of the spaces and their arrangement, intended for the collection, will promote a presentation constructed around themes and confrontations throughout the different eras of photography in a stimulating reading of them.

2) The temporary exhibitions
Nine exhibitions per year, at the rate of three simultaneous exhibitions, will go more deeply along the innumerable paths that the photographic image has taken. Every four months creative, documentary and historical aspects will follow each other to sketch out as wide a panorama as possible of photography, both Belgian and international, historical and contemporary.

From 10 May to 14 September 2008 (private showing 9 May)
“Hugues de Wurstemberger – Retrospective”
“Dave Anderson - Rough Beauty”
“Nikon Press Photo Awards 2007”

From 20 September 2008 to 18 January 2009 (private showing 19 September)
“Palestine inventée” (Invented Palestine)
“La Première Guerre mondiale dans les collections du musée” (The First World War in the museum’s collection)
“Erika Harrsch - Eros-Thanatos”

From 24 January to May 2009
“Fred Baldwin & Wendy Watriss”
“Christian Lutz - Protokoll”

3) The Discovery Path…
This playful path in the pedagogical section of the museum is intended for all people who are curious to learn and to allow themselves to be surprised. Photography, its nature, its language, its specific features are presented in an instructive and amusing way, whether in a studio from the 1900s, through optical illusions or manipulations of images. Finding out about photography in this space can be effectively completed by a workshop in the traditional laboratory working with silver salts or the brand-new digital laboratory.

Besides these three exhibition focuses, the museum is equipped with a new projection room with retractable rows of seats that will offer a schedule of art films and video works.


Photography in the 19th century

The invention of photography at the beginning of the 19th century contributed to the technological upheavals that would go on to shake society to its core. Research into how to fix and preserve an image of visible reality by projecting it in a dark room was developed principally in France and England.

The oldest known photograph is attributed to the Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833). The “view from a window of Château du Gras” taken around 1826 required almost an entire day to take. The invention of photography was officially unveiled in Paris on 19th August 1839 in the form of daguerreotypes.

Within just a few months, photography went from being a scientific curiosity to a marketable product; recognition was universal.
The daguerreotype, invented by the Frenchman Daguerre (1787-1851), one-time partner of Niépce, was a direct and unique positive image. In the early 1850s, this technique was gradually replaced by the negative/positive process patented by the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877).

Photography was rapidly applied to all possible sectors: portraits, heritage, science, war, landscape, reproduction of works of art and as models for artists. Everything was ripe for photographing in this society that yearned to conquer the world by means of images so that it could take possession of it, understand it and thereby master it.

During the 19th century, improvements aimed above all at achieving optimal reproducibility for the lowest possible cost, reducing posing times, increasing flexibility of use and improving stability.

Amateur photography developed more widely with the introduction of the Kodak in 1889, the first camera that did not require any technical skills. At the same time, photography’s widespread fame brought with it the question of its artistic merits.

Pictorialism, which aimed to elevate photography to the status of the other arts, was the first international photography movement and enjoyed great success with exhibitions, international fairs and even the publication of luxurious reviews. However, the First World War marked the end of the movement and also a break with the 19th century.

Photography in the 20th century

A century of torment, confusion, war, technological progress, accelerated communication, revolutionary discoveries, hopes, utopias and globalisation, the 20th century represented the dawn of a new era for photography. Its appearance in the press, as well as its widespread mediatisation, opened up new possibilities and commercial applications.

Taking advantage of technical progress that saw cameras becoming ever smaller and easier to handle, photo-journalism bore witness to the state of the world and brought to life events that were widely reported by illustrated magazines. Some photographers were engaged in highlighting human tragedy and injustice, whilst others adopted a more humanistic line and revealed the human condition in all its dignity.

Photography started to appear within family settings in the 1930s. In parallel, its artistic status was recognised by means of its own language, discovering the real by means of a new and unexpected angle. It was integrated into avant-garde, futurist, Dadaist, constructivist and surrealist movements, enlarging its potential and enriching our vision and perception of the world. Photographers’ personal projects proliferated and were presented in galleries and on the art market, in sections of museums (the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1940) and in specific institutions in the United States, and then in Europe from the late 1960s.

Historical, aesthetic and theoretical works multiplied, and photographers’ works were the subject of monographs and detailed studies.
Photography now forms an integral part of the visual arts, forming a stimulating dialogue with other forms of expression.
More than ever before, photographers nourish our visual imagination, presenting what we only vaguely feel and “increasing our feeling of existence” (Kenneth White).

But is photography a window or a mirror? A view of reality or a reflection of the photographer’s subjectivity? The two complement each other: a window can open onto a mirror and a mirror can reflect a window. There are billions of images and a museum of photography is like an aquarium in an ocean…


Hidden within an urban island, the new wing of the Museum of Photography in Charleroi is rooted in the orchard of an old Carmelite convent. A park, rich in remarkable trees taken up in the inventory of the heritage, completes this landscape, isolated from outside gazes and marked off by an enclosing wall. Today a sport complex and a commune school back up to the wall of the enclosure, while private gardens come up against the impressive masonry.

By taking its position in the park, the new wing of the museum invites the visitors to commit to this place, just like the inhabitants. The park creates the link between three social functions: teaching, culture and sport. Its opening to the public has become an issue in social dynamics and urban change.

The city of Charleroi shared in this vision by submitting an ‘urban renovation master plan’ for the area concerned as a candidate project for the Feder Fund 2007. The development of the Place Communale and that of the Essarts, neighbouring the museum, are positioned as intermediaries of the Feder Fund 2000-2006 on which the budget for the new wing was partially based. Located on the edge of the city centre, through the international aura of the Museum, this urban pole will constitute a positive sign for the future of the city, echoing the airport, located on the other slope of the valley of the Sambre.

As if to put a question to the neighbourhood, the new wing is designed in successive hollows generating lines of flow toward the neighbouring structures. These structures thus become focal points or backgrounds for a spatial theatre design. The multiple shapes constitute the foreground, taking on meaning through the relationships they maintain with the context (park, homes, equipment, etc.) The interior routes take hold of this exterior experiment and reconstitute it in the form of multiple gazes.

The architecture plays with incessant interior/exterior relationships and subverts their boundaries: while crossing the windowed hall of the old Carmelite convent, the stroll is suddenly projected into the park; the overhang hollows out into a light well to illuminate an undergrowth hung with ferns; the winter garden shelters fruit tree species that diffuse their perfumes inside the museum. Each space thus constitutes a place on its own, while serving as an 'antechamber' for the places that follow it. Interspaces, or inter-places in a manner of speaking. Following the formula 1+1 = 1, the new wing fits in with the continuity of the Carmelite convent to form a single institution. The programming of the ‘extended’ museum follows from six months of maturation with Xavier Canonne, Museum Director. During this period, the functions will be divided between the two buildings in a "domino effect": while moving certain existing functions, others have taken their place, and so on. Although the new wing was inaugurated this year, building it was already planned at the time of the first renovation of the former Carmelite convent. The Museum of Photography in Charleroi, arising from the commitment of Georges and Jeanne Vercheval, has occupied the Carmelite convent since 1987. In 1993, l'Escaut stepped in to assist in the incorporation of works by the artists Francis Alÿs, Edith Dekindt, Jean-Claude Saudoyer and Marc Feulien within the framework of works already launched. Afterwards, l'Escaut became the pilot for the entire renovation project, which was completed in 1995.

The transformation of the former Carmelite convent into a photography museum caused a dramatic change in the logic present in the building: from prohibiting people from looking for religious reasons, we went to the revelation of the image for societal reasons. Its extension challenges the conventional logic of museums by multiplying the relationships between photography, its history and the numerous facets of its representation.

Concerning its construction plan, it constitutes a first in Europe: the use of solid thick plywood as structural supports for the overhang is the result of the experience of the stability firm Weinand concerning distinctive structures of wood. Yves Weinand is a professor at the EPFL of Lausanne and is supplying this project with his know-how at the international level.

Through the work of Jeanine Cohen, all this richness takes flight, establishing a connection with the sky and with the light. Put at the back of fine sections of aluminium, colours hardly perceptible diffuse their reflection along with the hours of the day, following the path of the sun and varying in the course of the seasons. A fully-fledge photographic work, this œuvre calls into question both the meaning of photography and the issue of our senses. The luminous skin gives an aerial lightness to this structure.

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