"This was once an extremely lively neighbourhood" explains Vleeshuis curator Timothy De Paepe. "It's close to the docks where ships used to moor. It's where for centuries ordinary people lived and music formed one of their main sources of entertainment. Around 1900 there were around twenty-five cafes in this street alone and many were equipped with instruments and machines that produced music."
"In this museum we try to show the role music plays in people's lives, especially in Antwerp, who's playing music, which instruments are used, where is it being played and who's busy writing this music."
The museum includes exhibits that cover six centuries of music in the city of Antwerp, but the Vleeshuis is far more than a museum packed with instruments. The Vleeshuis organises tours of the carillon in Antwerp Cathedral, has its own guided tours of the museum premises and even takes visitors behind the scenes of this historic building allowing people to go right up to the rafters on the fifth floor.
Timothy De Paepe: "We've already tried to shake up the exhibition displays, but the whole building is in need of a major restoration . Plans are being drawn up and an operation like this will require a significant investment, but I'm convinced we will be able to bring this to a good conclusion and increase the impact the museum has on the city. We already organise evening and Wednesday concerts. Some of our exhibits can be played today. People come from far and wide to hear particular pieces of music played on authentic, historical instruments. We focus primarily on the music of the Low Countries and programme a number of works that can't be heard elsewhere."
The harpsicord and virginal tradition so closely associated with the city of Antwerp is given pride of place on the museum's ground floor. Here you can admire instruments produced by the Ruckers-Couchet Family, the leading producers of this instrument in Europe. The museum also possesses an impressive collection of pianos including models that would have been played by the likes of Beethoven and Schubert. Take time to try your hand on the electronic carillon that can be played by visitors.
In the cellar learn how carillon bells are created. Follow the entire production process in a bell foundry that has been completely recreated. Here too you can see how the bells for the Leuven Peace Carillon were made.
Another treat is the Van Engelen workshop. Here, in this reconstructed wind instrument factory you can discover more about the production process of wind instruments. The brass band tradition too is honoured but the highlight of the basement is the reconstruction of a cafe of which there were once so many in this neighbourhood. This pub has its own dance floor, but more importantly a whole array of musical instruments and machines that used to have pride of place in local pubs.
The Vleeshuis or Butchers' House Museum is located in a historic building with a lot of potential. Timothy De Paepe: "The Vleeshuis was constructed at the beginning of the 16th century. It served as the guild house of the guild of butchers in Antwerp. The butchers' guild had their ceremonial hall and offices on the first floor. The ground floor was where butchers had their stalls. There was room for around sixty stalls. In Antwerp it was where you came to buy meat because it was the only place where you could do so!"
"The butchers' guild was one of the most important guilds in the port city. The Vleeshuis is an enormous building with five floors. It was a skyscraper in its day and age and together with the cathedral must have been one of the few buildings to dominate the Antwerp skyline. It was definitely a symbol of the power and prosperity of this guild."
The French Revolution signalled the end of the guild system and new purposes had to be sought for the Vleeshuis. It was used by grain, wood and wine traders but also as an artist's studio and for a while served as a home for an opera company. In 1900 the City of Antwerp purchased the building that opened as a museum in 1913. The focus on musical life and musical instruments dates from 2006.
The Vleeshuis Museum is located on the Vleeshouwersstraat 38 just behind Antwerp City Hall. It's open Thursday through Sunday from 10AM to 5PM.