New museum tells the story of post-war migration

Brussels is among the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. The majority of those that live in our capital city were either born abroad or have their roots through one or more of their parents or grandparents outside Belgium. A total of 184 nationalities are represented among the around one third of Brussels residents that don’t have Belgian citizenship. Last month a new museum opened in the Brussels municipality of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek that tells the story of migration into Brussels since the Second World War. 

A former industrial municipality on the western bank of the Brussels Canal, the centre of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek was sometimes called “Little Manchester” in the 19th and early 20th century. The was a reference to the concentration of industry that was present there. Back then migration was  from other parts of Belgium, particularly Flanders, where people flocked into the cities in an attempt to escape the hardship of rural poverty.

This changed after the Second World War with migrants now coming first from countries such as Italy and Greece and later from Morocco and Turkey. There is also a significant black African population in Molenbeek and the municipality has the largest Congolese community of any municipality in Brussels, including Elsene that is home to many African businesses in its Matongé district.

With this in mind the location for the museum is very fitting. The initiative for what is officially called “MigratieMuseumMigration” came from the not for profit organisation Foyer.  

For the past half a century Foyer has worked on numerous projects to promote integration, social cohesion and mutual understanding as well as promoting opportunities to improve the life chances of new comers and members of the more established immigrant communities that are well-represented in the less prosperous areas of Brussels that straggle the canal. 

From expats to war refugees

The stories behind the waves of migration to Brussels in the post-war period are as diverse as the people that have come here. With its largely interactive exhibition the museum tells the story of the first generation of migrant “guest” workers that came here.  Part of the exhibition is dedicated to those that passed though the Klein Kasteeltje asylum reception centre just across the canal.

Expats too are featured. With many of the European institutions, NATO HQ and countless international firms being located in Brussels, our capital has a large and thriving expat community. 

The stories of those that have fled war in their home countries are also told.

The exhibition begins and ends in the museum’s workshop on the ground floor.

Thomas Israel’s artwork ‘There is no spoon’ strives to show in a playfull way how we are all part of something bigger.  

On the first floor, the museum’s permanent exhibition charts the various waves of migration into Brussels and the capital’s demographic evolution. The second floor is devoted to an exhibition on the issue of refugees now.

The MigratieMuseumMigration is open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10am until 5pm. Group scan make an appointment to visit it on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

The museum is located on the Werkhuizenstraat 17, 1080 Brussels. Tram/bus: Sainctelette, Metro: Graaf van Vlaanderen. Entrance is free for the under 12’s. Adults pay 5 euro, concessions (students, pensioners…) 3 euro.