Enter the ‘Story of Ghent’ at the STAM Museum and you walk back in time. It seems Ghent has been inhabited since the dawn of time. Artefacts dating from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages are all on display. They include the first traces of human habitation in these tracts: bone tools, stone axe heads, spearheads, lance points, bronze jewellery. The Romans too have been here, but the real story of Ghent starts when St Amand founds a religious community on the Blandijn Hill that eventually led to the establishment of the St Peter’s Abbey. Other settlements are to follow including St Bavo’s Abbey that stood on what is now the heart of Ghent. St Bavo’s and St Peter’s were the two main abbeys in the city – the latter is still standing – and the healthy rivalry between the two generated great prosperity.
It was cloth that first made Ghent a thriving centre. Wool was processed into fine textiles and the cloth trade formed the bedrock of the city’s wealth. This prosperity is borne out by the magnificent illuminated manuscripts from the St Peter’s Abbey on show in the dormitory at the 14th century Bijloke Abbey that today houses the STAM Museum. Here too you’ll find sculpted stones from early medieval buildings as well as illuminated manuscripts, both religious and secular: saints’ lives, a book of mythology, secular poetry.
But wealth often also attracts unwelcome attention: the Vikings too visited Ghent: in 850 and again in 880. Don’t miss the hoard of Carolingian coins discovered in the last century. The hot money is on these coins being hidden to protect them from Viking raids, but then lost for centuries until somebody made a lucky find.
Ghent owes its establishment to its location on the confluence of the Rivers Leie (Lys) and Schelde (Scheldt). From four small settlements, today Ghent has become a city of a quarter of a million inhabitants: a port city, a university town, a centre of commerce and the arts. STAM allows you to walk through the centuries to discover the history that has made the city what it is today, but first you must don shoe covers to allow you to enter the first room where a massive aerial photograph is displayed on the floor and onto the walls. This is Ghent, an aerial photograph taken in 2008. Discover the heart of the city on the model at its centre. It shows fifty of the city’s most notable buildings in detail. Then explore the rest by pacing across the aerial photograph.
Here too, as part of the Views of Ghent Project, you can discover on screens how the city evolved over the centuries on the basis of four distinct maps.
On the way to the next room you’ll encounter the abbey refectory, as the audio guide that is also available in English explains, this is where the nuns had their meals. With its vaulted ceiling it’s a splendid example of Gothic architecture. Don’t miss the wall paintings above the door dating from before the age of Van Eyck and depicting the Last Supper and the Blessed Virgin. Concerts are regularly held here thanks to the superb acoustics. The music you will hear during your visit is 15th century polyphonic music by a Ghent composer.
Next move on to the storeroom. This room reveals how between 1200 and 1600 Ghent became a major European metropolis and how the city experienced a glorious medieval heyday. Wool was imported from England and turned into cloth that was exported across Europe. By the middle of the 14th century Ghent had a population of 60,000 making it the second largest city north of the Alps after Paris.
The images projected onto the screens are taken from illuminated manuscripts and show the activities in a medieval town that has become rich as a result of the cloth trade. Rich citizens could afford lavishly decorated stone houses. Sculpted decorations from such houses have survived and are on show at STAM. If you were seriously wealthy you could endow a hospital and undoubtedly get a brass memorial of yourself and your wife made!
Throughout the museum you will also encounter photographs showing everyday people at work and at their leisure in contemporary Ghent. These are pictures taken by the celebrated Flemish photographer Carl De Keyzer. Carl is a member of the prestigious Magnum photo agency. All his photos show contemporary scenes of places that have played an important role in Ghent’s history.
Emperor Charles V is probably the Ghentian who played the most important role in world history and at STAM he gets his own room! Born in 1500 in the city he had a strained relationship with its citizens. At one point the people of Ghent refused to pay their taxes. As a punishment Emperor Charles V decided to raze the St Bavo Abbey and replace it by a fortified citadel with its guns turned on the centre of Ghent rather than on its outskirts!
The emperor also got 50 Ghent citizens to kneel and beg for mercy wearing nooses around their necks. You’ll see these nooses as a decoration round the necks of proud Ghentians during the annual Festival of Ghent. It also explains the nickname of the people of Ghent, who are “noose wearers”.
A decline of sorts was Ghent’s lot between 1600 and 1800. Ghent no longer belonged to that top set of European cities. Still, the growth of the linen industry meant that rich Ghent burghers could still afford luxurious homes.
On your way to the next room don’t miss a brief foray into one of Ghent’s greatest mysteries. Jan and Hubert Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is world famous and all – no, nearly all panels are now reunited in Ghent Cathedral to mark the Van Eyck Year. However, note the omission at the bottom left in this reproduction. The panel the “Just Judges” is still missing. Stolen in 1934 theories about where this masterpiece can be hidden abound. Ghent won’t rest until it has been recovered, but for the minute it’s still missing. If you do come across it during your stay in the city, do speak up it!
Sweeping changes were afoot in the period between 1800 and 1950. Belgium was the first continental country to industrialise and Ghent was the only major city in Flanders to undergo this lot early on. Lieven Bauwens introduced mechanised cotton spinning. Steam powered engines were later used to instigate a similar revolution in flax processing leading to the establishment of gigantic flax mills.
The centre of Ghent couldn’t cope and industrial activity moved to the outskirts of the centre where large working class districts emerged next to the factories. Between 1800 and 1910 the population grew from 55,000 to 166,000. The old city walls had been demolished in 1860 by a stroke doubling the area available to the city.
The port too developed and with the digging of the Ghent- Terneuzen Canal Ghent became a seaport! A first railway line connecting Mechelen and Ghent was completed in 1837 and by 1900 Ghent had become a hub in the Belgian railway network.
Preparations for the 1913 Universal Fair in Ghent meant the city centre was transformed: old housing was pulled down and monuments were restored. The new Sint-Pieters Station opened in 1912, while the exhibition site behind the station was later used to build homes for Ghent’s richest!
The Story of Ghent is not at an end and the final displays at STAM bring us right up-to-date and the present, whilst also setting out a number of pointers for the future of the city. Story to be continued!
‘The Story of Ghent’ is on show at STAM, Godshuizenlaan 2, not far from the Sint-Pieters Station till 3 May. The exhibition will then close for the summer and a completely revamped presentation opens next October.
STAM is open daily except on Wednesdays.