History of IRPA

From 1900 to 1945: the creation of the Institute within the Royal Museums of Art and History


The Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage began working as of 1900 when the photo workshop of the Royal Museums of Art and History was created. Twenty years later, the workshop and the museums set up the Service of Belgian Documentation, the forerunner to KIK-IRPA's photo library. And then things speeded up in 1934 when Jean Capart, chief curator of the Royal Museums of Art and History, appointed Paul Coremans head of the Service of Belgian Documentation and asked him to create the Physics and Chemistry Research Laboratory.

During World War II, in view of the German domination and the destruction image016during combat, Stan Leurs, professor at the University of Ghent and general adviser for the conservation of monuments to the Restoration of the Country General Commission and Jozef Muls, general director of the Fine Arts, asked the Royal Museums of Art and History to carry out a photographic inventory of the Belgian cultural heritage. Around 160,000 negatives are taken from 1941 to 1945. These photos were especially helpful after the war and used to reconstruct the works of art that had been damaged. They are, in some cases, the only trace left of the devastated works of art.


From 1946 to 1965: The Institute was structured and moved

After the end of the war, a decree from the Regent dated 24 June 1948, with retroactive effect from January 1 1946, merged the Central Iconographic Archives of National Art and the Central Laboratory of Belgian Museums (ACL). This new institution, separated from the Royal Museums of Art and History, officially carried out the inventory, the scientific study and the conservation of works of art to the advantage of the entire country.

In 1948 as well, the ACL were asked to study and treat the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament by Dirk Bouts. This mission was very important to the Institute's future. As a matter of fact, it was then when the Belgian restorer, Albert Philippot collaborated for the first time with KIK-IRPA. Later on, he greatly influenced the development of his ethics of conservation.

In 1950, the ACL began the treatment of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by the Van Eyck brothers (Ghent, Church of Saint Bavon) from a conservation viewpoint. An international commission of experts gathered and decided to limit the intervention of restoration in order to respect the historic and aesthetic veracity of the work of art. This was an innovative method for the time! "Coming in contact with its past, contemplating its future, we have lived closely both in mind and in heart, hour by hour, for twelve long months, with one of the greatest masterpieces in the world. Subject to our attention and to our everyday worries, the Mystique Lamb has become the unquestioned master of our lives", wrote Paul Coremans in the visitor's guide to the exhibition held in the Museum of Fine Arts of Brussels in 1951. Son after this conservation, a historic handbook was published in 1953. image002_10This handbook entitled L'Agneau Mystique au laboratoire (The Mystic Lamb in the Laboratory) was the first book in the world to describe the scientific examination and the reasons for treating a world-class work of art.

In 1952 and 1953, the laboratories were given a new challenge: the conservation of the Shrine of Saint Remacle (Stavelot, Church of Saint Sebastien, 1220-1268). Later on, our workshops worked on several other major goldsmith's art.image018

Thanks to the Royal Decree of August 17, 1957, the ACL became one of the ten federal scientific institutions, known as The Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA). The multidisciplinary work project, defended since the beginning by Paul Coremans, was finally established. Art historians, photographers, chemists, physicians and restorers work together on a common assignment: the inventory, the study and the conservation of the cultural heritage of the country. "The elements of awareness of aesthetic, historic, scientific, and technical sorts make up many of the aspects of a same problem. To our eyes they are all as important and must contribute, in the same way, to the final success." explained Paul Coremans in the visitor's guide to the exhibition held in Brussels' Museum of Fine Arts in 1951. The first Bulletin was published the following year.

In 1958, KIK-IRPA undertook the conservation of The Justice of Otto III by Dirk Bouts (Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts). Two years later, the Institute began restoring The Descent from the Cross by Pieter Paul Rubens (Antwerp, Cathedral of Our Lady).

image019In 1962, KIK-IRPA moved and settled in a new building constructed according to the blueprints of the architect Charles Rimanque and according to a technical concept of René Sneyers, who succeeded Paul Coremans in 1965 as director of KIK-IRPA. This building is the first in the wrold designed to gather all the fields working to the conservation of the cultural heritage. Some sections of the building have been recently listed. As for the furniture in offices, workshops and laboratories, the architect Stéphane Jasinki drew it up, in collaboration with the Institute's scientists, and de Coene, a company in Courtrai, assembled it.


From 1966 to 1979: Photographic campaign for the constitution of the catalogue

In 1967, the Culture Ministers Pierre Wigny and Renaat van Elslande asked KIK-IRPA to make a photographic inventory of works of art in Belgian religious buildings. They were worried because more and more movable works of art in churches were disappearing after the modification the liturgy decided by the second Vatican Council. And so, 250 000 photographs are taken in the 222 judicial districts of the country, in order to make an inventory of all the pieces having a cultural, historic, archaeological or folkloric interest. The making of the inventory started in 1967 and it took 10 years to be completed.

From 1967 to 1970, the Institute undertook the conservation of the Reliquary of Notre-Dame (Huy, Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame). At the same time, The Adoration of the Magi by Pieter Bruegel the Elder was treated. This work of art was done on a canvas, which was quite extraordinary for the 16th century (Brussels, Royal museums of Fine Arts).

Little by little, and thanks to the samples of the threads behind the tapestries from the city of Tournai, the study of natural colorants was developed and so a textile conservation workshop was created at KIK-IRPA in 1969.


From 1980 to 1989: federalisation and management are separated

During the 80s, methodical studies on how to strengthen the consolidation of stone-like materials, how to protect them from acid rain, the use of water repellent treatments and the cleaning methods were developed within the laboratories. Radiocarbon dating was further developed and refined.

In 1983, a detailed study on the conservation of leather and parchments was undertaken. New domains of research were explored and the leather and parchment workshop was created.

With the royal decree of December 31, 1986 the State Services of Separate Management were to become the Scientific Institutions of the Country under the two ministries of national Education, of which KIK-IRPA is part.

From 1986 to 1989, KIK-IRPA restored the polychromed Portal of Bethlehem (14th century, Huy, Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame).

Between 1987 and 1991, the Institute's teams worked on the conservation of the Codex Eyckensis (9th century), an illuminated manuscript on parchment (Maaseik, Church of Saint Catherine). In 1988, KIK-IRPA worked on the conservation of the Golden Chariot, a processional chariot from the city of Mons (Collegiate church of Saint Waudru). The following year, the Relics of Saints Harlinde and Relinde (9th century, Maaseik, Church of Saint Catherine) were restored in the Institute. Then from 1989 to 1994, KIK-IRPA worked on the restoration of the Chinese Pavillion in Laeken. During this same period, the Institute carried out the conservation of The Raising of the Cross by Rubens (Antwerp Cathedral).


From 1989 to 1998: beginning of the scanning of the photographic archives

In 1989, scanning of the photographic archives began. Later, in 1995, a new step was taken: the photographs were digitalised.

In 1991, the Fund for the National Heritage of Works of Art created by the King Baudouin Foundation launched a series of campaigns for conservation, called S.O.S. campaigns, as part of the conservation mission during urgent situations. KIK-IRPA participated in the large format canvas paintings S.O.S. (S.O.S Grandes Toiles). During that time, two canvas paintings were conserved: the Golgotha by Van Dyck (Ghent, Church of Saint Michiel) and Rubens's Purgatory (Tournai, Notre-Dame Cathedral).

From 1991 to 1993, the wall paintings of the Antwerp Cathedral were restored.

In 1992, the participation of laboratories to research programs funded by the European Union (STEP, Environment, Hardrock, ENVIART, MAP, SCOTS...) started.

Between 1993 and 1994, the King Baudouin Foundation launched a second S.O.S restoration campaign: S.O.S Tapestries (S.O.S Tapisseries). KIK-IRPA then restored The Judgement of Salomon, a Brussels' tapestry of the 16th century belonging to the city of Roulers.

In 1993, the Institute undertook conservation of the south portal of the Halle Basilica.

In 1994, scientific and cultural institutions such as KIK-IRPA were once again attached to the Prime Minister's Services, the Belgium office for Scientific, Technical, and Cultural Affairs (SSTC) under the guardianship of the Scientific Policies Ministry.

After a major exhibition bringing together eighteen Antwerp altarpieces from the 16th century held in Antwerp in 1993, KIK-IRPA restored in particular The Altarpiece of the Passion (Opitter, Church of Saint-Trond).

From 1994 to 1995 the King Baudouin Foundation undertook a third S.O.S campaign: S.O.S. Polychromies (S.O.S. Polychromies), with the restoration of polychromed sculptures in mind. KIK-IRPA then studied and restored fourteen sculptures.

image021From 1995 to 1996, the S.O.S Old paintings ( S.O.S. Peintures anciennes) took place. This time panel paintings were inspected. KIK-IRPA worked on the conservation of the masterpiece The Virgin and Child by Jean Fouquet, (Antwerp, Royal Museum of Fine Arts). Photos opposite.



In 1995, the decision was taken to complete the photographic inventory with the collections of public social assistance centres (CPAS) and abbeys. In addition, the department had progressively purchased the necessary equipment for colour photography. So a colour photography campaign of the most important works of art in the Belgium was undertaken.

In 1996, IRPA started restoring the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Legend of Saint Margaret wall paintings, dating back to the 12th century (Tournai, Cathedral of Our Lady). The Institute also restored the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament by Dirk Bouts, the Triumphal Cross by Jan Borreman and the organ gallery of the Saint Peter's Church in Leuven as well as the Saint Mengold Reliquary (Huy, Collegiate Church of Our Lady).


From 1998 to 2008: from fifty to sixty years

In 1998, KIK-IRPA celebrated its 50th anniversary. A series of events took place during the month of May, among which the Open Days, thematic days dedicated to conservation-restoration of cultural heritage. It was a significant success!

The same year, KIK-IRPA worked, among others, on the conservation of The Polyptych of the Death and the Assumption of the Virgin by Bernard Van Orley from the public social assistance centre (CPAS), a tapestry from Delft, Heavenly Jerusalem of Tournai Cathedral as well as The Alterpiece of Saint Anne kept in Saint Salvator's Cathedral in Bruges.

In 1999, KIK-IRPA participated in the Heritage Days by organizing Open Days. 3180 visitors attended!

The Institute carried out the computerisation of the laboratory and conservation files and of the books and periodicals from the library. The same year the Itinerary of the altarpieces (Retablroute) planned for the occasion of the Brussels' events in 2000 was prepared. The Institute was responsible for the study and conservation of several altarpieces among which the Altarpiece of the Virgin (15th century, Ham-sur-Heure), the Altarpiece of Saint Adrian (1500, Church of St Adrien in Ixelles) and the Altarpiece of the Passion (15th century, Royal Museums of Art and History). Oplinter's Passion altarpiece was chosen for the first volume in Scientia Artis book series.

The restoration of the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula was also the occasion for several important works such as the conservation of glass roofs or the conservation of works of art kept in the Cathedral such as goldsmith's art, liturgical ornaments, sculptures, paintings, etc. The second volume of the Scientia Artis series, published in 2005, deals with the Cathedral's stained glass windows.

In 2000 and after the fire of the St John the Baptist Beguinage Church, a great number of restoration treatments were undertaken. The painting workshop also carried out, among others, the conservation of The Virgin of the Fountain by Van Eyck and The Death of the Virgin by Poussin. The Documentation Department organised its first Art History Seminar, an event that is repeated yearly.

In 2001 the project Information Crossroads on the Cultural Heritage, financed by the SSTC, and the BALaT (Belgian Art Links and Tools) internet portal were launched. The latter provides access to a catalogue of centres and active researchers in the field of art history in Belgium as well as to the Dictionnaire des peintres belges, linked to KIK-IRPA's photo library. Many restoration projects took place and the demands came from the Flemish Region, the Walloon Region and the Brussels Capital Region. KIK-IRPA worked on the altars of the St John the Baptist Church in Averbode, the St Leonard Altarpiece in Leau, different elements from the Brussels' Church of Our Lady of Sablon and the paintings of the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum in Liege, among many others.

Some of the restorations carried out in 2004 were the treatment of the grand Antwerp Pailhe altarpiece (Royal Museums of Art and History).

In 2005, KIK-IRPA organised an exhibition entitled Dynasty and Photography (Dynastie et Photographie) at the Royal Museums of Art and History at the time of Belgium's 175th birthday and its 25-year federal state commemorations.

In January of 2005, a press conference reported on the discovery of the Mary Magdalene, an important painting dating back to the 15th century from the Renders collection and "heavily restored" by Joseph Van der Veken. With this significant discovery an exhibition at the Royal Museums of Art and History took place. This work of art, as well as the drawings and research of Joseph Van der Veken, were the main subject of the exhibition. A catalogue was published for the occasion and the fourth volume of Scientia Artis, which is the continuation, was published on September 15, 2008.

In April, the Institute also participated in the exhibition Mirrors of Heritage (Mirroirs du Patrimoine) at the Grand-Hornu. In September it took part in the didactic presentation of the restoration of an flag from 1830 in Gembloux.

In 2006 a major event took place: the Lambert Lombard exhibition is organised from April 21 to August 6 at the Museum of Walloon Fine Arts in Liege. KIK-IRPA restored eight paintings entitled The Virtuous Women by Lambert Lombart. For the occasion, the third volume of Scientia Artis and a DVD came out.

In February, the exhibition and conference on the German negatives from 1914 to 1918 organised by the Documentation Department showed the outstanding interest of 12 000 photos made by the occupier in 1917 and 1918.

In March, the Cultural Center in Tournai hosted the International Days of Art History dedicated this time to Robert Campin. The acts of the conference were published the following year.

In August, the bilingual sculpture glossary Dutch-French was published.

image002_14In 2007, an exhibition commemorating the tricentennial of Jean Del Cour's death (1631-1707) took place. He was one of the most important representatives of baroque sculpture. 130 sculptures were exposed in the St Barthelemy Church in Liege. KIK-IRPA disinfected and treated 20 of these sculptures.


In September 2007, the restoration of the Sedes Sapientaie of the Church of St Bavo in Mere was concluded. After spending two years in the polychromed wood workshop at KIK-IRPA, this statue, painted five times, recovered a polychromy of quality. A didactic exhibition was organised when it was put back in the church.

In 2007, a conference entitled Chronology and evolution in the Mesolithic of N(W) Europe also took place. This international conference, resulting from the collaboration between the Prehistory section at the University of Ghent and KIK-IRPA's radiocarbon dating laboratory, tackled two main topics: the recent progress in the absolute dating of the Mesolithic and the evolutionary trends during the Mesolithic.

In November 2007, KIK-IRPA experienced a big change. The photo library moved. The photographic archives are now stocked in the basement in better conservation conditions. Subsequently, the library moved to the first floor, where more room is available.

In 2008, KIK-IRPA celebrated its 60th anniversary. And so the fourth volume of Scientia Artis, about the Belgian restorer Joseph Van der Veken was published. A new website was also launched. Both were presented during the Open Days on September 20 and 21!