Best history museums to visit in Brussels, Belgium

With its rich historical heritage and cultural significance, Brussels offers an array of exceptional museums that cater to the interests of avid history enthusiasts. From exploring ancient artifacts to immersing yourself in the narratives of influential figures and pivotal events, these museums provide an unforgettable journey through time.

In this article, we will unveil the best museums in Brussels that promise an immersive experience for history buffs. Each museum presents a unique collection of artifacts, exhibits, and interactive displays that shed light on different aspects of history, be it art, industry, warfare, or daily life. Whether you are intrigued by ancient artefacts, fascinated by military history, or captivated by the stories of remarkable individuals, Brussels has a museum that will capture your imagination and deepen your understanding of the past.

Join us as we embark on a curated tour of the top museums in Brussels, offering a glimpse into the captivating tapestry of history that has shaped this remarkable city. If you want to visit churches in Brussels with historical significance, here is an article on this topic.

The Royal Museums of Art and History

The Royal Museums of Art and History (RMAH) in Brussels, is also known as Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in French or Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis in Dutch. Itis a group of five museums: the Art & History Museum (formerly the Cinquantenaire Museum, the Horta-Lambeaux Pavilion, the Halle Gate, the Musical Instrument Museum and the Museums of the Far East.

The Art & History Museum

The Art & History Museum, is known for its extensive collections of antiquities, ethnographic artifacts, and decorative arts. Situated in the Parc du Cinquantenaire/Jubelpark, the museum is part of the Royal Museums of Art and History (RMAH) and is considered one of the largest art museums in Europe. Formerly known as the Cinquantenaire Museum, it underwent a name change in 2018 to become the Art & History Museum.

The museum’s origins date back to the collections amassed during the reigns of the Dukes of Burgundy and Habsburg archdukes, which were initially housed in various locations throughout Brussels. In 1847, the Kingdom of Belgium acquired these artworks, and they were exhibited in the Halle Gate under the name “Royal Museum of Armour, Antiquities, and Ethnology.”

Eventually, the collections outgrew the gate, and in 1889, they were moved to the Parc du Cinquantenaire/Jubelpark, with the exception of the armor and weapons that remained in the gate. The construction of the Cinquantenaire Palace during the 1880 National Exhibition provided additional space for the museum.

During the interwar period, the museum’s collections expanded significantly through Belgian scientific expeditions around the world and archaeological excavations within Belgium. Generous donations from wealthy Belgians also enriched the museum’s holdings. In the mid-20th century, a new wing was added to accommodate the classical antiquity collections.

The Art & History Museum is divided into four main sections: national archaeology, classical antiquity, non-European civilizations, and European decorative arts. The national archaeology collection encompasses artifacts from prehistoric times to the Merovingian period, offering insights into the evolution of daily life in Belgium during different historical periods.

The classical antiquity section features early art from the Middle Eastern, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations. It showcases reliefs, jewelry, and earthen objects from the Middle East, including highlights such as cylinder seals and Luristan bronzes.

The Egyptian collection comprises over 11,000 pieces, showcasing Egyptian art from its origins to the Christian era, with notable works like the Lady of Brussels and the relief of Queen Tiyi.

The Greek collection emphasizes vases, presenting diverse forms, styles, and decorations from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic period. The Roman collections include Etruscan mirrors, marble busts, and important remains from Apamea, Syria. The Byzantine and Christian arts section exhibits icons, textiles, ceramics, and other artifacts from the East.

The non-European civilizations section offers insights into Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, as well as the Americas, Oceania, and the Islamic world. This diverse collection includes textiles, ceramics, and religious artifacts representing various cultures and religions.

The European decorative arts section presents sculptures, furniture, ceramics, metals, glassware, textiles, and costumes from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. It showcases treasures from different periods, including Mosan goldsmithery, Gothic sculptures, Renaissance ceramics, and Art Nouveau and Art Deco works.

The museum also features specialized rooms dedicated to specific subjects, such as copperware, glassware, lace, and cinematic and photographic devices.

The Art & History Museum offers visitors a comprehensive exploration of art, history, and culture from around the world. With its rich and diverse collections, the museum provides a valuable glimpse into the past and the artistic achievements of various civilizations.

The Horta-Lambeaux Pavilion

The Horta-Lambeaux Pavilion, also known as The Temple of Human Passions (French: Pavillon des passions humaines, Dutch: Tempel van de menselijke driften), is a neoclassical Greek temple designed by Victor Horta in 1896.

It is located in the Parc du Cinquantenaire/Jubelpark in Brussels, and it serves as a permanent exhibition space for Jef Lambeaux’s monumental marble relief, The Human Passions.

The pavilion showcases the early Art Nouveau style of Victor Horta, despite its classical appearance. Access to the building has been limited, but since 2014, it is open during the summer.

Commissioned by King Leopold II, The Human Passions relief depicts the happiness and sins of mankind dominated by death. The work caused controversy due to its lack of cohesion and explicit portrayal of nudity and crucifixion.

The Belgian State acquired the relief in 1890 and installed it in the Cinquantenaire. A plaster copy was made for display at World’s fairs, and a fragment received a medal of honor at the 1900 Paris fair. The Horta-Lambeaux Pavilion remains unfinished, with the front wall added in 1909.

The Halle Gate

The Halle Gate is the last remaining city gate of Brussels, and it was built between 1381 and 1383. Restored in the 19th century in a neo-Gothic style by architect Henri Beyaert, it now serves as a museum dedicated to the medieval City of Brussels within the Royal Museums of Art and History. Located on Boulevard du Midi/Zuidlaan, it is easily accessible from Brussels-South railway station and the Porte de Hal/Hallepoort metro station.

Originally named Obbrussel Gate, the Halle Gate features a portcullis, drawbridge, and moat. Despite efforts to strengthen the city’s defenses with ditches, bastions, and forts, the gate proved ineffective during attacks in the 17th and 18th centuries. While other gates were demolished, the Halle Gate survived and served various purposes over the years, including as a military prison and a customs house.

Architect Henri Beyaert transformed the medieval tower into a neo-Gothic castle in the 1860s, adding decorative elements such as turrets and a spiral staircase. The gate became part of the Royal Museums of Art and History in 1847, housing armor and weapons. After restoration in the 1990s, the gate reopened to the public in 1991. Further renovations in the 2000s included the establishment of the “Saint-Gilles” entrance as the main entrance.

The museum showcases the history of the Halle Gate, the City of Brussels, and its defense. The collection includes Archduke Albert of Austria’s parade armor from the 17th century. The museum consists of various parts, including the Armor and Armaments room, the Gothic Room displaying the history of fortifications, the Guilds Room highlighting the trade guilds’ role, a temporary exhibition space, a walkway around the battlements offering city panoramas, and a roof space for small exhibitions.

The Musical Instrument Museum

The Musical Instruments Museum (MIM) in Brussels is renowned for its collection of over 8,000 instruments. Housed in the former Old England department store, the museum showcases Belgian musical history, European traditions, and non-European instruments.

The Musical Instrument Museum collection was established in 1877 as part of the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. It initially included a hundred Indian instruments gifted to King Leopold II, as well as François-Joseph Fétis’ collection.

Victor-Charles Mahillon expanded the collection, totaling over 3,600 articles. Mahillon’s work influenced the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system. In the 1990s, Nicolas Meeùs oversaw the museum’s relocation and renovation in the former Old England department store. The MIM opened to the public in 2000. The museum continues to preserve, restore, and exhibit musical instruments, with Malou Haine serving as director from 1994 to 2009.

Visitors can listen to audio samples with infrared headphones and explore the collection spread across different floors. Notable pieces include instruments by Adolphe Sax, Chinese stone chimes, and the unique luthéal used by Ravel. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions and concerts featuring contemporary inventors. Located near Place Royale/Koningsplein, it is easily accessible by public transportation.

The Museums of the Far East

The Museums of the Far East is a complex in Laeken, Belgium, consisting of the Chinese Pavilion, Japanese Tower, and the Museum of Japanese Art. Designed by Alexandre Marcel for King Leopold II, the museum buildings closed in 2013 due to structural issues.

King Leopold II was inspired by the Panorama du Tour du Monde at the 1900 Paris Exposition to create an outdoor display of oriental buildings. The Japanese Tower, built in 1905, stands 50 meters tall and the Chinese Pavilion, constructed in 1909, originally intended as a restaurant, now remains closed to the public. Both structures were recognized as protected monuments in 2019.

The Chinese Pavilion focuses on Chinese art for export, while the Japanese Tower displays Japanese porcelain. The Museum of Japanese Art houses a collection of samurai armor, woodblock prints, and other artifacts. Temporary exhibitions are also held. The complex is located near the Royal Palace of Laeken and can be accessed via Stuyvenbergh metro station. Some items from the collection are on display at the Art & History Museum in Brussels.

The House of European History

The House of European History (HEH) in Brussels is a museum and cultural institution dedicated to the recent history of Europe. It was initiated by the European Parliament and opened in 2017.

The museum aims to promote understanding of European history and integration through permanent and temporary exhibitions, educational programs, and cultural events. It is located in the former Eastman Dental Hospital near the European institutions and can be reached via the Maalbeek/Maelbeek and Schuman metro stations.

The House of European History provides a transnational overview of European history, emphasizing diverse interpretations and perceptions. It encourages critical reflection on historical processes and their implications in the present day.

The museum’s permanent exhibition spans four floors and uses objects, multimedia resources, and thematic approaches to present European political, economic, social, and cultural history. It covers significant periods like the 19th and 20th centuries, including the history of European integration.

The HEH features a collection of over 1,500 objects and documents from various European museums and collections. It offers a thought-provoking narrative that explores Europe’s ancient roots, its journey towards modernity, and the challenges it faces. The museum is inclusive and accessible, providing interactive tablets in 24 languages and prioritizing multilingualism as an expression of Europe’s cultural diversity.

Notably, the HEH exhibits the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma awarded to the EU in its permanent collection. With approximately 4,000 square meters of exhibition space and additional room for temporary exhibitions, the museum offers a comprehensive and engaging exploration of European history. It serves as a platform for discussion and debate on Europe and the European Union, inviting visitors to critically assess the continent’s past, present, and future.

Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

The Museum of the National Bank of Belgium in Brussels opened in 1982 and is one of the oldest central bank museums in Europe. It features three exhibits: the history of money, the history of the National Bank of Belgium, and the interactions between people and money, including the design of money. The museum showcases a collection of old Belgian coins and explains the evolution of currency throughout history.

The museum is housed in a building constructed between 1872 and 1874, originally serving as a bank for the Union du Crédit de Bruxelles. It was later acquired by the National Bank of Belgium and underwent restoration from 2004 to 2009. The museum’s collection includes banknotes, coins, drawings, paintings, bank furniture, measuring instruments, archives, and more, providing insights into financial, economic, and monetary life.

The museum also boasts a collection of “commodity currencies” from around the world, objects used for payment or exchange in various transactions. Iconographic documents, maps, plans, and views related to numismatics, economic and financial history, and Belgian cities are also part of the museum’s collection. Medals commemorating people or events, as well as a comprehensive assortment of coins spanning over 2,500 years, are showcased.

Banknotes hold a significant place in the museum’s numismatic collection, with over 24,000 denominations representing monetary and economic developments. The collection includes Belgian banknotes and those from various countries. Additionally, an online resource offers access to a special collection of emergency notes issued during World War I.

The Museum of the National Bank of Belgium provides a comprehensive exploration of money’s history and its relationship with society. It offers visitors a glimpse into the world of finance and numismatics through its diverse collection and engaging exhibits.

The National Museum of the Resistance

The National Museum of the Resistance in Brussels is dedicated to the history of the Belgian Resistance and German occupation during World War II. It is located in Anderlecht and accessible via Clemenceau metro station.

The museum aims to raise awareness about the role of the Belgian Resistance, preserving documents and artifacts related to the period. It also covers topics such as the German occupation, the Holocaust, and deportations. Housed in the former printing house where the Faux Soir was produced, the museum is supported by the Front de l’Indépendance association.

Established in 1972, the museum showcases a collection of objects, documents, and archives from the resistance movements during both World Wars. It covers various aspects including the 18 Days Campaign, Nazi practices, armed resistance, sabotage, civil resistance, collaboration, repression, rescue operations, intelligence networks, and more.

The museum also features testimonies of occupation experiences from other European countries and the former Soviet Union. The National Museum of the Resistance serves as a historical testament to the bravery and struggles of those who resisted the Nazi occupation and fought for freedom.

The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History

The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, located in the Parc du Cinquantenaire/Jubelpark in Brussels, Belgium, showcases the history of the Belgian armed forces.

Established in 1911, it moved to its current location in 1923. The museum occupies the northern halls of the complex, including the historic North Hall, known for its combination of classical and industrial architectural elements.

The museum’s collection has grown significantly over the years through acquisitions and donations. It features uniforms, weapons, vehicles, and military equipment from various periods and countries.

Notable sections include the medieval collection with offensive and defensive armaments, the 19th-century gallery displaying Belgian military history, and the World War I collection highlighting uniforms, artillery, and vehicles. The Aviation Hall houses a diverse range of aircraft, from early 20th-century planes to modern F-16 Fighting Falcons.

The museum also includes sections dedicated to the Belgian Navy, with a focus on Antarctic exploration, and armored vehicles from World Wars I and II. Outdoor courtyards display several Belgian Navy ships and a collection of tanks, including an M24 Chaffee and an M41 Walker Bulldog.

In addition to its exhibits, the museum houses the European Forum on Contemporary Conflicts and serves as a center for research and documentation. It is a comprehensive resource for exploring the military history of Belgium and beyond.

The Jewish Museum of Belgium

The Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels focuses on the history of Jews in Belgium. The idea of establishing a Jewish museum emerged in the late 1970s due to the absence of a museum dedicated to Jewish history and art, despite Judaism’s longstanding presence in Belgium. A small group was formed in 1981 to gather a collection and secure funding and property. Official support was obtained in the mid-1980s.

Initially located above the Beth Israel Synagogue, the museum moved to its current premises on Rue des Minimes in 2005. The collection includes items related to Jewish customs from Europe, Asia, and Africa, dating back to the 18th century. It comprises 750 objects of judaica, 1,250 works of art, and an extensive archive of photographs, posters, and recordings.

The museum houses thematic libraries with 25,000 works, covering Jewish art, artists, history, genealogy, and biographical registers. Temporary exhibitions related to Judaism are held on three floors. Notable exhibitions include the highly successful showcase on photographer Robert Capa, attracting over 20,000 visitors.

The Fashion & Lace Museum

The Fashion & Lace Museum in Brussels is a textile and fashion museum that showcases the traditional craft of lace, which is prominent in Belgium. Founded in 1977, the museum exhibits antique lace, the process of lacemaking, and hosts temporary displays on historical and contemporary fashion. It houses over 20,000 clothing items, lace, and accessories from the 16th century to the present, presenting them through annual exhibitions.

The museum conserves textiles according to strict standards of temperature, light, and humidity, which means the collections cannot be permanently displayed. It is the sole Belgian museum dedicated to Brussels lace, which brought fame to the city in the past. Originally named the Museum for Costume and Lace, it was renamed the Fashion & Lace Museum in 2017 to emphasize the connection between fashion and history.

The museum’s major exhibitions cover various themes and periods, including unique items and displays on masculinity, historical glamour, and Belgian designers. Additionally, it features the Fashion Room, offering an up-close view of exceptional items, and the Lace Room, showcasing the finesse and beauty of Brussels lace.

Housed in historic buildings, the museum holds a significant collection representing Brussels design and production. It reflects the evolution of fashion and provides insights into different eras of culture and society. Alongside its permanent exhibits, the museum presents temporary exhibitions by contemporary designers and artists, offering visitors a glimpse into the latest trends and techniques in the fashion and lace-making world.

The Train World railway museum

Train World is a railway museum located in Schaerbeek, Brussels, and serves as the official museum of the National Railway Company of Belgium. It opened in September 2015, displaying 22 locomotives and over 1,200 other objects, including a 19th-century railway bridge. Notably, it houses the oldest preserved locomotive in continental Europe, the “Pays du Waes” steam locomotive from 1845.

In addition to the locomotives, the museum showcases various materials definitively displayed, such as a steam crane, Belpaire hearth boiler, and replicas of historic steam locomotives like “Le Belge” and “L’Eléphant.” The collections cover a range of steam and diesel locomotives, railcars, coaches, and wagons managed by Belgian railway associations.

Among the notable exhibits, visitors can explore the 030T shunting steam locomotive, heavy express steam locomotive 10.018, light express steam locomotive 12.004, and the industrial steam locomotive “MF33.” These locomotives represent different periods and types of trains.

The museum spans over 8,000 square meters and is housed in the preserved buildings of Schaarbeek railway station, along with a new shed. It offers a comprehensive exploration of the railway history of Belgium, highlighting the country’s locomotive heritage and its significance in transportation.

Train World is an essential destination for railway enthusiasts and anyone interested in the rich history of Belgium’s rail transportation. The diverse collection of locomotives and railway artifacts provides a unique experience, showcasing the evolution and importance of trains throughout the years.

The Brussels City Museum

The Brussels City Museum, located on the iconic Grand-Place/Grote Markt of Brussels, Belgium, is a municipal museum dedicated to the history and folklore of the city. Established in 1887, it showcases the captivating story of Brussels through an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, engravings, photos, and models.

Notably, it features a remarkable scale-representation of the town during the Middle Ages. Housed in the Maison du Roi or Broodhuis, a neo-Gothic building dating back to the 16th century, the museum stands opposite Brussels’ Town Hall.

With over 7,000 artifacts, including original sculptures from the Town Hall, the Brussels City Museum offers a comprehensive exploration of the city’s rich heritage. Visitors can admire two dioramas depicting the early days and flourishing period of Brussels in the 1500s.

The painting collections showcase works by notable artists such as Aert van den Bossche and Charles Meynier. The museum takes visitors on a journey through the history of the Grand Place, providing detailed information in multiple languages.

The first floor showcases maps and 3D model recreations of Brussels’ evolution during the Middle Ages, including a captivating model of 13th century Brussels. Moving to the second floor, visitors encounter the contemporary glory of Brussels, symbolized by the famous Manneken Pis.

There is the original statue of the Manneken Pis and a permanent exhibition displaying around 100 of its 700 costumes. Throughout the visit, guests gain insight into the city’s history, myths, and its “free, amusing, and carnivalesque” spirit.

The Brussels City Museum welcomes visitors every day, except Mondays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with free admission on the first Sunday of each month.

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