The history of our buildings

 

The story of our Institute is written into the buildings it has inhabited over time.

 

From the Palace of Nassau to the Convent of the Redemptoristines in Leopold Park, we chart the story of the bricks and mortar that have housed our collections, our researchers and our galleries throughout our history.

Now that the entire Museum has been renovated, visitors can explore not only the diversity of our collections but also a striking variety of architectural styles. Behind the bold modernist facade of our tower, we discover not only the impressive wrought iron features of our eclectic Janlet wing but also a 19th century neo-Romanesque convent.

Our palatial beginnings

In almost 2 centuries, the home of our collections has travelled two kilometres. The building housing the original Museum was not in Leopold Park but at the top of what is now the Mont des Arts: the Palace of Nassau. The palace was the Brussels residence of Prince Charles Alexander of Lorraine, whose cabinet formed the basis of the original Museum’s collection.

Today, natural sciences have made way for books: it is now used for the temporary exhibitions of KBR, the Royal Library of Belgium. And it remains a spectacular building, whose first-floor rotunda includes a central rosette made up of 28 types of Belgian marble from the prince’s original collection: the only trace still linking the palace to our now vast mineral collection.

Making ourselves at home in Ixelles

The rapid growth of the collections meant the Palace soon became cluttered. But the solution came in the 1880s when the government found a new home for the Museum: the Convent of the Redemptoristines in Park Leopold. Architect Emmanuel Cels had designed a grand convent with a chapel that was to house a sisterhood of nuns. In the end, the chapel was never built and the nuns never occupied the convent, opting to move to Mechelen instead. And even the echoing halls of the convent were not enough to house the Museum’s vast collections: a new wing had to be built.

In 1891, the same year the Museum opened its new doors in the convent, architect Emile Janlet began work on a new wing.

Scaling up

The turn of the century was a frenzy of construction for Belgium. The rise of industry in the 1800s had brought in great wealth and this was reflected in the architectural style of the time, visible in the extravagant arcades of the Cinquantenaire monument that were still under construction as Janlet’s plans were being drawn up. And that sense of opulence is still present in our current Gallery of Dinosaurs thanks to Janlet’s eclectic design, rhythmic use of wrought iron and intricate marble mosaics

Our mid-century identity shift from Royal Museum to Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences was marked by a new expansion project. The continued growth of our research activities meant a tower was needed to house the laboratories of our researchers and a new wing for our geological service. In the 1930s it was modernist architect Lucien De Vestel that was selected for the design, but war and financial struggles dragged the work out across the decades.

In 2020, when the Living Planet gallery was completed in the two upper floors of our historic convent wing, it marked the end of two decades of successive renovation projects. Finally all of the permanent galleries opened to the public. The convent wing is now fully devoted to telling the story of biodiversity on earth, with the windows in the roof letting daylight illuminate the space for the first time. As the need to adapt to current sustainability standards and reduce our ecological footprint becomes ever more urgent, we will eventually need to make new plans for a more sustainable building - no doubt before our 200th anniversary comes around!