I Left My Soul in Antwerp

As Tyler and I made our way inside Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp, Belgium, this past June, we knew that its stature as a UNESCO World Heritage site meant we would, at the very least, feel like we had an afternoon well-spent.

Museum Plantin-Morestus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015
Museum Plantin-Morestus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015

In my experience, the UNESCO people tend to make good choices. Indeed, it’s not every day you get to tour a complex of buildings where craftsmen, thinkers, and family worked and lived from the sixteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century. (According to the UNESCO nomination, there would have been about 140 other individuals and/or businesses in Antwerp’s print trades in the mid-sixteenth century.) Christopher Plantin served as the House’s “master” from 1555-1589, and his son-in-law Jan I Moretus served as master from 1589-1610. See the UNESCO nomination for more on the other Plantin House masters. Shortly after the firm printed its last book in 1866, the site became a museum. Visitors have been enchanted by it ever since, and you don’t have to have completed a PhD exam field in print culture and history of the book to appreciate this museum’s ability to transport visitors to another time and place.

Plantin-Moretus has a lot going for it, including very comprehensive business archives and galleries. (Unfortunately, we were too exhausted by the end of the workshop-house tour to enjoy the galleries properly.) It’s difficult to summarize why I liked the museum so much–why, at the expense of sounding a bit dramatic, I feel like I left my soul there. First, the Museum retains a workshop full of the family’s printing presses (including the two oldest extant in the world), type, and other tools.

Type-making Supplies at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015
Type-making Supplies at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015

It also boasts the multi-room library of several generations of humanists (a fancy term for people interested in natural rather than supernatural concerns and whose intellectual interests spanned multiple disciplines).

A Snapshot of the Library at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015
A Snapshot of the Library at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015

These material survivals virtually tell the story of the site and the people who lived and worked there themselves. Perhaps I feel so taken with the place because I really felt the presence of the people who had used the objects and spaces there. Sure, the things I want to see more of in house museums and workspace period rooms–like dirt and disorder–weren’t there. But it’s hard not to imagine a journeyman moving about the print shop managing apprentices when just about all the tools he used (including sunlight streaming through the tall windows) are staring you in the face.

The Printing Presses at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015
The Printing Presses at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015

The Museum offers a great audio tour too that provides visitors with succinct discussions that enhance rather than detract from the already dense sensory experience. I particularly enjoyed going into some detail about the gilt leather wallpaper (much of it reproduced since gilt leather is difficult to preserve) this prosperous family installed throughout the workshop-house, a luxury that was a speciality of craftsmen in nearby Mechelen. The audio guide really made you take a close look.

And yet the interpretation of only one bedchamber and what seems to be a reproduced kitchen (a room that, according to the guidebook, was a wash house in Plantin’s lifetime) spurred questions about domestic life and work at the site. My curiosity was only heightened when I read in the visitor guide that two of Plantin’s daughters (Margaretha and Martina) married their father’s “most important assistants,” thereby cementing their importance as consorts and also business partners. That says a lot about how permeable the walls and doors here really were.

Perhaps I feel like I left my soul there since past inhabitants most certainly left theirs there too.

Further Reading

If you want to take a circa 1900 virtual tour of Museum Plantin-Moretus, check out this visitor guide on the Internet Archive.

And of course, nothing can compare to visiting the site in person. I recommend it (and Belgium more generally) very highly. Learn more here the Museum Plantin-Moretus website.

I’ve written about workshop period rooms in the past. Check out my blog post about cleaning, inventorying, and cataloguing a duck decoy shop period room at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, Maryland.

#DisabilityStories Abroad

En route to our hotel the first night we spent in Brussels, Belgium, this past June, I stopped dead in my tracks in front of a store window despite the fact that I was more than ready to hit the sack after surviving our marathon day of trans-Atlantic travel and touring. It didn’t take long for Tyler to realize why I was so engrossed. There, in the middle of Brussels, a Bandagiste (or a store that sells orthopedic and related supplies) displayed a mix of historic and contemporary examples of objects that feature (along with their users) prominently in my dissertation. From crutches to wheelchairs, the Bandagiste had it all, beckoning prospective customers (and one historian) in one of the busiest parts of Brussels.

One Portion of Fremineur-Medical's Window Display in Brussels, Belgium (June 2015)
One Portion of Fremineur-Medical’s Window Display in Brussels, Belgium (June 2015)

Tyler and I planned to visit specific sites in Belgium and the UK on our trip, but I hadn’t really picked out any disability-related stuff to see.

It turns out it didn’t matter, because it found me.

On a train from Bruges to Brussels, for instance, I overheard one woman explain to her travel companions that there is a rail worker at one of the stops she frequents who is notorious for grumbling about providing the moveable ramp that links the platform to the train for her wheelchair. She also recounted how a friend’s commute lengthened by a half hour recently because the station he used was no longer accessible. Their anecdotes were endless. And during the remainder of our trip abroad, the insights kept coming.

At the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich, I immersed myself in the material culture of the cult of Britain’s maritime hero Horatio Nelson. I knew a surgeon (turns out to have been Thomas Eshelby, a ship’s surgeon) amputated Nelson’s arm after it was hit at Santa Cruz in 1797, but I was not aware how central the amputation became to Nelson’s identity and everyone else’s idea of him.

Lemuel Francis Abbott, Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805 , Oil on Canvas, 1799, National Maritime Museum Collections.
Lemuel Francis Abbott, Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805 , Oil on Canvas, 1799, National Maritime Museum Collections

The amputated limb became a focal point for many likenesses made of Nelson even after he died from wounds received at the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars in 1805. Check out this late ninteenth-century decanter below, for instance. It was difficult to choose which artifact to include here. Nelson adorned a lot of stuff, suggesting how much people liked having him around. Think George Washington or Abraham Lincoln in the American context.

Decanter  Depicting Horatio Nelson,  Circa 1870, National Maritime Museum Collections
Decanter Depicting Horatio Nelson, Circa 1870, Czech Republic, National Maritime Museum Collections (Walter Collection)

While perusing the Nelson gallery, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Desire Tripp, an eighteenth-century Newport Rhode Island working girl who highlighted her amputated arm on a gravestone it shared with her two babies.

Heck, I made her arm a focal point of my own arm.

Me, My Arm's Arm, and Tyler at Gettysburg, PA (Spring 2015)
Me, My Arm’s Arm, and Tyler at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (Spring 2015)

Getting better acquainted with Nelson suddenly made Desire seem less unusual (but not less unique).

And so in honor of the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Americans With Disabilities Act, here are some of my recent #disabilitystories (the social media “hashtag” for today) from abroad. My encounters with disability history and material culture on our recent trip started with that Bandagiste but did not end with Nelson. More importantly, they won’t end back in the States, either. I can’t wait to dive back into the archives today, on the lookout for hard-to-find but oh-so-fascinating early American #DisabilityStories.

What’s your #DisabilityStory?

Further Reading

Click here to learn more about the National Museum of American History’s (the Smithsonian) initiative to share #DisabilityStories today. Everyone is encouraged to participate.

A related initiative is the ADA Legacy Project. The web site will give you information about all the ADA 25 celebrations that are going on this year.

And if you haven’t seen it already, check out the Smithsonian’s excellent online exhibition (EveryBody) featuring its smashing collection of disability history-related artifacts.

And be sure to navigate over to the fantastic project in Britain called Disability and Industrial Society. I wrote a  blog post for them a few years ago about what I learned from collecting disability history.

To learn more about Desire Tripp and her arm’s grave stone, check out the essay I wrote about it at Common-Place.