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  • Re-enacting a scrutinised past at the Antwerp world exhibition of 1894
  • Stijn Bussels and Bram Van Oostveldt

We must know the right time to forget as well as the right time to remember; and instinctively see when it is necessary to feel historically, and when unhistorically.

Nietzsche On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, 3

On 5 May 1894, Leopold II inaugurated the second world exhibition in Antwerp. He entered the grounds through a most impressive entrance which exposed the fin-desiècle taste for grandeur and glamour (Plate 1).1 This atmosphere persisted throughout the exhibition, certainly in the huge halls which covered 85 000 m2, where more than 2,000 entrepreneurs and numerous nations presented diverse glories of modernity in the arts and sciences. With such impressive numbers, the Belgian newspapers emphasised that the exhibition did not have to stand in the shadows of its direct precursors in Paris (1889) and Chicago (1893).2 The rationale of this statement was not only founded on the exhibition halls. Most journalists presented Old Antwerp (Oud-Antwerpen), a reconstruction of a sixteenth-century city quarter, as the true pearl of the exhibition.3

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Plate 1.

“The King of the Belgians came over from Brussels, with all the Royal Family, specially to open the Exhibition, Antwerp keeping holiday for the occasion; Flags and crowds filled the streets as the Royal procession drove in State to the principal entrance under the dome” (Text and picture in: The Graphic, 12th May 1894, p. 563).

In Old Antwerp, many historical buildings (such as the Kipdorp Gate, Plate 2) were meticulously rebuilt, the exteriors as well as the interiors. Only few years before, several of these buildings had been demolished in the course of the modernisation of the city.4 The reconstruction was no end in itself. It functioned, rather, as a most exquisite setting to stage divergent re-enactments, from everyday events, such as the activities in a barbershop (Plate 3), through open-air theatre and puppet shows to tournaments, processions, and ceremonial entries. Time and again, the organisers and journalists presented Old Antwerp as a locus of nostalgia, the ideal place to retreat after all overwhelming novelties had been viewed. An anonymous Dutch guide, Views of the Antwerp World Exhibition, writes: “A sixteenth-century city view in the middle of the jumble of a World Exhibition Anno Di. 1894! Already this contrast gives you a sense of well-being”.5 Most recent studies thus define Old Antwerp as the antithesis of modernity and a place of escapism.6 More general research on the world exhibitions underlines a similar antithesis. [End Page 21] For instance, in Ephemeral Vistas, Paul Greenhalgh writes that, in the worldexhibitions in Europe, ‘an intention from 1851 onwards had been to suspend the harshness of reality. Up to 1880, this had been brought into effect through the promises of material progress for all. The visitor was encouraged to dream of an imminent better life. Towards the turn of the new century however, the exhibitions sought to escape reality not so much through the myth of progress as through the creation of a fantasy land’.7

However, Old Antwerp cannot be defined as a pure fantasy land to escape finde-siecle reality, for most journalists also saw the reconstruction of the renaissance quarter and its diverse re-enactments precisely as a triumph of modernity. In this article, we will use the term ‘modernity’ in

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Plate 2.

Exterior of the Kipdorp Gate with a view on the Kapellenstraet, in: Max Rooses, De wijk Oud-Antwerpen in de wereldtentoonstelling van 1894, Antwerpen 1894, pp. 14–15.

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Plate 3.

The barbershop in the Borsestraet, in: Max Rooses, De wijk Oud-Antwerpen in de wereldtentoonstelling van 1894, Antwerpen 1894, p. 44–45.

a narrow sense as a midand late nineteenth-century phenomenon in which the idea of scientific and social progress had an important place. Old Antwerp was deemed as only possible thanks to this modernity. Most particularly, modern historical accuracy was presented as unparalleled. The Ghent newspaper Le Bien...


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