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REFLECTIONS ON LEUVEN VISIT

By Eddie O'Kane

Joe CanningDuring our three-week visit to Leuven we were immersed in the history and culture of the city of Leuven. Visits to Antwerp and Brussels extended the range of our understanding. The warmth of the welcome we were given by our counterparts (both volunteers and staff) was overwhelming. Their obvious pride in their city and country was inspiring and they delighted in sharing it with us.

Through talks, discussions and practical work in the archives we began to understand the nature and scope of the important task carried out by the volunteers in the city archives. We saw what a tightly knit group they were. They came from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences but were united by the care and attention they gave to every task they undertook. Over the three weeks we had classes in which we were taught how to scan, transcribe and prepare documents. Classes in paleography helped us to decipher documents in Flemish Latin and French from the 12th century up to recent decades.

The range and diverse nature of archival activity in the region was illustrated through visits to various selected archives. These archives included -
The Leuven University Archives and Library
The Rijksarchief (state record Office in Leuven)
Antwerp City Record Office
Archives at Leuven Park Abbey
KADOC Catholic Archives Leuven

On each of these visits we were given detailed, comprehensive talks by senior staff and custodians, which helped us to understand the nature of the records stored there and the methods of storage, preservation and retrieval of the materials residing in those archives. We also met staff and volunteers who discussed their various roles and perceptions of their contribution to the overall process.

The archives were housed in a range of buildings which were of architectural merit. Whether they were ancient or modern they also had historic interest.

We were mainly based in the converted technical school which was the work of the renowned 20th century Flemish architect Henry van de Velde. The school was the last building constructed in Belgium by van de Velde. It was completed in 1942. The reconstructed building houses the municipal archives and the library. The reconstruction was completed in 2000. The complex nature of van de Velde's structural solution to the existence of two separate entrances on two different street levels - three story differences, on Rijschoolstraat and Diestsestraat fully utilizes the creative possibilities of the site. The building incorporates an enclosed square which functions as a meeting place, play area and outside dining area and a vantage point to view the architectural elegance of the building. The use of materials and fenestration help the building to sit comfortably within the surrounding mix of early and contemporary architecture.

As stated in Tweebronnen. De reconversie van de Technische Schoolvan Henry van de Velde tot Openbare Bibliotheek en Archief van Leuven Jacobs, Steven e.a. 2000 -
"The library has no past, the archive has no present, but together they form the future. This internal contradiction is outstandingly expressed in the name of the building: Tweebronnen or "Twin Sources". It of course refers to the library and the archives, but equally to the two sorts of sources of information on which the users will be able to draw: printed and digital media."

The other buildings - for example the re-utilized complex of warehouse buildings in Antwerp and the elegant building with its enclosed courtyard used for the State Record Office in Leuven with its more than 50 kilometers of archives and its new additional modern wing with its underground levels of archive storage - provided thought provoking locations. Each archival collection was housed in a beautiful building which was interesting in its own right

We were shown round the Irish College in Leuven by Caroline who explained to us its new role as the Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe. The Centre was a hive of activity with many academic and commercial groups using the facilities for study visits, seminars and conferences.

Substantial funding had been allocated to the Centre since my last visit about ten years ago. The church has been fitted out with tiered seating which enables it to be used for theatre performances and lectures. The seating is retractable which allows full use of the floor area. The Director informed us that the acoustics are perfect for the performance of music. Recently a group of classical musicians were so impressed that they are going to use the church to make a recording of their work.

State of the art interactive wall panels are spread throughout the Centre. These panels illustrate the history of the centre and cover topics such as the Wild Geese, the Flight of the Earls and the role of the Franciscans. I found the clear detailed explanations useful in helping me to understand elements of my chosen study for this visit - "The Irish Military Tradition". At the heart of the centre there is a book which uses interactive multimedia to illustrate aspects of Irish manuscripts such as the Annals of the Four Masters. Users can turn the pages of the physical book and through a system of projection the words fly on to the page and assemble themselves before the eyes.

At the Centre we were looked after by a group of young Irish people who explained to us the importance of the time they were spending in Leuven. They found the experience invaluable. Some of them attended colleges and universities in Ireland and were studying subjects such as Hospitality, Business, Languages and History. Their stay in Leuven formed an element of their full time courses and they would return in due course to resume their studies in Ireland. Others had applied independently to the Centre and would spend longer periods working there. Their good humored, professional attitude to their work made our stay at the centre comfortable and memorable.

Discussion took place on the merits of the optical character recognition system used by the Municipal Archives. Some volunteers felt the amount of time they needed to correct the OCR system meant that the system was ineffective. Others pointed out that the rapid advances in OCR in recent years meant that it could prove more useful at a later date.

Miles of documents in a range of archives left us in awe - city archives, state archives, university archives, Catholic archives in Leuven and archives in Antwerp and the Park Abbey.

One of my own objectives was to gather information for the production of artwork - drawing and painting for a possible future exhibition by me based on the experience of this particular journey. The wealth of art and architectural treasures - museums, abbeys, cathedrals and churches was overwhelming. Early examples of Romanesque, Gothic and contemporary architecture suggested motifs for inclusion in painting. We spent a day at the Leuven M Museum and saw how the classical fašade of an earlier building provides the entrance to a cutting edge contemporary museum/ gallery. This contemporary building cleverly provided a seamless introduction to an earlier building which housed further elements of the museum collection in a series of domestic settings. The work of the twentieth century Belgian artist - Rene Magritte at the Magritte Museum in Brussels provided further inspiration. I also visited an exhibition by a Leuven based artist whose work is based on surreal depictions of figures and fantastical animals. These paintings are set in the beautiful Leuven townscape and I was able to recognize many of the buildings from the paintings. The painter was Paul MariŰn. We talked about his long career and about his time as a teacher.

The archives contained Latin, Flemish and French documents. In our transcription exercises Inge helped us to understand the structure and content through close study of selected documents. Flemish Language training was provided for us by our Leuven volunteer counterparts.

We visited Brussels for the Bronte tour. Several of our Irish group had read Charlotte Bronte's Villette in preparation for the visit. The novel was set in Brussels and was based on the Charlotte's experience of the city. She and her sister had both lived in Brussels. A university professor, a Bronte expert, was our guide. She showed us the location of the school, now gone, which formed the backdrop for the story. Many of the buildings are no longer in existence. However we did see the church where the English community attended services in Charlotte's time. It appeared much bigger and grander than the picture I had formed in my reading of the book. We also saw the park and the bandstand which remain as they were when Charlotte's heroine wandered amidst the nocturnal celebrations in a drug induced state. She had taken laudanum for treatment of an illness. We walked down the stone steps opposite the park which featured in the novel. Our guide told us that many of the narrow streets have been swept away in subsequent redevelopment. Sections of some of these streets still remain below street level and have been subsumed into later buildings. They can still be visited.

At the Museum of musical instruments in Brussels we were treated to a harpsichord recital.

The Leuven volunteers responded to our talks with questions and comments. Discussions continued well after the talks finished and led us to understand that while there was much we had in common within our respective country's histories the detail required much more elaboration.

The resilience of the Leuven people was evident in the rebuilding of their city after the destruction in the World Wars. Our Leuven volunteer guides showed us the house and shops with the dates on the fašade showing the date they were rebuilt. St Peters church, the library and many other important buildings were also burned. The range and scale of the devastation was starkly illustrated through the extensive collection of early post cards belonging to Jules, one of the Leuven volunteers.

The packed programme provided for us was much too extensive to detail here. I have given some my impressions of aspects of the visit which were particularly significant for me. It seems to me that the concept of volunteering in Leuven is very different from our understanding in Ireland. Through our practical involvement during the three week visit we began to have some understanding of the Leuven volunteer philosophy. It was a very worthwhile lesson.

Apart from the obvious benefits from the programme as described, one of the outstanding features of the visit was the camaraderie and sense of fellowship and friendliness, which developed between our Federation group and the Leuven volunteers and city archive staff. The time our own Federation group spent together also led to greater mutual understanding and support and a sense of common purpose among our own group. These outcomes are such as the programme would hope for but they cannot be guaranteed or taken for granted.

May 2012