Last week many media published the news about a drastic cut in the budgets of major cultural institutions in Belgium. In particular federal institutions such as the Bibliothèque Royale Albert I in Brussels and the Archives de l’État en Belgique, also in Brussels, face next year a loss of 20 percent of their yearly budget. I use here the French name of both institutions, but in particular on the website of the Belgian National archives you can immediately gauge the multilingual character of Belgian society. Belgium can be roughly divided in three parts, Flanders, Wallonie and the central region in and around Brussels, Belgium’s capital. The German-speaking minority in the region along the German border has in principle the same rights as the Flemish and Wallon communities.
An online petition has been launched to give the protest against these plans a loud and clear voice, and I cordially invite you to share your concern about these proposals by signing this petition. You can read the content of this petition in four languages, Dutch, French, English and German. In this post I would like to offer a quick overview of some important digital projects in Belgium which help presenting Belgium’s cultural heritage. Some of these projects offer access to resources which are also important for the research of legal historians and for research projects concerning the rich history of law and justice in Belgium.
Digitization and the safeguarding of cultural heritage
When you look at the digital projects of the Royal Library and the Belgian National Archives it can seem at a first look Belgium’s national library has more to offer online than its counterpart in the world of archives. Just now there is very appropriately an exhibition about the First World War. However, in order to find the projects in the digital domain you will have to browse through various sections of the library’s website. A number of projects can be found under the heading Activités, but the digital library Belgica is tucked away among the catalogues. The variety of its contents, with apart from books and manuscripts also coins and medals, engravings, maps, newspapers and music scores, is such that it clearly merits a place of its own on the library’s website that shows a design which has changed little over the years. A number of manuscripts has been digitized for the project Europeana Regia. On my blog I have written twice about the presence of legal manuscripts in this project. Among the manuscripts is for example an illuminated French version of the Liber novum iudicum written in the second half of the fourteenth century (KBR, ms. 10319). You can search directly for digitized books in a special subcatalogue; a search for books concerning law (droit) brings you already some 160 books, and more can be found. The first look of rich digital repositories is somewhat dimmed by the fact that the actual number of digitized items is fairly restricted.
The KBR does cooperate in many international projects: for example, the digital version of the Gazette de Leyden has been created in cooperation with the Belgian national library. On the national level the KBR supports the Flemish digital library Flandrica. This website with digitized books and manuscripts from six libraries working together in the Vlaamse Erfgoedbibliotheek [Flemish Heritage Library] is strictly in Dutch. For items touching upon law and justice you have to choose the theme Recht en politiek [Law and politics] which brings you to thirty digitized printed books and manuscripts. The number of items with a legal context in Flandrica is quite small but they cover a wide range of subjects and periods, from a canon law manuscript to the procedure at law in the county of Looz, and from medieval times to the early twentieth century. As for editions of books printed in Flanders between 1500 and 1800 you can search for them online with the Short Title Catalogue Vlaanderen. Digitized literature in Flemish can be consulted online in the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren (DBNL), where you will find also literature in Frisian and Afrikaans.
Until recent the Belgian National Archives looked to outsiders as a very much centralized and not very active organization, but the first impression is not completely justified. The year 2010 saw the launch of a virtual exhibition about the dark sides of Belgian colonial history in Congo, Archives I presume? Traces of a colonial past in the State Archives, This year they launched a virtual exhibition concerning the First World War in Wallonie, Archives 14-18 en Wallonie. The website in four languages is being overhauled, and some parts are not yet available in English, in fact the overview of online databases did not exist at all at the time of writing. The search in archival inventories is an example. Here you can search both in scanned inventories and in digitized finding aids. Among the digitized inventories is for example the finding aid created by Jan Buntinx to the archival records of the Raad van Vlaanderen, the high court of Flanders [Inventaris van het archief van de Raad van Vlaanderen (Rijksarchief te Gent) (9 vol., Brussels 1964-1979)]. Recently the National Archives digitized the cabinet minutes created between 1917 and 1979; you can access these documents both in Dutch and French. The Recueil des Circulaires, official letters sent by the Ministry of Justice, have been digitized, too, as are a yearbook, the Annuaire statistique de la Belgique (et du Congo Belge) (1870-1995), and two juridical journals, the Revue Belge de la police administrative et judiciaire and La Belgique judiciaire.
A third institution threatened by the budgetary cuts is the Cegesoma, Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society. Precisely the attention of the research centre for periods in recent Belgian history with some very black pages and political reverberations until the very present has made it already earlier a target of Belgian politicians.
Characteristically Cegesoma is among the first institutions to react in public to the announcement of the new Belgian cabinet. The institute argues that the proposed cuts will harm most drastically the work accomplished during decades and future activities as well. Cegesoma holds archival and audiovisual collections and a research library. You can search online for digitized materials, such as photographs, sound recordings, tracts, posters, archival records, diaries and manuscripts. One of the archives coming from the Ministry of Justice now in the holdings of Cegesoma deals with the Rijkswacht, the Belgian national police, between 1931 and 1947. One of the largest and most visible online projects of Cegesoma is The Belgian War Press which offers online access to numerous newspapers published during the First and Second World War, both by the official censored press and the clandestine press. The website of the Cegesoma has a very well-stocked choice of links to other research institutions and a fine selection of websites concerning the First World War.
Legal history comes particularly into focus at Justice & Populations, a project with Cegesoma among the fourteen participating institutions. This project focuses on the long-term relations and impact of the Belgian judiciary in its widest sense and Belgian society in an international context from 1795 onwards until the present. it is unclear in which way this project will be affected by the new plans, but surely any change in the role of Cegesoma will have side-effects here, too. By the way, another Belgian project, Just-His, is very important for Justice & Populations.At Just-His you will find actually three databases, one on Belgian judicial magistrates between 1795 and 1950, a research repository and Belgian criminal statistics (only accessible after registration).
Among the institutions governed by the national government is also the Commission Royale pour la Publication des Anciennes Lois, founded in 1846. This committee is responsible for many important editions of sources concerning the legal history of Belgium from the Middle Ages onwards, ranging from ordinances, charters and customary law to legal treatises and collections of verdicts. On its website you can find an overview of the publications and projects. The issues of the Bulletin des anicennes lois et ordonnances de Belgique published between 1909 and 1999 are available online (PDF’s). Let’s hope the projects coordinated and often done by members of the committee themselves will not be harmed by any of the proposed measures.
A wider threat
Apart from archives and libraries museums, too, are included in the budgetary threats, but before looking at some museums I will look briefly at a higher level. The Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Kunsten en Wetenschappen (KVAB) [Royal Flemsh Academy of Belgium for Arts and Sciences] published in 2013 reports on the reform of the Belgian judiciary [De gerechtelijke hervorming: een globale visie (“The judicial reform, a global vision”)] and the role and significance of archives in Belgian society [Archieven, de politiek en de burger (“Archives, politics and the citizen”)]. One of the standing commissions of the KVAB has legal history as its core business, with projects such as the bibliography of current research on Belgian legal history and the critical editions of the works of Philips Wielant. The KVAB provides on its website a searchable version of the Nationaal Biografisch Woordenboek [National Biographical Dictionary], a useful tool for legal historians, too.
Among the targets of the cuts proposed by the Belgian government are a number of famous museums, for example the Royal Museum for Fine Arts, the Royal Museums for Art and History, and the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, all in Brussels. Another royal museum, the Royal Museum for Middle-Africa in Tervuren, closed in 2013 for renovation. Its buildings and outlook had not changed substantially since its start in 1910 after a temporary exposition about Belgian colonial activities in 1897 instigated by king Leopold II. The museum had become an icon of Belgian colonialism, and later an outright offensive institution. A part of the ethnographic collections of the KMMA can be consulted online, including the Stanley collection. Hopefully the drastic renovation can be completed, but anyway it seems wise not to reckon absolutely with the projected reopening in 2017.
What will happen exactly with all these institutions is not yet clear. It is necessary to look at both their physical and virtual existence. Federal support could be withdrawn or become less substantial in many ways. Flanders and Wallonie can boast cultural institutions with rich collections. The portal Numériques – BE: Images et histoires des patrimoines numérisés can bring you quickly to a selection of images from some thirty cultural institutions in Wallonie. Belgian Art Links and Tools is a portal guiding you to some 600,000 images concerning art in Belgium, and to several repertories. This portal has been created by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, yet another threatened institution.
The Flemish heritage portal FARO – accessible in Dutch, French and English – is in my opinion a good starting point for finding out more about the different forms of cultural heritage in Flanders and news about them, be they digital, immaterial or very material. If you think digital collections will more easily survive, the actual absence of several links pages at FARO is a healthy reminder of the fragility of virtual existence and preservation. It is quite a feat to maintain a multilingual website, and thus it is a bit too easy to grumble about such problems! Luckily the page with links to several Flemish portal sites can be viewed, with due attention for initiatives in Wallonie, and there is also a general links selection in English. Among recent news items at FARO I saw an announcement about a masterclass on Food in Prison, held at Brussels on October, 16, 2014.
As for me I am genuinely surprised to learn much more about all these projects than i knew before. It serves me as a reminder that we Dutch are not always completely aware of what happens in Belgium, a sorry situation. Here I have tried to honour Belgium by creating in this post also a kind of nutshell guide to digital projects in the field of cultural heritage and legal history. Let’s support Belgian scholars and cultural institutions in their struggle to change the plans scheduled for the coming years, and help them finding the spiritual power and financial means to maintain existing activities and to work on new initiatives. These things will enrich Belgium and us more than any financial contribution can do, however welcome of course any support in hard money is.