Two museums: Mercator and Lascaux

We managed a couple of excursions last weekend and this, to a couple of new arrivals on the Belgian museum scene.

Last weekend we went to the new Mercator museum at Sint-Niklaas near Antwerp, arriving on the day after it had reopened after a complete reconstruction. Gerardus Mercator was actually German, by most modern measures, and why exactly Sint-Niklaas (a town near Antwerp, and nearish to his birthplace, which otherwise boasts the largest market square in Belgium, and perhaps in Europe) had claimed him was not made clear. But the museum itself is a very decent presentation of the history of cartography from ancient times to the present day, concentrating on Mercator who gave us both the famous projection and the word "atlas"; you can play with electronic copies of his sixteenth century maps and admire the sincere craftsmanship that he brought to it. There are lots of gorgeous artefacts, real and replica, and nicely produced video interviews with actors playing Mercator himself and various other contemporaries such as John Dee (msteriously all speaking fluent modern Dutch with mild Flemish accents). Underplayed but present is the importance of cartography in the European colonial effort, just getting going in Mercator's lifetime (1512-1594). The biggest drawback to the museum – and it is fairly significant – is that absolutely everything is in Dutch. However, they had opened literally the previous day, and perhaps they plan to cater for non-nederlandstalig visitors in due course.

Yesterday F and I went to the Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels, where they have on show the travelling replica of the Lascaux caves, complete with paintings. It's quite a small exhibit, and on the second Saturday after it opened it was pretty crowded, but if one can tune out the other people in the room it is really quite incredible – the artists descended into the caves, in the dark, 17,000 years ago to create amazing art – for what audience? Not for us their descendants of hundreds of generations later. And they were better artists than, frankly, I am; so how did they get that way? I did pathetic watercolour daubs at school, and pencil scribbles on pieces of paper, before giving up on my ability to draw; what on earth were the Upper Palæolithic equivalents? The bison and horses and aurochs and stags are not drafts or journeyman pieces, but finished compositions. There was a whole tradition of visual culture there, of which a few hundred cave paintings are the only surviving evidence. It's as if one tried to work out what was going on the sixties and seventies using only Doctor Who. I left with a lot more questions than I had had going in, and the pious intention of going back some weekday before it closes in March, if I can afford to take an extended lunch break from work. (I confess I didn't actually check whether the audioguide is available in English as wel as French and Dutch, but I'd be quite surprised if it isn't.)

Anyway, both strongly recommended, though perhaps non-speakers of Dutch should wait for the Mercator museum to broaden its outreach a bit.