Mons in Belgium has transformed an old chapel into a virtual art collection  

The Arthothèque à Mons. Photo: François Lichtlé

​Under the leadership of Elio Di Rupo, Mayor of Mons in Wallonia (Belgium), architects have created a collection of works of art within a chapel of the former convent of the Ursulines. In this renovated 18th century building, visitors can discover 50,000 works of Mons cultural heritage through real and virtual immersion. The collection of works of art – the Artothèque – also reveals how reserve collections work and raises the awareness of the public regarding conservation techniques. The attractiveness of the place benefits the businesses in the area and encourages people to explore other cultural sites in Mons. "A piece of outstanding R&D work on access to culture is developing here. It goes beyond the digital stage. We want people to come here to invent their own museum. The visitor becomes part of the museum, of what we want to show them," said Elio Di Rupo, Mayor of Mons.

Creating the Artothèque brought together two architects, one for the restoration of the chapel, the other for the scenography. Opened in April 2015 under the framework of "Mons 2015, European Capital of Culture", the chapel is home to all of the collections not exhibited in other museum sites in Mons.  Out of 50 000 works, some are exhibited, while others are kept in the reserves. The majority is virtually accessible through digital devices. This scenography, arousing the interest of visitors for the whole of the Mons heritage, increases the attractiveness of the city.
The chapel of the former convent of the Ursulines is located between the future station of Calatrava, the pedestrianised Grand’Rue and the Grand'Place. Damaged by the addition of concrete floors after the Second World War, it underwent an external restoration (roofing, cornices, masonry, stones, etc.) as well as an interior renovation. A vertical hole was opened along the nave in order to be able to see the volume of the original interior space. The boards have been redeveloped to accommodate the collections.

Some areas are accessible to the public, others are reserved for academic staff. A substantial part is dedicated to the reserves. From the ground floor, the visitor comes face to face with real and virtual works. They are made aware of conservation techniques, as well as the unsung jobs in museums. In the rooms of the side bay, digital immersion devices allow the visitor to discover digital works. They are also able to create their own virtual exhibition or explore museums in Mons who are networked with the Artothèque. This trip helps them understand the four missions of the Artothèque: to preserve the works by monitoring conditions of luminosity, humidity, pollution, etc.; restoring those works that need it; to study the collections from an academic point of view; to communicate and disseminate information related to the Mons heritage through educational activities and publications.

The opening of this collection of works of art had positive consequences for the city. ‘Often cited as a benchmark for the pooling of collections, its reputation widely transgressed borders. Dozens of museum professionals, both Belgian and foreign, came to visit the Artothèque and took away inspiration for the development of their own institutions. An undeniable added value for the image of the city of Mons.’ explains Xavier Roland, manager of the museum hub and Director of BAM (Beaux-Arts Mons – Mons Fine Arts). The attendance curve of the site is rising, especially in terms of school visits. Small businesses located in the district benefit from the people the place attracts. In addition, this development in Mons heritage encourages visitors to go further in their discovery of Mons and its other museums. A total of EUR 10 570 000 was invested in the “Mons Artothèque” project. The European Regional Development Fund contributed EUR 4 230 000 under the Wallonia (Hainaut) Operational Programme .