During a trip visiting old friends in Europe this past spring, I found my new favorite museum in Antwerp, Belgium. We had only a day in the city, so when we stepped out of the bus in front of Antwerpen-Centraal station and were met by a cold, morning wind and some rain, we felt the need to act fast. We rushed into the station for shelter while we figured out a game plan for the day. The only criterion: something indoors so we could stay warm and dry. A quick internet search later, we settled on the Plantin-Moretus Museum.
The Plantin-Moretus Museum is located at the former home and workplace of Christophe Plantin and his son-in-law Jan Moretus, both influential figures in the world of contemporary printing and publishing. The museum has also been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005.
To be honest, I arrived at the museum without too much in terms of expectations. It sounded interesting enough (especially because, hey, old books!), but I figured it’d be much like any other museum experience: take in some history and peruse some cool, old things for an hour or so, then move on with my life. Spoiler alert: I was wrong; my friends and I were talking about this place for days, and I still take any opportunity to recommend it to others.
First up in reasons I fell in love with the Plantin-Moretus Museum: the museum guide. Appropriately for an historic publishing house, this is not a simple museum map or pamphlet, but a full-on book of approximately 100 pages that you can borrow during your visit from a bookshelf at the front. Instead of walls covered in text and labels, the museum has subtly numbered rooms that correspond with sections in the book that contain all the relevant information and historical context. My friends and I took turns reading passages aloud, creating a feel reminiscent of a guided tour, but more intimate and self-paced.
After the first few rooms of the museum, we had to step outside into the inner courtyard in order to access other areas of the property. While this may sound perfectly logical, it took a moment of confusion for me to realize that I was free to just open doors of my own accord here. It hadn’t occurred to me that most such institutions create very obvious and open pathways, and guests don’t often have to touch much of anything to get from one area to another. But at the Plantin-Moretus, the closed doors lining the courtyard were just opportunities for more discovery. Even the simple tactile experience of opening and closing these 16th century doors was transportive and exciting.
Behind one of the doors leading from the courtyard was a working printing press and a lovely printer who demonstrated its use. Aside from the use of a modern rubber roller to apply the ink to the lettering, the press functioned almost entirely the same way it did hundreds of years prior. A few minutes later, the printer handed us a beautiful page printed with a French poem for us to take as a souvenir, officially securing the Plantin-Moretus the top spot in my personal ranking of favorite museums.
The Plantin-Moretus Museum is an incredible place, and I’ve only covered a fraction of what can be found and experienced there. From all the books and printing equipment preserved there, to the history of the Plantin-Moretus family and their company, visitors with a wide range of interests can be satisfied. There’s a reading room where researchers can access authentic documents, a shop for visitors who love taking souvenirs home, and a variety of temporary exhibits and events to get even more out of your visit. For an even more creative approach to the usual museum tour, there is an audio play available on the Antwerp Museum App that guides visitors through a unique tour experience.
So if you ever get the chance to visit Antwerp, be sure to give the Plantin-Moretus Museum a visit! And if you still need more convincing, the museum even has its own teaser trailer (and those are clips from the audio play, if you’re wondering why it’s so theatrical)!
Make sure to check out our Literary Tourism series for a ton more recommendations on bookish travel destinations around the world!