In Flanders Fields Museum
The museum is housed in the main landmark of Ypres, the Gothic Cloth Hall. This was originally constructed in the 13th century and was for centuries a symbol of the town’s wealth that was mainly based on the textiles trade, some of which took place in this very hall, hence the name (in Flemish/Dutch it’s “Lakenhalle”). During WW1 the building was largely destroyed by artillery shelling and subsequent fires – and thus became a symbol not of wealth but of the futility of war. Reconstruction was begun in 1933 and wasn’t completed until as late as 1967.
It then took another 31 years for the first WW1 museum to be established in the old Cloth Hall in 1998. Originally called Ypres Salient Memorial Museum it was later renamed after the title of one of the most famous war poems by John McCrae. The museum also underwent a substantial overhaul and reopened in its present form in 2012, so already two years before the centenary of the outbreak of WW1
, that is ahead of many other museums that marked that year with new exhibitions in 2014 (including the IWM
and the HGM
What there is to see:
On paying for your admission ticket you are given a “poppy bracelet
” – that’s used to activate certain extras electronically through the chip that’s inside the plastic red poppy symbol. At the entrance to the main permanent exhibition you use that chip to log in, give your name (optional) and choose your language. With that done you can later follow four extra personal stories of people who lived through the war and if you wish you can check at the end how many people with your surname died in WW1
. All this you can afterwards also forward to your email and/or smartphone for free (or have it printed in the museum shop for 1 EUR). Seems like an ingenious little bonus, except my bracelet didn’t work properly: it insisted on staying in Dutch after logging in, and since I had entered the exhibition, and it was not possible to exit through the entrance and go back to the counter, I simply skipped those extra bits (I can read a bit of Dutch, but in the spoken form it’s pretty much Greek to me). Hence I cannot comment on whether those extras would really have been worth it.
Nor can I comment on the optional audio guide, because I chose not to use one (I normally find them a bit cumbersome and they get in the way of photography). But I didn’t get the impression that I lost out on much. The exhibition is rich enough in itself, and sufficiently self-explanatory. It’s in four languages, in addition to Flemish/Dutch translations into English, German and French are provided, both for static texts and labels and also in subtitles for video material and projections.
The design of the exhibition is quite extreme, very visual and often quite sculptural (there’s even a “resident artist’s corner”). Plus it’s also quite hi-tech, with audiovisual elements not just on screens but also projections into exhibits, as well as interactive stations.
Thematically, the exhibition kicks off with the decade before WW1, the so-called “Belle Époque”, characterized by growing wealth and a fairly well-to-do middle class, increasing industrialization and a general sense of optimism in Europe – although that was partly built on the exploitation of faraway colonies. Competition over colonialism then also played a part in the growing tensions between the big European powers.
This intro section about the growing tensions and increasing arms race also points out that the coming industrialization of warfare and trench-warfare stalemate was not as unforeseen as it is sometimes believed to be. In fact there was a peace movement that warned precisely of the consequences that the industrialization of warfare would bring. On display are many photos, newspapers from the time as well as all manner of propaganda items.
The next section is about the outbreak of war
and the invasion of Belgium
. Emphasized is the brutality
meted out against the civilian population, many of whom were executed (based on an irrational fear they could all be snipers), and houses were looted and burned down. In one village, where the dead and wounded were simply left behind, locals photographed the dead before burying them in mass graves, which later helped in identifying them. Some of those photos are shown in the museum and make for gruesome viewing.
The Battle of the Yser
is covered (see under Yser Tower & Museum
), and the German advance on to Ypres
, where German soldiers briefly marched in in October 1914 but soon retreated to positions on the Ypres Salient
. This was the beginning of the trench war, when both sides dug in and a strip of trenches/fortifications with a no man’s land in between characterized the front line along a length of 500 km.
One particular aspect of the new type of war was the use of poison gas for the first time, and this is illustrated by a number of busts/heads wearing gas masks of different types, all flooded in dramatic coloured light, which makes for a pretty horror-film like look. The accompanying text points out that the use of chemical weapons was pure terror, spreading fear and leaving many a soldier scarred for life both physically and psychologically, but without much effect on the course of the war.
Another new weapon introduced in this war for the first time was of course the tank
, which is also briefly covered in the exhibition; but what I missed was coverage of the similarly new importance of war in the air, which also started in WW1
, albeit on a smaller scale compared to its crucial importance in WWII
, but the beginnings were in the Great War.
The deadliest weapon in trench warfare, however, was modern artillery, accounting for about two thirds of the deaths. Thanks to increased range, whole batteries could be deployed at a safe distance from the front line and continually batter the no man’s land, enemy trenches and land beyond, including towns like Ypres. Examples of huge modern shells are on display as well as shrapnel from such shells.
A less grim topic in the exhibition is the legendary “Christmas Truce” of 1914, when soldiers from opposing sides sang Christmas carols together and even played a bit of football in no man’s land. After 1914, however, the commanders on both sides no longer let such “fraternization” happen.
The medical side of war is also covered, not only in the form of all manner of artefacts from field hospitals and dressing stations, but also the aspect of permanent injury and disfigurement, as seen in some horrific photos.
is illustrated not just by photos and objects but also through scale models – of the front line with open trenches as well as see-in models of underground dugouts. The underground side of war is an aspect here too, especially the tunnelling
companies placing huge explosives underneath enemy lines (cf. Hill 60
and Hooge Crater
What is also pointed out is how multicultural
was, with not only Commonwealth countries such as India
and South Africa
sending soldiers, but also Caribbean, Asian and even Polynesian countries.
The final sections of the museum cover the state of destruction that the lands along the front were in at the end of the war, the reconstruction efforts and remembrance. The reconstruction part even has the very largest of all exhibits in the exhibition: a whole front of a wooden house of the sort that were quickly built as makeshift accommodation for returning refugees who found their original homes in ruins.
In the remembrance section, the hope that was expressed in both the line “the war to end all wars” and the hope “no more wars” is sharply contrasted by a row of banners hanging from the ceiling on which are listed the names of the countless wars that have taken place since the end of the “Great War”. So much for “never again” then …
In the end you pop your poppy bracelet in a large perspex box to return it and then head downstairs to the exit, via the museum cafe and/or shop.
The museum shop is well stocked with all manner of books, brochures, postcards and items of clothing on which poppy prints are a recurring theme. They even had poppy umbrellas on sale when I was there.
All in all
, I found this to be one of the most engaging war-themed museums. It also covers aspects not often encountered in such places but doesn’t go to such lengths as to make it too demanding or overwhelming. The balance is just right. The mix of media and technologies works well here, and artefacts are well chosen rather than amassed (as is the case in some of the more old-school WW1 museums in the region). I’d say this museum is the ideal introduction to exploring the Ypres Salient
; and it is without any doubt the most must-see one of its kind in that area.
in the middle of the Old Town of Ypres
off the western half of Grote Markt.
Access and costs: very easy to get to, reasonably priced for what you get.
Housed as it is in the main landmark building right in the heart of Ypres
it is impossible to miss.
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. between 1 April and 15 November, only Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year.
Admission: 10 EUR (some concessions apply).
Audio guides cost an extra 2 EUR.
Time required: depends on how much of all the audiovisual material you are willing to take in, and of course on your general interest in the subject matter. I spent about 90 minutes in the exhibition, but I’m sure real war-history buffs will need much longer than that.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Ypres
- Flanders Fields Museum 01 - in the grand Cloth Hall
- Flanders Fields Museum 02 - entrance
- Flanders Fields Museum 03 - log in if you can
- Flanders Fields Museum 04 - museum exhibition
- Flanders Fields Museum 05 - media heavy
- Flanders Fields Museum 06 - and with strange shapes
- Flanders Fields Museum 07 - hi-tech projections
- Flanders Fields Museum 08 - life-size exhibits
- Flanders Fields Museum 09 - amassed ammo
- Flanders Fields Museum 10 - medical items
- Flanders Fields Museum 11 - prosthetic arm
- Flanders Fields Museum 12 - spooky gas mask
- Flanders Fields Museum 13 - model battlefield and trench
- Flanders Fields Museum 14 - soldier equipment
- Flanders Fields Museum 15 - end of exhibition
- Flanders Fields Museum 16 - so much for never again
- Flanders Fields Museum 17 - poppy wristband deposit box
- Flanders Fields Museum 18 - museum cafe
- Flanders Fields Museum 19 - museum shop