{Belgium} Tintin & Co.

May 25, 2016


100 Museums Challenge: Museum No.67

Herge Museum 02

You’d think that after walking 20km in one day and visiting over a dozen museums, I’d want to take a little break, but in fact I decided to add on a couple of extra days to my Brussels trip to visit a few more museums. But this time at a much slower speed. Top of my list was the Hergé Museum – dedicated to Belgian cartoonist Hergé (1907 – 1983), creator of the series of comic albums The Adventures of Tintin, amongst other things. The museum is actually located in the neighbouring town of Louvain-la-Neuve, about 30km to the South of Brussels. You can book an organised trip there from Brussels via shuttle bus with Brussels City Tours, which is the easiest option, but it’s only on certain days of the week. Although it was actually running the day I was going, the time didn’t really suit me and I didn’t want to be limited to how long I could stay at the museum, so I decided to make my own way there. It took just over an hour, switching from the Brussels metro to a bus about half way through, and was really easy. I ended up spending about twice as long at the museum as the City Tours trip would have allowed me!

Herge Museum 01

The museum itself was really easy to find too, once I got to Louvain-la-Neuve. It kind of sticks out a little, as it’s a relatively new and purpose built building, which only opened in 2009. The address is ‘Rue Labrador 26’, which is also the address of Tintin’s first home in the books. I got there really early, about 15 minutes before the museum opened, and was second through the door after an elderly couple in front of me. We were followed by a large group of school children. I hung around a little, letting them get a head start on the exhibition, and then followed in relative peace and quiet. Apart from the one group, there were only a handful or two of other visitors there with me all morning. I guess it’s quite a niche subject area and a bit off the beaten track. With so much else to see in Brussels, you’d probably only make the journey if you were a fan of Hergé. Which I am.

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According to the museum website, photography – including by mobile telephone (!) is strictly forbidden  – but this now only applies to the exhibition rooms. The rules have been loosened a little, to allow photography in the entrance and foyer. So while I can’t show you a glimpse of any of the exhibits, I *can* show you some of the amazing interior architecture of the building (including the cool Thomson & Thompson door mats), which was designed by Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte.

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So what of the exhibition rooms themselves? Was it worth the trip out to Louvain-la-Neuve? If you are at all interested in Hergé and his work, I would say definitely! You begin your visit on the top floor, and there were eight rooms to visit in total, starting with a look at his life’s journey, including some fun anecdotes from his childhood and early sketches. It was interesting to see, how the drawing style in some of the characters had developed over the years.

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Herge Museum 15

Next, there was a look at Hergés many different interests. He was a man of many talents, which were eclipsed by the runaway success of his Tintin books. I would hazard a guess, that many people – like myself – are attracted to the museum because they are first and foremost fans of Tintin. The audio guide actually starts with a funny little back and forth, about how apparently everyone who comes to the museum just wants to hear about Tintin, lol. But there is a lot more to Hergé, as I found out. Hergé  Life beyond Tintin included other characters such as Popol & Virginia, Tom & Millie, Quick & Flupke, and Jo, Zette & Jocko. None of which I had ever heard of. In his early years, he also produced many commercial illustrations.

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After this, you cross a long walkway across the foyer, with another chance to view the amazing architecture, this time from above. The exhibition continues with an overview of all the key cast members of the Tintin books: their first appearance, their character traits, their physical features and so on. This is followed by an exhibit about cinema, and how it influenced Hergés work, before you move down one floor to Professor Calculus’ laboratory, which takes a look at the science in the Tintin books. For example, he apparently did a lot of research for the books about Tintin’s trip to the moon which came out in the early 1950s, several years before the first moon landing. Next to this, is a large exhibit all about the different countries featured in the Tintin books: Egypt, Peru, the Congo, Tibet, China, to name just a few. Here I learned, that the Tintin books can be divided in to two periods: from The Blue Lotus onwards, the books rely on rigorous research instead of just stereotypes. Crossing another small walkway, you get to the last two rooms, which take a look at the creation of the Studios Hergé – showing the recreated workspaces of some of his collaborators on the Tintin books in later years – and, finally, the end of Hergés life. He died in 1983 leaving his final book, ‘Tintin & Alph-art’, unfinished.

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Here are 10 other things I learned at the Hergé Museum:

  1. Hergé was just a pen name. His real name was Georges Remi. His initials reversed to R G sound like Hergé in French!
  2. Hergé was apparently a troublesome child. His parents found that drawing kept him quiet.
  3. At the start of his working life Hergé seriously considered a career in advertising.
  4. His first picture stories were about boy scout Tortor, patrol leader of the May Bugs, in 1926. A keen Boy Scout himself, Hergé soon discovered his love of travel & adventure – as later reflected in his Tintin books.
  5. Hergé’s characters all made their debut in the press, because his first jobs were all for newspapers.
  6. Tintin made his debut as a reporter for Le Petit Vingtieme – the same name as the kids’ supplement Hergé was in charge of!
  7. Many Tintin books are based on real life events. Others were purely fictional to avoid censorship during the war.
  8. People were surprised Hergé gave Tinin a dog as a sidekick, because he much preferred cats himself. However, Snowy was chosen because fox terriers were fashionable at the time.
  9. Thomson & Thompson are based on Hergé’s father & twin brother – who loved to dress in suits & bowler hats! In French they’re called Dupont & Dupond and their moustaches give a clue as to who is who! (one looks like a T and one like a D when turned sideways)
  10. Hergé was a film buff and his comic strips were heavily influenced by cinematic style. In the Tintin adventure ‘The Black Island’ you can see influences of the films King Kong & Hitchcock’s 39 Steps.

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In total, I spent over three and a half hours at the museum. I listened to the entire audio guide, including all extra tracks, and I say that as someone who is not a huge fan of audio guides! It included film clips, e.g. of interviews with Hergé, and little quizzes in between. In conclusion, it was well worth the trip out to Louvain-la-Neuve. Full price tickets are 9.50 Euros at the time of writing, but I feel I got my money’s worth and there are concessions available for families etc, with free entry for children under age 7. The only thing I would say, is to skip the rather fancy and overpriced museum restaurant – on my way to the bus I passed many little cafés in Louvain-la-Neuve which cost about half as much and looked just as nice.

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One other thing that really bugged me, was a comment on Wikipedia saying “very little of the museum appeals to children”. I think that is nonsense. It’s true, this is not a children’s museum. There are no things to touch or play with (except for a very fun photo booth, where I gave it my best and sent #MuseumBoy some postcards of ‘mummy with Tintin’ home). But there is a lot to see, and if your kids are fans of Tintin, then all it takes is a little bit of engagement from the parents. It reminded me a lot of an exhibition about the art of Pixar, which ran at the National Museum of Scotland a while ago when I still worked there. In our evaluation of the exhibition, we got all kinds of feedback from parents, ranging from ‘this exhibition is totally unsuitable for children, there was nothing for my son (age 5) to play with’ to ‘great exhibition, my daughter (age 3) and I had great fun spotting all the characters from the movies she loves’. Our conclusion was, that it had nothing to do with the age of the children and everything to do with how much parents were willing to engage with them. So, you know your kids best, and it’s up to you to gage whether you think it would be a suitable museum to take your kids. For my own situation I can tell you, that #MuseumBoy is going on 6 and a huge fan of Tintin. He has visited museums since he was born, and has no problem engaging with more traditional displays, given a little help from us. I would not hesitate to take him to the Hergé Museum.

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The Hergé Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays, closed on Mondays at at Christmas and New Year. You can find information on up to date opening times and admission prices on the museum website.

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