Not at all bad, but this museum can do better.

Cinquantenaire Museum Belgium Oceania exhibit
Oceania exhibit at the Cinquantenaire Museum, Belgium, January 21, 2018 (Hilde Heyveart)

Exhibitions at the Cinquantenaire Museum have a lot of live up to. While it is one of the least known museums in Belgium, and often gives the impression of being grossly underfunded (most general admission halls don’t even have heating in winter, be warned), it generally puts up exhibitions that can easily rival with those in big museums of international renown, such as the British Museum.

This time they teamed up with the Museum for Middle Africa, which means they had access to more pieces than just their own collection.

So was Oceania on that same level? Stick with this review and find out!

Let me start by saying Oceania has a lot of value for those interested in the geographic area’s history and the exploration of that part of the world.

It is a good exhibit, no question there, but…

I’m not going to beat around the bush. The Cinquantenaire can, and has done so several times in a row, better. It’s a good exhibit, but it’s subpar for a museum with the track record of the Cinquantenaire.

The set-up, which is generally something they excel at, is oftentimes chaotic. Right at the entrance it’s unclear whether you’re supposed to start left or right. During the exhibit, several parts have been set up in a way that you are really tracking around to find them. This isn’t a big issue on a quiet(er) day, but if it is crowded, it’s easy to overlook things and miss out.

It may also be an impression, but the exhibit was remarkably smaller than others we’ve visited. Or maybe it just seemed that way because there were definitely less items on display.

The crown pieces of the exhibit, the giant heads (the Easter Island replica and the Chili original) are pieces people who visit the Cinquantenaire will have seen multiple times, so it’s kind of hard to call them the crown piece.

That said, there were definitely some very interesting points to the exhibit.

Their addition of a children’s area, specially catered to kids, was definitely a nice point. The way they presented information was well done. Via wall plaques in French, Dutch and English, visitors were informed of history and custom without being boring. They were both interesting and educational, as it should be.

The globes presenting the routes taken by important explorers from times past, such as Magellan and Cook, were both cool and incredibly interesting. The maps and scale builds of the ships, as well as the art plates, all a very nice touch.

There definitely were some interesting items on display, but they felt scattered and just so very few compared to what we’re used of the Cinquantenaire.

Another interesting part was the documentary playing in one area. The only downside was that there was absolutely no indication of run time and when it would start from the beginning. So it was quite hard to take it all in if you wanted to. Which was an issue, because it was actually really good. Not just to gain more information about Oceania, but also to see more about how documentaries were put together decades ago. So that felt like another missed opportunity.

Same with the photographs of seafaring tools. Why not display the actual tools instead of a small part of a wall full of photos?

While I feel that the final room of the exhibit, displaying modern art pieces by Taihitian artist Jean-Paul Forest was a nice touch, I feel it could have been put to better use for more actually historical pieces. Or they should have presented less of Forest’s work so there was more space for them.

(Also, more museum supervision to make sure visitors behave would probably be a good plan, because we saw a lot of people touching items or using flash photography.)

Like I said, the exhibit was far from bad. Even if you have no connection at all with Oceania or the golden age of exploration by sea, it’s interesting. With a lot of things that are definitely worth looking at. It’s just, and I know I’m repeating myself, that this museum can do better and they have done so in the past.

This shouldn’t stop you from visiting, it’s still worth it. Especially as you can see the entire museum on your exhibit ticket and the Cinquantenaire is absolutely worth spending a day in.

The exhibit runs until April 29 of this year.

More photos of Oceania and the museum here.

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