Volunteering at the Plantin-Moretus Museum as an American ETA in Belgium

When I stepped into the Plantin-Moretus Museum for the first time, I was struck by the centuries of Antwerp’s history contained within its walls. What is now the museum began as the press and private residence of one of Antwerp’s foremost printmaking dynasties. Established in the sixteenth century, the press rode Antwerp’s rise to fame as one of the most important ports in Renaissance Europe. Today, the family’s legacy is made tangible to visitors not only through the stately portraits and leather wallpaper of their historic residence but also through their library.

(Image 1: library at Plantin-Moretus Museum)

Three hundred years of the printers’ published books are shelved neatly within the museum’s archives. During my time as a Fulbright ETA in Belgium, I was lucky enough to volunteer at the museum and help to digitize these precious collections. Every Monday afternoon during my grant period (COVID restrictions permitting), I climbed the wooden stairs into the museum attic, where the archival staff works and sat down to a book from the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Thanks to the guidance of the museum staff, I was able to learn a great deal about early modern printing through these pages – how the press commissioned scores of fonts, some of which form the basis for our modern ones today; how printers would sometimes economize by using the same woodblock carving for multiple books; how pagination errors meant that some copies were never sold. Because the press remained in family hands until it was converted into a museum in 1867, its archival collections are immaculately preserved, and they have the opportunity to tell researchers a great deal about early print culture and the life of generations of a successful merchant family in early modern Antwerp.

Much of my time at the museum was spent cataloging the pages on which particular woodcut images appeared in early printed books. In practice, my role was every child’s dream – flipping through books and looking only at the pictures. It was also a dream for me, as every Monday meant that I got to carefully leaf through the delicate yellowish pages of a book printed hundreds of years ago. And the images were a delight: cheeky cherubs juggling or walking dogs were common fixtures that never failed to make me smile.

(Image 2: woodcut image from the museum’s archival collection)

These books brought to life for me a period that can often be hard to visualize. Though we often rely on paintings to depict Renaissance life, woodblock and copperplate images, too, can tell us a great deal about how cities and their inhabitants looked during particular periods. One copperplate in the museum’s collection shows the Antwerp cathedral as it looked in the seventeenth century, while the Bononiensis woodcut provides a bird’s-eye view of the entire city circa 1565. Even dogs and horses find their place in the print, which depicts Antwerp’s ‘golden age’ in incredible detail.

(Images 3 and 4: The 1565 Bononiensis map of Antwerp in full; a detail from the map [source: museumplantinmoretus.be])

The museum’s digitization project is ongoing; this is unsurprising given that the collection comprises more than ten thousand prints. I am incredibly grateful to have been granted a peek into the process and look forward to the day when, with the click of a link, the rest of the world can explore Antwerp’s incredible history through images.

Lauren Ottaviani is a 2020-2021 U.S. Fulbright ETA to the University of Antwerp. Lauren is a second-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Belgium. Having completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English literature, she now works in the literature department at the University of Antwerp. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Lauren looks forward to resuming her volunteer work at the Plantin-Moretus Museum and improving her Dutch through courses at the university.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.