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Masterpieces: rare and indispensable heritage objects

Major works by Rubens, lavishly illustrated manuscripts, 16th century wooden sculptures and long-lost sheet music: Flemish masterpieces are extraordinary heritage objects with special value for Flanders. From coastal cities to Limburg heathlands, and from abbey to archive repository, the diverse range of masterpieces is scattered throughout Flanders and not always easy to visit and admire. To ensure that everyone can discover them, and to (digitally) preserve them for the future, meemoo, the Flemish Institute for Archives, therefore launched a catch-up initiative.

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Duration July 2021 - December 2023

Source reference: Antoon van den Wijngaerde, 1550, Panorama van Zeeland, Museum Plantin-Moretus, Photo: Rik Klein Gotink, Public domain

What is a masterpiece?

A painting may be painted in the finest details, a manuscript adorned with the most beautiful curls in gold leaf, but what actually makes it a masterpiece? Based on the criterion of ‘rare and indispensable for Flanders’, the Flemish Masterpieces Board, appointed by the Flemish Government, advises the Flemish minister of Culture whether a work – or even an entire collection – is a masterpiece.

‘Rare’ means that there are few other similar objects or collections in the same condition in Flanders. The meaning of ‘indispensable’ is a bit more nuanced. For anyone who wants to go into detail, it is defined as:

Masterpieces can be paintings, choir books, aircraft, carpets or even industrial machines. The most diverse types of objects from the most diverse locations end up on the list. In July 2021, half of these objects did not yet have a high-quality digital copy, which is why meemoo decided to use some of the resources from the GIVE project to catch up. Meemoo selected 245 masterpieces in consultation with the Flemish Masterpieces Board. Want to know more about the selection?

Why were masterpieces created?

Assigning a special value to specific heritage objects is not done without reason. The ‘masterpiece’ label gives the works unique protection: custodians are not allowed to sell or move their masterpiece abroad without permission, and they can have it restored – or digitised – at a reduced cost!

Why digitise masterpieces?

Heritage objects are vulnerable. There is a risk that certain key works may one day disappear forever. It therefore makes sense to digitise these masterpieces and make them accessible to future generations – to ensure they withstand the test of time.

In addition to being vulnerable, many of the Flemish masterpieces are not easily accessible today – or cannot be accessed at all. Making a digital copy of the works means they can be viewed better. Because no matter where you are or where a masterpiece is located, digitisation means that anyone – however active or mobile – can admire Flemish heritage from wherever they are. More inclusion and inspiration? Check!

Capturing the smallest details with various digitisation techniques

You can already notice that the masterpieces in this project couldn’t be more diverse. To optimise digitisation of each type of object, meemoo chose various techniques:

  • Digitisation of handwritten documents and old prints on a mobile book cradle;

  • Scanning of 3D objects;

  • High-quality 2D photographic registration;

  • Gigapixel photography to capture the smallest details.

From prints to sheet music

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Innovative access

If you have browsed through a handwritten document or admired a meticulously carved marble sculpture on this website, then you may have already noticed some technical features.

IIIF - sustainable zooming

You can inspect handwritten documents and old prints in detail using an IIIF viewer. Triple-I what? This International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) is a set of open standards used worldwide to manage and exchange digital images and metadata – all in a much more sustainable way. Furthermore, with IIIF, you don’t lose any context when zooming in on a detail, and you can compare different sources across collections and administrators, and even view annotations.

3D - viewing and printing

What about the 3D-scanned objects in the GIVE project? You can admire them from front to back, and down to the smallest groove, with a 3D viewer. With augmented reality, you can even position your favourite image in your living room or on your bedside table. Navigate to the 3D model at the bottom of the page, click on 'AR' and follow the instructions.

You can also use 3D printing to transform the scans into tangible objects, which you can create using various materials. Here are a few practical examples:

  • Blind and visually impaired individuals can get a sense of museum pieces through lifelike 3D prints;

  • Vulnerable images can have a perfectly fitting case, as the 3D scans allow you to create moulds with precise dimensions for each object;

  • 3D scans enable you to create an accurate replica in case an artwork becomes lost.

From the collection of...

Upon completion of this project, you will be able to admire online the masterpieces from 50 museums, 25 churches and abbeys, and 5 archives.

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This project was made possible with support from the European Regional Development Fund and is part of the Flemish Government’s Resilience Recovery Plan.

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