The Industrie Museum in Gent. Photo: CC BY SA Beppe Simone

Industrie Museum, Ghent, Belgium

The history of the textile industry

The Industrie Museum, formally known as the Museum of Industry, Work and Textiles is hosted in a former cotton mill along the banks of the river Lys in Ghent, Belgium. The Desmet-Guequier cotton spinning mill, built in 1905, operated until 1975 and became a museum in 1990.

The best way to experience it is to start from the top floor, which has an excellent panorama of Ghent, as the museum lies in the northern part of the city. There are movable displays facing the big windows that pinpoint landmarks of the cityscape, including buildings that were destroyed. You get a very good view of the city from above.

The museum narrates the history of the textile industry from 1750 onwards. A key display is the so-called “Mule jenny”, the original machine illicitly exported by Ghent manufacturer Lieven Bauwens in 1798. It was invented in England by Samuel Crompton and its use in Ghent ignited the industrial revolution in Belgium and the rest of Europe. Cotton became the driving force that transformed Ghent into the Manchester of the continent.

The Mule jenny in 3D

Interactive videos placed around the machines and the old interiors present twelve men and women, born between 1660 and 1965, giving their accounts of their work life. The most striking of all was seeing the sheer size of an old machine next to a video loop of a child working on it.

It was like a page from Oliver Twist popping out in 3D.

The museum also has a nice collection of printing machines, bulky physical machines testifying the evolution of the technology of printing. The most interesting one for me was the offset printing machine, which reminded me of my days at an independent publishing cooperative.

Offset printing still plays a role nowadays because it remains cheaper for bigger runs if we compare it to digital printing. This latest technology lowers the threshold for publishing allowing us to print in smaller quantities, but the price per unit for larger quantities is still higher.

The fascinating world of traditional printing that was so intertwined with the industrial revolution and the spread of ideas is disappearing. It is important to cherish this industrial practice that allowed the spread of so many ideas through books, newspapers, posters, advertising, flyers and the many other forms of printing including packaging.

On my way out I noticed a small bronze statue in the garden. Only later I discovered it was a homage to a citizen of Ghent, Pierre De Geyter, who wrote the song Internationale, the anthem of the socialist movement. He was himself a child worker who moved to Lille when his dad lost his job in the factory.

The museum is a testimony to a world that does not longer exist in Europe as textile manufacturing moved to countries with cheap labour and new stories of exploitation.

It is also a reminder of the profound transformation human activities have on cities and offers a different perspective on the picture-perfect corners of Ghent beyond chocolate and beer stores.

Museum of Industry
Minnemeers 10

How to get there

Brussels Zaventem Airport + direct train to Gent Sint Pieters or Gent Dampoort.
From the Netherlands international trains from Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and other cities.

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