The Corner Shop

Participatory project

Museum: MAS | Museum aan de Stroom
Years: 2013-2016

MAS | Museum aan de Stroom

MAS is a museum where one can discover objects and stories, a place where one looks at the world, at Antwerp and at oneself. MAS works at the crossroads of a diverse collection of about 500.000 objects and the vibrant city of Antwerp with its superdiverse citizens and visitors. MAS opts for a thematical approach which connects people to heritage, the present to the future and the past, the local to the international.

MAS believes in the natural links between material and intangible heritage, leading to two approaches to ICH:

  • Firstly, the MAS-collections result from a merger of collections of four former museums. Since the objects in past times were not always collected with a perspective on ICH, MAS chooses to add this layer – where necessary – to the existing collections. This implies that contextual information is augmented with impact on the processes of collecting, registration and documentation. It also opens options for research and appraisal together with local and international (source) communities. This subsequentially has effect on the way the MAS displays objects and stories, as well as on the involvement and support by communities.
  • Next, the MAS values participatory strategies throughout its museum practices. The involvement of communities, experts and other partners influence what is collected, how it is researched, what is elementary to put on display and on possible other events and activities. Participants often don’t distinguish the material from the intangible; for them both are intertwined. So it is the museum that defines – together with these communities – what the practices are and how they relate to each other, to objects, to people and groups, to place, etc. Only from this array, choices can be made on what to preserve and/or safeguard. MAS takes on a role as co-ordinator, while offering options for identification, research and documentation, collecting (both material objects as digital born objects such as audio-visual creations), presentation, communication and space for related activities. However, MAS chooses not to actively play part in the transmission of ICH-elements, as this is considered the core activity of the ICH-practitioners and the communities involved. Meanwhile, throughout the participatory steps, MAS increases the reflection and display of ICH, also adding partners to ICH-community’s network and thus passively creates opportunities for transmission. Because of its experiences with the museum processes and the co-operation with a myriad of partners, MAS also gives advice to local communities with specific questions on ICH and its safeguarding.


The Corner Shop

Description of the project / practice / program

The Corner Shop was a participatory project with both autonomous goals as an aim to contribute to the revision of a permanent exhibition on the relationship between food and the city (Antwerpen à la Carte).

Subject were the local food shops, such as bakeries, butchers and groceries, from the 1950s till today. They make part of the daily life of every one: as costumer or as passer-by. Food shops can be placed in the food chain between production, distribution and consumption. MAS had a keen interest in how the practice of keeping a food shop evolved throughout time: how do shopkeepers come by their products, (how) do they process goods themselves, what are the techniques to display and promote food, but also how do they interact with costumers? Shopkeepers make deliberate choices that are inspired by their predecessors as well as by the interaction with costumers, neighbourhood, policy makers, etc. So they prove themselves (often unconsciously) bearers or innovators of traditions and practices of salesmanship.

MAS embarked on a participatory project with an array of partners. At the chore was a team of volunteers, the Shop Explorers. They were sent out to three Antwerp shopping axes with a different profile. The volunteers interviewed shopkeepers and identified collections of documentation. Their efforts resulted in 57 personal stories, giving insight on how local food shops changed throughout the years.

Their research was supplemented with information, documentation and objects coming from many other experts, keepers of collections and students. A photographer contributed with a series of double-portraits of the participating shop keepers, ingeniously connecting these people to their shops and merchandise.

MAS brought these stories back to the shopping axes by means of a travelling exhibit that was adapted to the specific context of each place. These expo’s were placed in public accessible places, such as the local social centre, a home for the elderly and the district house. On demand, the exhibition afterwards visited two service centres and the municipal bureau of integration.

MAS also integrated the documentation and portrait-series in its boulevard (a free accessible exhibition space) and introduced 20 stories into the permanent exhibition, each one connecting the biographical to culinary heritage and historical events. An online storyboard was developed in partnership with the CAG (centre for agricultural history). Currently the MAS is testing an educational program for primary schools which shall be downloadable next year.




How were practitioners of intangible cultural heritage involved?

Since every one of us gets in touch with local food shops, and because the practices concerned are not happening in an organisational setting, the MAS chose different approaches to involve a variety of individuals and groups:

  • Shop explorers: a team of volunteers that were selected after an open call. This team received a training to introduce them to different perspectives on the topic. A workshop on the methodology of oral history was offered to them. After defining the research themes in dialogue with the MAS and academic experts, they looked for interesting shopkeepers to interview.
  • Shopkeepers were involved by interviews, the digitalisation of personal photo’s and documentation, a double portrait in their (former) shop. Naturally they were being informed on the project, as well as invited to each exhibition. Some of the shopkeepers donated wrapping or promotional material to the museum. One baker gave an object on loan to the museum. Some of these objects are currently on display at the MAS. All these actions made the shopkeepers, as well as the city department of economy more aware of their activities as historical and culturally interesting.
  • The research was supplemented with information, documentation and objects coming from local history associations, the municipal department of economy, students from the departments of sociology, journalism and cultural sciences, the butchers’ and bakers’ syndicates, the school for bakers, butchers and catering, as well as a few private collectors.
  • Sanne De Wilde added an artistic series of doubleportraits of the participating shop keepers, ingeniously connecting these people to their shops and merchandise.
  • The local exhibitions were promoted amongst the local shops and cultural partners. They were freely accessible to all visitors and passer-by’s. The fact that these local exhibitions used images of the neighbourhood, raised the interest and debate from local inhabitants.

The exhibition at the MASboulevard was a success, clearly catching the attention of the visitors, quite often leading to discussions (private, but also with the MAS). The display of 20 digital storylines is a success among visitors. To the inhabitants of Antwerp they are a moment of recognition. The combination of personal stories to more general happenings and phenomena, make them interesting for international visitors too.The educational program will be useful for schools in Antwerpen Noord to explore the food shops in their neighbourhood and the restaurants close to the central station. Teachers can offer information, but also offer the pupils to bring in their culinary and shopping experiences. The program also makes suggestions for intergenerational contacts via local homes and service centres for the elderly.

© portrait photo: Ake van der Velden

CV of the author

Sofie De Ruysser works as Consultant policy and strategy for the MAS | Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp, Belgium. From within this museum she builds networks with a myriad of communities and both professional and non-professional heritage partners in Antwerp. She contributes to the MAS’ policy, especially concerning the domains of participation and ICH. Sofie co-ordinated the participatory heritage projects Giants of Antwerp and The Corner Shop and is currently working together with the urban dance scene. She contributes to the municipal heritage policy, linking the Museums and Heritage department to the Local Culture Policy teams in the Antwerp districts. Sofie graduated as Master in History of Art (KU Leuven) and obtained additional degrees in Philosophy (KU Leuven) and Cultural Management (UAMS).


  • Working on intangible cultural heritage also means you need to rethink your policy with regards to your collection. What will you do with video or sound recordings on intangible heritage, with research and documentation on certain practices of intangible heritage? What repercussions does this have on the museum's registration systems and digital storage demands? 
  • Participation of ICH-practitioners requires a different approach from the museum staff; there is a different relationship between processes and results. It's necesarry to find the right 'key figures' that can acts as mediators, to build up trust and to develop the skills to translate information and differing perspectives into something that is relevant to all museum visitors.
  • Together with good partners, a museum can offer a program of participatory activities with different levels of ownership and exchange.




20 December 2017 from 09:50 to 09:50



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