The Museums of the Far East are situated in the Brussels municipality of Laken. More or less where they now stand, a Chinese pagoda stood during the final quarter of the eighteenth century. It dominated the park, which was part of the domain of the Governors-General of the Austrian Netherlands. Did this perhaps portend what was later to be?
In 1900, King Leopold II conceived the idea of building an open-air museum consisting of various exotic pavilions. He had seen something similar that year at the World Exhibition in Paris: more particularly, the ‘Tour du Monde’ panorama.
The following year, he commissioned the Paris architect Alexandre Marcel (1860-1928) to build a ‘Japanese tower’. This was completed in November 1904 and was formally opened on 5 May 1905, the King giving a garden-party for the occasion. However, the plan for an open-air museum was quickly abandoned and in 1909 the monarch presented the building to the Belgian State, upon which it became an annex of the Trade Museum of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was closed during the First World War and was opened again only in 1922, being placed under the trusteeship of the Royal Museums of Art and History. In 1947, it ceased to be open to visits, opening again to the public only in 1989, after a whole series of restoration work. Since then, it has hosted top-quality exhibitions on aspects of Japanese culture and history.
The beginning of the twentieth century also saw Leopold II entrusting the construction of a ‘Chinese pavilion’ to Alexandre Marcel. The King’s intention was to have it as a luxury restaurant for businessmen with or looking to forge economic links with China. Work was begun in 1903, halted in 1905 and resumed in 1909. The pavilion, which owes its ‘Chinese’ look to the exterior panels imported from Shanghai, was opened in 1913, not as a restaurant, but as a further annex of the Trade Museum, just as the Japanese tower. In 1921, the management of the pavilion was entrusted to the Royal Museums of Art and History, which, over the years, gathered its fine collection of Chinese porcelain into it; indeed, the collection is still to be seen there.
The small, sober building behind the Chinese Pavilion is now the Museum of Japanese Art. It was built in 1903 by Alexandre Marcel as a garage for the coaches and automobiles that would transport customers to the restaurant in the pavilion. Because nothing ever came of the restaurant, this building remained without a function. In 1990, the Royal Museums of Art and History and the Public Buildings Department decided to renovate it and to lay it out as a museum to exhibit the institution’s rich collection of Japanese art. As such, it was opened in 2006.