If you want to feel the heartbeat of 16th-century Antwerp, head over to Museum Plantin-Moretus. The well preserved 400 year old residence and printing business is the only museum in the world on the list of UNESCO world Heritage. Welcome to a story of books, dedication and the scent of ink.
It’s a cold Wednesday afternoon in late January when we enter the mansion of the Plantin-Moretus family in the heart of Antwerp. We brought our camera plus four jumpy girls, about to discover the mysteries of printing. And prevent a murder, that too.
The well designed museumgame Save Balthasar focuses on Balthasar I Moretus, grandson of publisher Christoffel Plantijn, who inherited the workshop and publishing company from his father. Apparently the man had a bunch of enemies, all keen on killing him. But as we all know, crime is not a rewarding goal in life, so the museum counts on Mirtha, Lucy, Violet and Justine to prevent the murder of Balthasar. Kind of Back to the future with a vengeance. The children start their trip through the museum, each correct answer providing a useful tip. All the pieces of the puzzle will eventually lead to the identification of the suspect. We hope.
In the gorgeous familyroom we discover that suspect number one is … the famous painter Rubens. The artist is a friend of the family and has recently built a new mansion. Therefore he needs money, that he hopes to earn by making loads of new paintings. But Balthasar decides against it. He dumps Rubens and gives the assignment for a big new painting to Erasmus Quellinus. Rubens is furious. How could you blame him? A colour from the palette of the painter is shown to the girls, asking them what the exact name is: is it cyan, magenta or indigo? The answer is rewarded with a first letter. The time travel has begun.
Next stop is the sculpted renaissance garden, which is by the way also accessible without a museum ticket in summer. Anna Goos, a member of the family, is very good in math and loves accounting, but Balthasar doesn’t want to hear about her big ambitions for the publishing company. She’s mad and as you can understand, she wants to eliminate him.
How many window openings do you count in the facade of the printing workshop, the museumgame wants to know. ‘All right, who ‘s going to solve this?’ Lucy checks with her friends. ‘Not me’, she adds quickly. Mirtha points to Violet: ‘You are good at math!’ Together they run around the garden, pointing and counting. Enthusiastically they write down: 52. Somewhat too enthusiastically, as it turns out later.
‘Oh gosh, it stinks in here’, says Justine, as we enter the printing workshop. The air is thick with the scent of ink. ‘The children of Plantijn’, explains Toon, who works here as a volunteer, ‘had to read and correct texts in three different languages, when they were just as old as you guys now.’ The girls hold the stamps, surprised by their heavy weight. In this workshop working days were long: 14 hours, 6 days a week. Also for children.
While the printing press prints a medieval French poem in red ink, the girls discover a closet full of 16th-century clothes. The life of a man is at risk, okay, and it would definitely be sad for Balthasar if he didn’t make it. But the priority at the moment is obviously to dress up in crazy collars and dashing capes.
Maid in love
Another suspect is Liesken, Balthasar’s maid. She has been secretly in love with her boss for a long time, but the love is not at all mutual. She’s disappointed, as anyone who has ever been in love can imagine. If she can’t have him, nobody can have Balthasar.
The search continues, leading them to the oldest printing presses in the world. Mirtha studies the number Pi. ‘Where ‘s the hashtag?’ Justine asks. ‘Hey look, a smiley from the Middle Ages’, Lucy chuckles. Oh, those digital natives. Let us admire in silence attractive types such as Garamond, Granjon and many others.
The art of books
Upstairs we dwell in the former residence of the family. The creaking oak planks and panels, the velvet walls and the ancient manuscripts make for a gorgeous setting. Pretty sure director Wes Anderson would marvel at a movieset like this! The kids look around in the library and think about how all those books are arranged. Lucy and Mirtha are convinced it’s by size, but Violet thinks they might be arranged in alphabetical order.
In the sumptuous dining room they sniff around. ‘Don’t know what it is’, Mirtha says. The little bag goes from hand to hand, until Lucy identifies the ‘thing’ as cinnamon. It belongs to Maria, Balthasar’s sister in law, who loves to cook. But Maria would rather have her son be the new boss of the publishing house, so she wants to get rid of Balthasar. Will she be as coldhearted as she looks? ‘That lady is looking at me’, Violet points at a painted portrait on the wall. ‘No, she ‘s looking at me!’ Mirtha shivers.
Through the most elegant and stylish rooms imaginable, chock full of books – one even more legendary than the other – we end up where we began. It’s official, the girls say, they ‘ve reached a conclusion. There it is, the name of the perpetrator. With all the evidence against this person, they have a strong case. The name is carefully whispered to the lady behind the counter. She nods, they’ve got it right. Meanwhile we hear Balthasar sigh with relief. He can go and read a book in bed. No vilain will ever dare to harass him again.
The museumgame is perfect for families with kids aged 8 and up and is free. During schoolholidays the museum organises workshops for children between the age of 5 and 12 as well. In the workshops it’s all about being creative using the basic printing techniques, such as etching, printing, stamping and bookbinding.