History of the museum and the building

Leopold II’s dream

Throughout his reign, Leopold II was very involved in urban design and planning in Belgium. His progressive vision helped shape the appearance of the relatively recently formed Kingdom of Belgium. The sovereign’s view of urban planning can be summarised as a preference for broad boulevards and beautiful parks. There was also the pursuit of ‘royal’ grandeur, expressed in public buildings. A young country that wants to keep pace with the economic and industrial progress of the times must adopt a modern infrastructure with buildings and parks that adorn the city. Particularly in the last ten years of Leopold II’s reign, the capital was characterised by the completion of various projects, such as the construction of the Museum in Tervuren, the enlargement of the royal residences in Brussels and Laken, the Chinese Pavilion, the Japanese Tower and the triumphal arch in the Cinquantenaire Park. All these buildings were financed from the income of the ‘Crown Foundation’, which managed the fortune that Leopold II had made in Congo.
The building of the Cinquantenaire Park complex, which occurred in the second half of Leopold II’s reign, took a total of fifty years (1880-1905).
Nowadays, the site of the Cinquantenaire Park is not only a favourite spot for art lovers and a popular destination for school trips, but also a must for any visitor to Brussels.

The Cinquantenaire Park Palace exhibition centre

The 1,800,000 Belgian franc budget which was allocated by the Royal Decree of 30 May 1879 was nowhere near enough to carry out all the building works planned by the architect Bordiau for the exhibition of products of Belgian art and industry which opened to the public on 30 June 1880. Only the two wings, the substructure of the colonnade and the triumphal arch were ready. The missing sections were built of wooden panels. Although the architect had planned from the outset that the construction would be carried out in phases, the buildings being built gradually as the funds became available, he could never have suspected that it would take thirty years until they were completed, and he would no longer be there to see it. In any case, the public were delighted and people came in droves to the exhibition in its brand-new setting. This is without doubt the culmination of all the celebrations held to mark the fiftieth jubilee of the foundation of Belgium.

The World Exposition – 1897

The colonial section of the World Exposition was presented at the Museum in Tervuren. In order to connect the museum to the Cinquantenaire Park where the rest of the exhibition was taking place, the avenue de Tervuren was built. The large halls that now house the Army and Air Force Museum and Autoworld date from that period. Until 1934, the Cinquantenaire Park was the place of choice for organising trade fairs and all kinds of festivities with cyclists, horses, cars, hot-air balloons, etc.

The Esplanade of the Cinquantenaire Park, Museum Centre

Although the early years of the Cinquantenaire Park were marked by the organisation of exhibitions, Bordiau also wanted the arts to have a prominent role.
At the first exhibition in 1880, they were already present, but nine years later, they were given a permanent home. Over the years, the cultural character of the buildings has increased still further, hand in hand with the growing collection and the Royal Museums of Art and History, whose origins date back to 1835 with the founding of a museum at the Porte de Hal. Afterwards came the Museum of Trade (a future iron foundry) in 1886, the Royal Army Museum in 1922, the Air and Space Section of that museum in 1965, and finally Autoworld in 1986.

The history of a building site


National exhibition of the products of Belgian art and industry on the occasion of the fiftieth jubilee of the Belgian State; building of two wings of the palace, the colonnade, the single triumphal arch out of wooden panels and a temporary hall.


Exhibition ‘Major International Competition for Science and Industry’, according to the design by Bordiau (1886); building of a machinery hall and temporary halls, layout of the park that reached its definitive size of 30 hectares. Their official names were the Park du Cinquantenaire and the Palais du Cinquantenaire (Fiftieth Jubilee Park and Palace).


Eerstesteenlegging van de monumentale triomfboog.


The foundation stone was laid for the monumental triumphal arch.


Construction of a new triumphal arch (with gantry cranes and shift work); construction of an enclosing wall for the colonnade.
The triumphal arch was completed for the celebrations to mark Belgium’s 75th birthday. The antiquities collection was transferred to the south wing..


Completion of the new building (avenue des Nerviens) and opening of the first two rooms.


Opening of the Royal Museum of the Army and War History in the north wing.


Inauguration of the new building of the Royal Institute for Art Heritage (avenue de la Renaissance).


Excavation of a road tunnel under the triumphal arch.


Installation of Autoworld in the World Hall (large southern hall);


Inauguration of the covered square courtyard as a new exhibition space for the Royal Museums of Art and History.