When It Turns Out That Your Great-Great-Grandmother Was, Sort of, a Museum Curator

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My great-great-grandmother, Virginie Strubbe, c1900 (Maria Roose family archive)

A few days ago, I published a post about some aspects of my family history, based on family photos I found, as a tribute to my mother who passed away recently. It can be read here. One of the questions I raised was how the personalities and life choices of our ancestors are. consciously or unconsciously, echoed in ourselves.

I had always assumed that my art historical and migratory inclinations were indebted mainly to my paternal great-grand-uncle Camille Poupeye (1874-1963), who was an art historian and a theatre and art critic. He was also a world traveler who spent a lot of his time in Asia, as well as in Africa and Central America, and published several books about theatre and dance traditions in Asia–he is probably best described as an Orientalist, with all the critical concerns that entails. I had always intended to write a reflection on that fascinating but ideologically fraught family heritage and will still do so at a future date (I found some interesting new information on him also).

But then I came across another document in my mother’s papers that charted the history of the lace shop that was operated in Bruges by my great-grandparents, Arthur Roose and Irma Deschepper, and I discovered something that complicated that assumption and also shed light on the roles of women in early museums and in the Bruges cultural industries. And I thought it worth sharing here, as a coda, or more correctly, a precursor to my previous post.

Deschepper-Roose family
My great-grandmother Irma Deschepper (left), her mother, Virginie Strubbe (right) and my grandaunts Maria and Laura, c1925 (Maria Roose family archive)

The document in question is a two-part photocopied article, credited to Rachel Haegebaert and Karel Peuteman, who were apparently two local historians. I have been unable to identify the publication and date. It tells us that Irma Deschepper’s mother, Virginie Strubbe (1849-1938) was born to a family of farmers and married Leopold Deschepper (1843-1910) on 16 April, 1868. Initially they operated a farm, De Grote Boomgaard, in Oostkerke, near Damme and not far from Bruges in West Flanders (this farm is now a protected heritage site because of its architectural interest as a traditional area farmstead). At some point they moved to Bruges, where Virginie became caretaker of the Gruuthuse Museum in 1898, four years before it officially opened to the public as a museum of archaeology and the applied arts. She lived on site with her family.

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Gruuthuse (image source: Wikimedia)

Gruuthuse was a patrician mansion in the centre of Bruges that dated from the early 15th century. It was in 1875 acquired by the city of Bruges and rather fancifully restored to become a museum to house the collections acquired by the local Archaeological Society. One of the early donors was Baron Amedee Liedts, who in 1889 donated the extensive lace collection of his late wife, Augusta Godin. According to Haegebaert and Peutemans, Virginie Strubbe was charged to take care of this collection, thus becoming its de facto keeper, and acquired a lot of knowledge about Flemish lace traditions in the process. Her daugher, Irma Deschepper, grew up in the museum and was thus bitten by the “lace bug.” It is because of this exposure that Irma and her husband Arthur Roose decided to open their lace shop in 1905, thus contributing to the lace revival in Bruges. The family had maintained a close relationship with Baron Liedts and was given permission to copy the traditional lace patterns and styles from his collection.

De Grote Boomgaard
Hoeve De Grote Boomgaard (photo source: Inventaris Onroerend Erfgoed, Belgium)

So it turns out that my great-great-grandmother Virginie Strubbe, who presumably had little or no formal education, was a curator of sorts and, in taking on this role, also inspired the business initiative of one of her children, thus contributing to the emerging cultural industries of Bruges and the socio-economic progress of her family. Her name is, quite predictably, not mentioned in the history of Gruuthuse as a museum. That honour is left to the formally trained, upper class male art historians such as William Henry James Weale and the architects Louis Delacenserie and William Curtis Brangwyn. But her story shows, in an interesting way, that the growth and development of museums cannot always be credited solely to the “big names” (and “big males”) usually associated with them, but that there are many other, anonymous and uncredited persons, men and women, who have also made seminal contributions and continue doing so today, taking care of collections, visitors, the premises and the daily operations of museums.

[New information about the farm De Grote Boomgaard added on August 20, 2018]

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