In 2003, the Fortress was thoroughly renovated with a view to conveying our message even better. The intended result was twofold. On the one hand, the Memorial wanted to tell the history of German repression and its victims, taking into account the specificity of political and racial persecution. On the other hand, the intention was to develop the National Memorial of the Fortress of Breendonk into an educational tool for reflection and discussion that would be applicable to the contemporary political and social context.
Before 2000, the historical trail was outdated, the archives were in an indescribable state of disarray, no thorough scientific study had been conducted on the history of the Nazi camp, the number of visitors fluctuated around 55,000 per year and the Memorial’s reputation had to be restored among both the general public and the academic world. In light of this situation, the Board of Governors decided in 1998 to undertake a thorough renovation of the Memorial and Professor Emeritus Roger Coekelbergs was appointed Chairman of the Board and officially charged with the renovation.
The route that visitors were invited to take required a completely new approach and layout in order to bring the fort’s history back to life under occupation: a visitor-centred approach was needed so that the walls would no longer be the sole witness to the past.
All available spaces had to be included in the route and explained to visitors in a chronological logic. New pedagogical and museological tools would be used, while respecting the serene atmosphere of the site.
In early spring 2002, work began on renovating the shell of the building: installing a waterproof coating on the roofs, bringing the building up to the required standards and reinforcing the electrical system. The reception building required a totally new approach and had to be thoroughly renovated.
A new route
Thanks to the intensive cooperation between museologist Paul Vandebotermet and historian Patrick Nefors, a new route has been mapped out. This route guides visitors both chronologically (from 1940 to 1944) and thematically: each dormitory now has its own theme: the head of the hall, a day in Breendonk, hunger, Bettenbau, postmen, brotherhood in the hall, Valère Devos, executions, the Revier = the infirmary. All the rooms are now open and equipped with pictures (about 7000 and 3 large screens of 25 m²). At the end of the tour, three rooms replace the outdated museum. They give an in-depth insight into the following themes: “a gallery of portraits of 20 fortress prisoners”, “Breendonk, a link in the universe of the Nazi camps” and “liberated Breendonk”.
A sober museology has been chosen that fully respects the tragedy of the site. The visit is discreetly supported by modern audiovisual means, but they are not too obvious or visible, otherwise the atmosphere of the site would be compromised.
The decision in principle is also made to use audio guides instead of an overly heavy and complicated system of signs.
On 6 May 2003 His Majesty King Albert II honoured the Memorial with his presence in order to personally inaugurate the new visiting track in the company of the Minister of Defence, André Flahaut, the Minister-President of the Flemish Community, Patrick Dewael, the Governor of the Province of Antwerp, Camille Paulus, and the Mayor of Willebroek, Mrs Elsie Dewachter.
Since then, the Memorial not only tells the story of an important period in history, but also aims to be a tool for anyone who wants to understand how totalitarianism can be derailed. A visit to the Memorial allows one to draw parallels between the historical context and the present day. Educating people about citizenship remains the main task of this site.
Renovations and adjustments to the memorial
It goes without saying that a site that welcomes 100,000 visitors a year must continue to invest and renovate. With the support of the National Bank, several rooms and panels have been renovated in recent years. For example, the “I am not a number” room, where visitors can ask for information about former prisoners, has been completely renovated and equipped with new technology. In addition, a room has been equipped with “talking beds”: a moving testimony from former prisoners. With the financial support of an ex-prisoner, the “A Day at Breendonk” room was refurbished using the latest technology. With the financial support of the non-profit-making organisation “Friends of Fort Breendonk”, the reception rooms for the schools were renovated and fitted out with new furniture, and a banner with the 301 prisoners who died of deprivation, execution or hanging was recently inaugurated.
The technical staff is taking advantage of the quieter times in this corona period to carry out some renovations that cause inconvenience to visitors. For example, the parking lot has recently been rebuilt, the route around the fort has been adapted for wheelchair users, the guardhouses and the wagon have been given a new look and the entrance to the fort has been completely freshened up.