Portretfoto Johan Willems

"Every work of art is unique’"

A museum staff member introduces himself. Glimpse what’s happening behind the scenes as we prepare for the opening of the new museum.

Text: Véronique Van Passel

Portrait photograph: Jacques Sonck

This interview was first published in the winter 2019 issue of our museum magazine ZAAL Z (only in Dutch)

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  • Who are you? Johan Willems
  • What’s your job? Storage manager, technician and conservation assistant
  • How long have you been at the museum? 12 years

What do you do?

Johan: "I’m the building manager for our port site, which is an art storage facility, a conservation studio, a carpentry shop, an office and a loading and unloading bay. As storage manager, it’s my job to ensure that the collection in internal and external storage is held under optimum conditions in terms of temperature and humidity. And pest-free too."


"My conservation duties include moving artworks, reinforcing frames and building climate boxes for sensitive panels. I also help to transport the art, which means making sure that a work is packed and loaded according to the latest rules. I occasionally travel with it as courier."

What’s the best thing about your job?

Johan: "The variety: every work of art is unique, so when a problem arises, there are no standard solutions. I find it particularly enjoyable and informative to discuss decisions with my colleagues. Alongside our three permanent conservators, there are quite a few freelancers, interns and temporary employees working here, all with their own views. So you get a lot of ideas."

Any tasks you’re less keen on?

Johan: "Meetings! (laughs). Although that obviously depends a lot on who’s leading it... I don’t like too much talk."

What has been the highlight of your career at the museum?

Johan: "Being promoted from night watchman before the closure to storage manager. It’s so much more satisfying. And I see a lot more people too. My predecessor had just retired when I got the job. He stopped by a few times to run me through the materials and applications. He taught me the tricks of the trade, like how to cut laminated glass."


I visit the museum building once a month on average. When I do, I’m itching to see how it’s all developing.

Johan Willems

What was your least fun moment?

Johan: "Before I became store manager, I worked in the library for a while. It’s a nice place, but really not for me. It did offer the advantage of working in the daytime, though, which meant I could spend more time with my kids."

What’s your favourite work of art?

Johan: "The museum building itself! Which is being made even finer by the renovation. Before long, you’ll have two works of art in one: a historical and a contemporary masterpiece. Managing the internal storage facility means that unlike my colleagues I only visit the museum itself once a month on average. When I do, I’m itching to see how it’s all developing."

Are you glad to work in a museum?

Johan: "Definitely! After 12 years, it’s become familiar territory for me. We’re all one big museum family. And while I’m not a great expert on art, I do appreciate our beautiful collection. It’s just a shame that my job makes me focus on the technical side: whenever I go to an exhibition, I have to flip a switch and try to focus on the art itself."

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