A new exhibition until April next year at House of Alijn, Ghent plunges visitors back in time to the 1990s, with a nostalgic and thoughtful take on the last decade of the 20th century.
It’s not often that a museum makes you laugh out loud with recognition, but visitors to Ghent’s House of Alijn 90s Expo who lived through the decade will find themselves doing just that. At this thoroughly enjoyable exhibition, I saw people not only laughing as they pointed at old PCs and tried to type messages on an old Nokia, but also exclaiming at TV footage and even dancing to old bangers by beloved boybands, grunge and techno acts.
But this exhibition does more than offer a nostalgic trip down memory lane. The longer, historical view that it’s only now becoming possible to take reveals a decade where mindsets shifted dramatically.
Topped and tailed by two paradigm-shifting world events (the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers), the 90s began by embracing optimistic consumerism as a force for global change and ended with a crashing wider awareness that global capitalism is not necessarily all good. Sex was used relentlessly to sell, heroin-chic dominated the catwalk, body image and eating disorders became more prevalent, and technology altered our business and social interactions forever.
The House of Alijn museum is located in an old children’s hospital close to Ghent’s historic heart, overlooking the River Lys. The institution is subtitled The Museum of Daily Life and the intimate scale of its rooms and corridors is perfectly suited to an exhibition that for many will feel very personal.
Many people have active memories of the 90s and it seems not that long ago, but we don’t always realise it’s a time when the world changed a great deal. And young people are very interested in that period, the clothes, the music and the ideas.Annelien Noppe, press and communications officer of the museum
Some rooms have been transformed into mini 90s youth clubs and dance venues. Others gather together 90s travel paraphernalia including artefacts donated by the museum staff themselves. It’s easy to forget that this was the decade in which the world shrank a little further: Disney opened in Europe and the channel tunnel between the UK and France created a physical tie for the first time between Anglo Saxon culture and ‘the continent’.
Cleverly chosen footage reminds us of the phenomenon of sharing TV viewing en masse, from Princess Diana’s funeral and Elton John’s extraordinary performance in Westminster to ubiquitous sitcoms like Seinfeld. And could Friends have BEEN any more popular?
Some of the clips and interviews are of course in Dutch (Ghent is in Flanders after all), but this in no way detracts from their overall impact and info sheets are available so that the video and audio fragments make sense for everyone.
Nostalgia seems to go in 30-year cycles as generations grow and want to share their youthful obsessions (Nintendo anyone?) with their own children, or as young people become curious about what went before. Anyone paying attention will know too that today’s ‘baggy’ fashions, floppy hairdos, centre partings and political activism are just as much rooted in movements from the past as they are an expression of self. In a world where the media seems to want to create divisions between generations, this exhibition is a joyful and thought-provoking reminder of the things that connect us. And that fax machines were always a terrible invention.
House of Alijn is reachable from Gent-St-Pieters railway station by trams 1/2. Alight at Gravensteen. Refreshments are available in the museum’s pretty volunteer-run courtyard café. Also recommended is Alice, a great tea-room and brunch café, just a short stroll away.
2. Other attractions
There’s a wealth of things to do in Ghent, but if you’re interested in going back another 700 years to the 1280s, the Castle of the Counts is well worth a visit while you’re in the neighbourhood (and is what the afore-mentioned Gravensteen tram stop is named for).
An imposing sandstone and Tournai limestone structure, it bears the hallmarks of a varied history. Once a symbol of Flanders power, then a cotton mill, it went through a rose-tinted 19th century renovation that added romanticised medieval elements, and became a World Expo 1913 centrepiece, so it’s a monument that, like the House of Alijn, reflects human history back at us.