The museum originated from an 18th-century cabinet of rarieties in the Town Hall. The Leuven art collection grew over a period of nearly 200 years to the current city museum.
The first museum found shelter in 1823 on the second floor of the Leuven Town Hall and approximately a century later in the former private residence of Mayor Leopold Vander Kelen. From a collection of primarily a historical content, it grew, thanks to a number important gifts, to a fully-fledged overview of the art production in Leuven and in Brabant from the Middle Ages onward, with the city playing the central role. In addition to the gifts that enriched the collection, naturally the conservators also played a guiding role in the strengthening of the collections-by purchases, for example- and thus also in the profile of the museum. The accent shifted successively from the historical to the encyclopaedic to the religious, to the 1990s placing the city in the foreground.
The present-day museum building has over the course of time undergone the necessary adaptations. The geatest intervention came from the building additions of the years 1928 and 1937, which significantly increased the exhibition surface area. Changes from around 1960, whence the 19th-century decor is hidden behind neutral walls and ceilings, were retrograded in the 1990s so that the heren house is restored to its honour. The museum remained functioning until 2006 with a permanent installation of fine and applied arts in the former ‘Hôtel Vander Kelen'. Intervening building changes from the end of 2006 launched the old museum towards a museum of the 21st Century.
The so-called Flemish primitives are also representated in the M-collections. Paintings orginating in the 15th and 16th Centuries have arrived in the collection via a variety or ways: as part of the original city patrimonium; often, before, during and after the French occupation; by means of the interests of the respective conservators, who via legates, gifts, loans and purchases expanded and enhanced the collection
The M-collection chiefly grew historically within the city context. The works of art and objects originated in city studios and/or have functioned within the capacity of administrative, church and charity organisations: from institutions concerned with instruction, and from associations of private individuals in the city and environs. Moreover, the Leuven museum advertises itself as the Maecenas and the collection development of the city, and the role of works of art as objects for representation and prestige. In the Leuven art production, the presence and the evolution of certain specific themes are also good to follow, that is certainly the case of the theme of devotion in Leuven and Brabant.
In this context belong a number of 15th and 16th-century panel paintings with their existence in the city patrimonium, which today are managed by the M. The works of Dieric Bouts that are found in Leuven today, belong to this category. Other well-known examples are the Altaarvoorhangsel met de verrezen Christus (anonymous, ca. 1480), the oldest known copy after Rogier van der Weyden's Deposition, the so-called Edelheeretriptiek (anonymous Brabant/Leuven master, ca. 1443), and the top piece the Uur- en kalenderwijzerplaat (anonymous Leuven master, ca. 1500).
The Leuven Town Hall housed a cabinet of rarities from the 18th Century on. It dealt with a number of noteworthy objects that have a part in making up the history of the city or of that have been valued by its leaders. They were collected as the taste of the time dictated. An example: the original design on parchment for the tower of the St. Peter's Church by Jan Massijs. (1505-1507).
During the French occupation (1795-1815), Leuven functioned as an art depot for the artistic objects that were claimed from the Leuven, Tienen, Diest and Zoutleeuw cantons and for the works of art from the cloisters of Nethen, Florival and 's Hertogendaal, as well as the abbeys of La Ramée and Averbode. Only a portion of the works that were brought into Leuven were actually taken to Brussels and Paris as planned. A few important works or art remain in Leuven, such as the Holy Trinity from the studio of Van der Weyden, originally made for one of the chapels of the Leuven St. Peter's church. It speaks for itself that the city collection was rapidly expanded and that this growth of the patrimonium called for a similar organisation. Thus, the city decides in 1823 to set up a separate Museuem for Paintings on the second floor of the Town Hall.
The collection has at that time no real set form. Various religious works were given back on loan at this time to newly reopened churches.
At the same time a few interesting gifts were added to the collection. The city of Brussels, for example, gave an important collection of 57 paintings on loan to the new museum. Professor Van Leempoel, manager of the patrimonium of the university gifted, among others, Two Tax Collectors from a follower of Marinus van Reymerswale. (ca. 1540).
From out of this collection, the respective conservators have given a form to the museum project. They give the city museum a sometimes mercurial character; personal interests and preference naturally play a roles. Under their directive, the museum receives diverse gifts and legates, primarily from citizens of Leuven. The city collection was also expanded with works released on loan. The Commission of Public Onderstand and the Belgian state are the first that collaborated with this. A few fine examples are The Legend of St. Quinten from an unknown master (1537), a post-WWII recuperated work that the Belgian state gave on loan, and the Triptych with the Celibacy of St. Anne (anonymous, 1520-1530) that comes from the collections of the OCMW.
Conservators Edward Van Even (1821-1905) and Victor Demunter (1858-1939) were greatly responsible for the content of the municipal collection. Van Even gave the city museum chartacter. Through his personal interests for the history of the city and his deep knowledge of the rich arhive, he was in the position to build up the Museum for Paintings into a worthy historical museum. He placed a great deal of importance on the the fact that in addition to the valuable works of art, historical documents and objects of local importance from earlier times were taken up in the collection's formation. Through these complements, he quickly multiplied the number of items in the collection. Van Even is the first one who inventories and does research on the provenance and historical value of the available objects. One of his most stunning discoveries concerns the original project for the masterpiece of the Last Supper by Dieric Bouts. Through this document the painting can be indisputably attributed to the master.
After the death of Edward van Even, his good friend Victor Demunter succeeds him as conservator. As the middle man he is able to bring in an artistic collection of its own merit over the course of time.
Demunter also advises on the art purchases of the city and for that reason establishes Les amis du musée de Louvain in 1930. Primarily they buy work from important contemporary artists.
With the death of Demunter, the museum receives the most important gift in its history. This gift includes on the one hand the art collection of Edward van Even in 1911 by Demunter, which was inherited by Van Even's sisters Eugenia and Maria. And, Victor Demunter himself collected objects because of their aesthetic and art historical importance; that is clearly noticeable in his painting collection with works by Quinten Massijs, Cornelius de Vos, Frans Francken II, Joost de Momper, Theodoor van Loon and Gaspar de Crayer, among others.
Jan Crab (Conservator from 1962 until 1980) successfully furthered the loan policy of Demunter. The changing opinion on the church interior after Vatican Two helped him with this. With his involvement, many works of art and church furnishings were saved from destruction or sale in Leuven. Churches, chapels and cloisters of Leuven and environs placed their works of art in loan, through which the museological collection was enriched with numerous religious works of art, primarily from the 15th and 16th Centuries. The collections of glass windows, textiles and silver prosperously increased. In this period, the works of art from the OCMW also come into loan in the museological collection by the workings of Conservator Paul-Victor Maes. The Brabant collection of sculpture from the late-Middle Ages especially receives great importance because of its completeness.
After 1980, the choir of the St. Peter's church houses the Museum for Religious Art, with two masterpieces by Dieric Bouts, the Last Supper and the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, among others. The installation, presentation, preservaton, care and management of the museum falls under the capacity of the college of the mayor and aldermen (in accordance with the guidelines of the Monuments and Landscapes service). The costs for the usage, maintenance and insurance are carried by the city administration.
The festival year of 1998, in which Leuven celebrated its 550th anniversary of the foundation-laying of the Town Hall, signifies a rejuvination of the permanent formation of the museological collection. The festival year was fully in the age of the 15th Century, the timespan in which the Town Hall and St. Peter's chruch were built, as well as the time in which the master painter Dieric Bouts lives and works in Leuven. The three exhibitions bring in an unexpectedly large number of visitors. This success strengthens the attactivenss of the medieval Leuven and the ever-growing importance for the patrimonium of this period.
When the city administration of Leuven receives the chance to enrich the municipal patrimonium in 1998 with the Passion Panels of Christ of an unknown Brabant (probably Brussels) artist and with the Flagellation and the Calvary from the environment of Albrecht Bouts, Dieric's youngest soon, it choses for continuing anew with the most original, most unique and richest core of the municipal collection, the late-Gothic painting and sculpture art. This collection ensures that the museum is more prolific as a curator of the Brabantian late-Gothic, inter alia.