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© Frederik Beyens

Paul and Dora Janssen-Arts collection

The collection is nationally and internationally renowned for its priceless objects made of gold, jade, stone, textiles and shell. These come from more than 50 cultures, from Alaska to Chile, and demonstrate the craftsmanship and aesthetic sense of their creators in the pre-1500 Americas. In 2008, the Flemish government decided to give the Paul and Dora Janssen-Arts collection to the City of Antwerp on permanent loan.

A world-famous collection of artefacts from pre-Columbian cultures in America

Extraordinary bond between humans and gods

Where do we come from? Where are we going? What happens after death? Myths and religions, philosophers and scientists have sought answers to these existential questions since time immemorial. The answers that people give are very different, but there are also surprising similarities.

On the eighth floor of the MAS, as part of the theme 'Life and Death. Of Gods and mankind', you take a look at the extraordinary bond between humans and the world of gods, ancestors and spirits.

The exhibition consists of several parts, the last two of which focus on pre-Columbian America on the basis of the Paul and Dora Janssen-Arts collection. This beautifully shows the inextricable link between life and death in cultures in the Americas before their conquest by Europeans.

Historical and contemporary

The choice of a thematic approach by the MAS is fully maintained: the more than 400 objects from the renowned Janssen collection are not presented chronologically or geographically, but are part of a storyline. These stories illustrate the point that there were enormous differences between the inhabitants of the American continent, but that their vision of the world around them also shows a striking number of similarities.

Thus we see how human sacrifices were regarded as essential to ensuring continuity between life and death, and how fertility rituals across the continent took various forms, but were always at the core of the pre-Hispanic way of life. Precious grave gifts, often in gold, reflect the importance that all inhabitants of the continent, from Alaska to Chile, attached to the afterlife. Multimedia materials show that this vision is still very much present in contemporary Latin America, although it has been mingled with Catholic traditions.

Pre-Columbian art, seen through the eyes of Europeans

In the next part of the exhibition, the visitor’s attention shifts: whereas the previous part looked at how people in pre-Columbian America lived and – especially – thought, the final part of the eighth floor analyses how the inhabitants of Europe, from Antwerp to Spain, have looked at the objects from this ‘remote’ continent, from the time of their ‘discovery’ to the present day.

Dozens of gold objects tell the story of the conquistadors’ lust for gold in the sixteenth century, and sculptures in ceramics and stone show how artists and collectors from the early twentieth century onwards acquired a feel for the aesthetics of the American objects.

Amazing objects in jade, shell, textiles and feathers make it clear how collectors of ‘pre-Columbiana’ like Dora Janssen, became fascinated by the aesthetics and craftsmanship that is so evident in these objects.

Dora Janssen

Dora Janssen herself explains in the exhibition and in the book: she tells of her fascination and love for the beauty of pre-Columbian artefacts. In the book, you also find the personal testimony of an ‘Antwerp Venezuelan’, Orlando Verde, who explains how he feels a connection with the entire continent. He also experiences ‘his’ objects as aesthetically attractive, and is proud of his own heritage and the diversity and history of Latin America.

Letting 'dumb' objects live

The last objects on the 8th floor again testify to the scientific work behind exhibitions such as those at the MAS: an object only acquires a voice and a story through the work of anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, art historians and others. In the case of the American continent, this is not always easy: archaeologists take on the challenge of bringing the ‘dumb’ objects back to life.

You find the complete Paul and Dora Janssen-Arts collection online.

On sale in the MAs shop

The book 'Life and Death. On the upper and underworld' is on sale in the MASshop

[BE] BAI - MAS Books 
ISBN: ISBN 9789085865797 (English)


About the exhibition

Art from Pre-Columbian America

Collection Paul & Dora Janssen-Arts

A world famous collection that tells us about the extraordinary relationship between man and the world of gods, ancestors and spirits in America before the conquest by the Europeans.

Guided tour Art from Pre-Columbian America

Together with a guide you'll discover the world famous collection of Paul & Dora Janssen-Arts. This collection consists of more than 400 pre-Columbian objects in gold, jade, stone, textiles and shell.

See also

Life & Death | Of Gods and mankind

In this exhibition you could find out how others experience and approach the end of life. Across the boundaries of time, culture and religion.


Enjoy a whole new shopping experience and find many fun gadgets. Feel free to pop in before or after your museum visit.

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