The “xylarium”: the AfricaMuseum’s hidden treasure

Helena Spriet
16 December 2019
The AfricaMuseum in Tervuren fosters a unique collection of tropical wood samples. Hans Beeckman, wood biologist, provided Glo.be with detailed information on this material, which is essential for the economy and ecology.

What is a xylarium?

Imagine a library containing only wood instead of books. A "xylarium" is a large collection of wood samples. This collection provides study material for biology, cultural science (wooden sculptures...) and technology. “Wood plays a very important role in living nature and in the economy”, confirms Beeckman, who is responsible for the xylarium at the AfricaMuseum. Tropical hardwood for example is praised for its quality and sustainability. It is therefore used in a wide range of applications, including construction (windows, doors, façade cladding, etc.).

 

Top 5 in the world

The large xylarium in Tervuren is almost unique in the world. “There is no real competition, but we could say we are rated in the top 5”, Beeckman adds modestly. As far as Africa is concerned, Tervuren owns the largest collection. In total, the museum has 83,000 samples from 13,000 types of wood. The collection is still expanding every day.

As far as Africa is concerned, Tervuren owns the largest collection. In total, the museum has 83,000 samples from 13,000 types of wood.

A long line of wood sample racks.
© AfricaMuseum

Colonial origin

The xylarium in Tervuren has existed since the creation of the AfricaMuseum, in the colonial period under Leopold II. The wood collection was part of the world exhibition in 1897. At that time, Belgium was the third industrial country in the world, after Great Britain and Germany. The economy was very important and with the AfricaMuseum Leopold II wanted to convince Belgian industry and the Belgian public of the importance of the colony. For this reason, all kinds of products from the colony were displayed: mineral riches, agricultural products and also tropical wood.

 

Motivation changes

In the course of time, the motivation for keeping the xylarium has changed. Initially, the opportunities for the Belgian industry were decisive and this remained the case throughout the colonial period. After decolonisation, wood research became increasingly important. In the sixties, taxonomic research and identification were the main focus: What is so characteristic of wood? How can we distinguish between the different species? “Since the nineties, we have been moving towards ecology. Wood is by far the most important or at least the most common material in living nature. To understand a forest properly and to study its dynamics, the study of wood is therefore very important”, says Beeckman. 

These courses are now mainly organised for customs officers from the port of Antwerp. The intention is, of course, to organise these courses in Africa as well.

Hans Beeckman

Training courses for customs officers

Wood research has been given an enormous boost in recent years. Initially, this interest arose in the context of forest ecology, but now a lot of attention is paid to the topic of legal and illegal timber imports into the EU. That is why the AfricaMuseum organises training courses for customs officers.

Inspectors and customs officers in the port of Antwerp have to check shiploads for illegal timber. They check whether the information on the import document matches the timber in the ship. To this end, they must, of course, be able to identify the timber species or at least refer the samples.

For this reason, most of the training courses are held in the AfricaMuseum under the guidance of wood biologist Hans Beeckman. ‘These courses are now mainly organised for customs officers from the port of Antwerp. The intention is, of course, to organise these courses in Africa as well’, he states. In this way, the xylarium can contribute to the protection of tropical forests.

 

Belgian Development Cooperation

Wood research also proves useful in ecology. To understand how a forest develops over time, you need to know how trees grow and die, and the amount of carbon in a forest. For this purpose, scientists submit very fine layers of wood to a microscopic examination.

The carbon content of a forest can easily be calculated. You just divide the amount of wood by two to obtain the amount of carbon. Techniques for wood research can therefore also be applied to carbon research. “That makes our project relevant in the context of climate change”, says Beeckman. “The tropical rainforest contains about 50 % of all carbon, while it actually covers only 14 % of all forests.” In other words, it is the perfect environment for climate research.

It is precisely because of all these applications that the Belgian Development Cooperation is supporting the xylarium and wood research. 

 

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