Surveying more than 400 years of playing card history, this museum illustrates the endless complexity of these seemingly simple playthings. Like all visual media, cards have over time served a multitude of political, educational, and commercial purposes, and they can help us understand cultures that long predate casinos.
A permanent exhibition called the “5 of Hearts” looks at, among other things, illicit and even violent responses to card games, the Church’s involvement in the industry, playing cards as pedagogical tools, fortune tellers’ appropriation of playing cards, and playing cards as advertising spaces. The exhibit also details how cards have been redesigned in response to political unrest: Kings, for instance, temporarily disappeared from cards when Louis XVI was put to the guillotine.
The collection boasts such rarities as an original 1567 game with ornately rendered dragons, a 1743 printing of Edmond Hoyle’s A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist, obsolete machines once used to gloss playing cards, and the first entirely metallic printing press. Twice a month, the museum puts its historic printing presses to use, demonstrating the making of playing cards from shaping to shining.
The museum is fittingly located. Turnhout has been a printing hub since the 19th century and has been home to Cartamundi, the world’s largest playing card manufacturer, since its 1970 founding.
Know Before You Go
The museum is closed year-round on Mondays, and entry is free on Thursdays in July and August.