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House of European History charts common course in divisive times

12:00 28/05/2017
With exhibits retelling the continent’s history, the new museum in Brussels focuses on the question of what it means to be European

The House of European History opened in Brussels last week, the culmination of an idea first proposed 10 years ago by German politician Hans-Gert Pöttering, the then-president of the European parliament. The museum’s opening comes at a time when the future of Europe as a collective enterprise seems more uncertain than ever and signals the European institutions’ commitment to a united Europe.

Located in the historic Eastman Building in Léopold Park, the museum is a stone’s throw from the parliament. The Art Deco building, built in 1935 as a dental clinic for underprivileged children by American philanthropist George Eastman, has been recently renovated and expanded with a modern addition.

The museum is divided into two sections: the bottom two floors house temporary exhibitions, while the upper floors present the permanent collection. The permanent display is both chronological and thematic, starting with the question of a common European identity, and focusing on the events of the 20th century.

The exhibits in the permanent collection, however, lack any labels or text, lending the gallery an oddly disorienting appearance, as objects are displayed without any apparent context. According to Blandine Smilansky, an educator at the museum, this was done on purpose, as “the museum treats history as open to interpretation, bringing together all the disparate voices”.

Forged in crisis

The permanent galleries are filled with a combination of objects that were either purchased for the museum or loaned from more than 200 museums across Europe. “This corresponds to the purpose of the project, bringing all these objects from national collections and putting them together in a new context,” Smilansky explains.

On the second floor are sections dedicated to the ancient myth of Europa, the changing maps over the centuries and a selection of objects that are commonly associated with European culture. It makes for a puzzling and disjointed installation and doesn’t inspire confidence that any such thing as Europe actually exists.

The third floor starts with a small gallery that skips lightly over the developments of the 19th century, including the rise of democracy, the industrial revolution and colonisation. The cursory displays seem inadequate to the importance of these developments and risk trivialising the more difficult subject matters, such as the slave trade.

But the curators seem impatient to get to the events ahead, namely the two world wars and the political developments that surrounded them. Here’s where the museum hits its stride, with impressive audio-visual displays and objects dedicated to the machinery and horrors of war. It appears that the nations of Europe finally have something in common.

The fourth and fifth floors are dedicated to the post-war period, the Cold War, the founding of the European Union and recent political developments. A small room on the fourth floor, hidden from view, deals with the memory of the Holocaust. Its placement suggests the ambivalence that many in Europe still feel about the issue.

Commerce, combat

The inaugural temporary exhibition, meanwhile, is called Interactions: Centuries of Commerce, Combat and Creation. The first section is dedicated to trade, war, negotiation and learning, with wall texts in four languages.

A separate section resembles the rooms of a house, with furnishings and everyday objects each telling a story of cultural contact and exchange. It’s an innovative and attractive installation; visitors can touch and play with the items on display, making it both fun and interactive.

At a press conference to announce the opening, Antonio Tajani, president of the European parliament, stressed the importance of communicating the EU’s common values to its citizens, and especially its young people. “We need the Museum of European History because we need to know more about our history,” he said.

Pöttering, where the idea began, was also present. “If we don’t defend the European Union,” he said, “it might have a very different future.”

Written by Diana Goodwin



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