The House of European History

Eastman Building, Parc Léopold, Brussels

With thanks to Joanna Urbanek and Andrea Mork


In the case of exhibitions and museums alike, choosing the starting point for a study written about them is a matter of scale and focus. The micro-history of the House of European History and its environment – the space it occupies – form an integral part of the museum, even if most visitors are more interested in the artefacts on display than in the institution’s social and cultural history, which is true for many other museums around the world. Nevertheless, the building of the House of European History itself raises several questions. Its location, Parc Léopold, has been an English landscape garden, home to several cultural and scientific public institutions since 1880. A dense web of references, this space is marked by the simultaneous presence of Europe and Belgium. [1] American photographer, industrialist, legendary philanthropist and the founder of Kodak, George Eastman opened the building to benefit the poor as part of his charitable project to transform society. Constructed in 1935 as a dental clinic to promote heath and solidarity, fitting in with other institutions of hygiene and eugenics at the time [2], the Eastman Building was acquired in several stages by the European Parliament, and the museum opened here in 2017 became one of the institutions enshrining historical self-knowledge: institutions that look beyond canonised cultural and national self-representation, holding the belief that identity is inseparable from the history of conflicts and committed to critical remembrance. The history of the Palais de la Porte Dorée provides a good example of the kind of metamorphosis such museums went through: it was erected on the occasion of the 1931 Paris L’Exposition coloniale, was first renamed in 1935 as the Musée de la France d’Outre-mer (museum of French territories overseas), then ascribed the name Musée des Arts africains et océaniens (museum of the art of Africa and Oceania) in 1960, and again renamed in 1990 as Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie (national museum of the art of Africa and Oceania). In 2003, its collection was combined with that of the Musée du quai Branly, opened at the time, and today it is the site of the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration (museum of the history of immigration). In a similar way, participatory museums giving ‘trauma therapy’ to visitors were established one after the other on the Washington Mall alongside and as part of the traditional institutions of the Smithsonian, including the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the latter opened last year. Worthy of equal note is the Weltmuseum Wien in the Hofburg, created from the former museum of ethnography. The permanence of its history, location and collection as well as the history of their transformation accurately signify the gradual prevalence of the approach that forms an important part of the House of European Culture too. Then there is the TropenMuseum in Amsterdam: opened in 1864 and also radically restructured in recent years, it has since 2014 been part of the Dutch Museum of World Cultures together with the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden and the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal. Other outstanding examples include the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn, the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum in Leipzig, as well as the Museum in der Kulturbrauerei and the Tränenpalast in Berlin.

Thus, the House of European History is not a one-off, isolated example: its philosophy, pedagogy and demonstrational methodology are linked to an approach clearly manifest in Europe and beyond: to the institutional practice of a real network of thought, namely the participatory, performative museum. [3]

Embracing this approach, the House of European History relates the history of Europe not through a teleological metanarrative but rather through the unbiased, ideology-free and impartial presentation of many conflicts, as a participatory observer standing on the outside: it recounts the story of how society operates partly through objects and partly through the medium of dramatic scenes. In other words, the present, thus facilitating the understanding, experience and a different internalisation of history for members of generations growing up in a completely new geophilosophical [4] system of experiences and world of communication and media. An example of this participatory approach is using the recording of the ‘kitchen debate’ between Khrushchev and Nixon at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow: this solution not only throws light on the political meaning of the culture of objects during the Cold War but also helps visitors to personally experience the significance of this broadcast in the history of television. [5] Just as captivating a performative space – in my estimation – is one of the sections of the exhibition’s closing chapter: Milestones of European Integration III, presenting the conceptual work 80,000 pages of European Law (2003) by the great Dutch architect, essayist and designer, Rem Koolhaas, who simply printed the EU laws of the time on A4 sheets and placed them side by side in a wooden frame: presented in this way, the text was unreadable but it made a clear visual case of what the rule of law means in practice. Exhibited in this same hall were the multi-lingual dictionaries of languages used in Europe. Visitors can personally experience the dissociability of orderly arrangement and complexity in both exhibits which provide a response to the criticisms directed at the EU, as well as a critique of criticism, presented quietly and implacably.

The museum’s approach to history is not merely, and not primarily, defined by political chronology, i.e. the narrative assembled from major historical events, but much rather by reconstructing the social history context of a few but all the more crucial, historic events. The second floor is devoted to the history of Europe from 1798 to 1914: the section Europe: A Global Power  is an excellent example of the museum’s approach. Playing a role similar to the portrayal of the decades of social revolutions is the chapter Markets and People, which simultaneously presents the relevant developments in the technological and political history of industrial revolutions: the visual documentation displayed here is understandably and appropriately selected from among contemporaneous Belgian paintings featuring the working class. Hence the several parallelisms that can be discovered in both the approach and the pictures seen in Parc Léopold and in the permanent exhibition of the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique: Musée Fin-de-Siécle Museum (opened in 2013). Among others, Alexandre-Louis Martin’s triptych Metallurgy, Constantin Meunier’s paintings about the life of the working class – the mining region and metallurgy, as well as Eugéne Laermans’s compositions and Léon Fréderic’s fascinating triptych Les Marchands de craie (1882-1883) all raise the same question – the moral responsibility of those in power and the fundamental issues of society – through the depictions of the everyday lives of the poor and destitute, the silent and oppressed protagonists of the industrial revolution.

Especially noteworthy are the museum’s solutions to present the history of colonialism, including the plaster masks from the National Museum in Dublin which represent the differences and dissimilarities between the ‘races’ as biological necessity and a gap that can never be bridged; these objects were frequently used as educational tools by museums of anthropology throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries. However, these casts made of faces did not record individuals but represented ‘human types’. For many generations they were looked upon as the visible manifestations of the ‘truth’ of scientific racism, proven by the natural sciences, that was used to justify the necessity and unavoidability of colonialism. The Musée de l’Homme in Paris had once exhibited Saartje Bartman, nicknamed the Hottentot Venus, a mythical example representing scientific racism: her brain, skeleton, the plaster imprint made of her body by Cuvier, as well as her genitals had been on show for about 150 years, until, after decades of confusion, shame and silence, her remains were repatriated in 2002 to South Africa, complying with Nelson Mandela’s request, and 192 years after she had left her homeland she was buried under dignified circumstances in Hankey in the Eastern Cape. [6] The Musée de l’Homme reopened in 2015 and it exhibited the many masks and busts in its collection with a radically reinterpreted approach informed by a critical evaluation of its former history.

Brussels and Belgian history also provide a sensitive context [7], which was clearly –and correctly – recognised by the directors of the permanent exhibition at the House of European History. A critical interpretation of the memory of Leopold II, King of Belgium – the man who regarded Congo as his private property and introduced terror that eventually led to massacres – had been a recurring topic of debate in those years. [8]

Perhaps the most sensitively and accurately elaborated part of the exhibition is the parallel presentation of the similarities of National Socialism and Stalinism, as well as its radical differences. In their approach, the exhibition directors did not regard the distinction between totalitarianism and democracy as self-evidently identical with the dictatorial practice of National Socialism and Stalinism. Their demonstration of the distinction between the essence of the revolution of 1917 – which had led to the birth of the Soviet Union – and Stalinism accords with the questions posed by the post-kremlinological and increasingly critical anthropological approach of contemporary historical and social sciences, and the above referred-to chapter of the exhibition bears witness to this. [9] Applying the categories of genocide and terror to National Socialism but using terror in the case of Stalinism, the exhibition makes a distinction between the two dictatorships or chooses not to do so merely based on the approach of (current) politics but rather follows the logic and approach of their political anthropology. In an era when both dictatorships had become a thing of the past – since the European Union most obviously regards the practice of democratic rule of law as the foundation of political community – the issue of historical distinctions can be considered the museum’s basic mission. This is confirmed for example by the illustration of the differences between the mass executions of Stalinism and the mass deportations of National Socialism, which eventually led to Shoah. In accordance with this metahistorical and post-political approach, the goal of National Socialism, total warfare, was not only military victory but also the obliteration of ethnicities and social groups seen as opponents, their deletion from history without a trace. The exhibition’s chapters of history are bound to lead up to the present at one point, which is the present of the European Union too. It is the unquestionable commitment to our own (hi)story that enables the contemporary chapters of the exhibition to devote attention and space to the conflicts, disputes, identity crises and current political issues of the EU.

The methodology used here – as referred to above – exploits the fine instruments of the participatory museum, which means that visitors are enabled to use the displayed objects, even if sometimes only symbolically, and the boundaries of the exhibition space are dispensed with, hence replicating and making perceptible the Schengen idea in a micro-space. There are as few showcases, or isolated ‘no-go zones’ as possible, while free movement within the museum is also important, its extent quite obviously made dependent on the size of the experience spectrum provided.

In the House of European History moving images exploiting all forms of enlargement are typically combined with artefacts from the past, breathing with authenticity, so at some points of the exhibition visitors actually step inside total installations, life-size ‘stage sets’, spaces formed from ensembles of objects.

Beyond merely showing an awareness of Pierre Nora’s now vastly famous lieu de mémoire, the exhibition creates and applies this concept. Of course the venue itself is already a site of memory, but visitors are able to ‘re-live’ the archaeology of collective and personal memory again and again, on each floor, and how they are inextricable from space.

A 25-metre sculpture encompassing the six levels of the museum can be seen and read by the stairway. Created by Todomuta Studio of Seville, it is titled The Vortex of History with its aluminium ribbons inscribed with letters of different alphabets spiralling with an uninterrupted flow right next to the visitors. Viewed from the stairs, they bear fragments of European texts which can also be read as visual poems from the same vantage point. Having become the emblem of both the exhibition and the museum, this spiral is the visual representation of the unity of temporal continuity and writing, telling us that memory is none other than the endless flux of texts, the dissoluble union of lights and shadows, spaces and cultural constructions.

If it is possible to create a catharsis in a museum, The Vortex of Time is testament to that possibility.