The House of Euro­pean His­tory (the EU mu­seum where the UK is on its way out... via the sou­venir shop)

Vocable (All English) - - Culture - JEN­NIFER RANKIN

In May 2017, the House of Euro­pean His­tory opened in Brus­sels. The mu­seum (free en­try) traces the his­tory of the Euro­pean Union of­fer­ing ex­hi­bi­tions in its twenty-four of­fi­cial lan­guages. Cre­ated and par­tially fi­nanced by the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, it took ten years of de­vel­op­ment be­fore open­ing. As one might ex­pect, its sub­ject mat­ter, dis­plays, ob­jects and even its very ex­is­tence di­vides opin­ion...

It­be­gins with the Greek myth of Europa and the bull carved in stone and it ends with the Brexit prom­ise of Vote Leave on an of­fi­cial cam­paign T-shirt. Both items find their place in the House of Euro­pean His­tory, an EU-funded mu­seum that aims to tell the story of a con­ti­nent. 2. HEH, which opened a year ago at a cost of €55.4m (£47m), is prob­a­bly the EU’s bold­est cul­tural project. “There are tens of thou­sands of mu­se­ums in Eu­rope, but they all have a na­tional, re­gional or lo­cal per­spec­tive,” says Con­stanze Itzel, the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor. A mu­seum ded­i­cated to pan-Euro­pean his­tory, rather than in­di­vid­ual coun­tries, has never been done be­fore, she adds.

3. Na­tional ob­jects are jum­bled to­gether, so vis­i­tors can see com­mon themes about na­tion­build­ing, war or con­sumerism. A copy of the first Nor­we­gian con­sti­tu­tion is next to a dec­o­ra­tive flask fea­tur­ing the hero of Ital­ian uni­fi­ca­tion, Giuseppe Garibaldi. But those seek­ing de­tails on the French Revo­lu­tion, or the life and times of Win­ston Churchill, will be dis­ap­pointed. “The harsh­est crit­i­cisms comes from those who ex­pected to see their na­tional he­roes,” says Itzel.


4. Although run by a team of in­de­pen­dent cu­ra­tors, an EU-funded his­tory mu­seum was al­ways go­ing to be con­tro­ver­sial. Some of the ear­li­est crit­ics were Bri­tish tabloids and Ukip MEPs, who de­scribed the mu­seum as a “house of hor­rors” and “an ex­pen­sive, wrong-headed palace of pro­pa­ganda”. More re­cently, Poland’s na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment has gone on the at­tack: the deputy prime min­is­ter, Piotr Gliński, who is re­spon­si­ble for cul­ture, com­plained that the HEH played down fa­mous Poles and showed the coun­try as com­plicit in the Holo­caust.

5. His­to­ri­ans think this cri­tique is rooted in the same ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive “pol­i­tics of me­mory” that has led to man­agers and in­ter­na­tional ex­perts be­ing forced out of Poland’s Mu­seum of the Sec­ond World War in Gdańsk. How­ever, the Law and Jus­tice party gov­ern­ment failed to force changes in Brus­sels. MEPs said they would not in­ter­fere and re­ferred War­saw to the cu­ra­tors. Pol­ish of­fi­cials say they are in “con­stant di­a­logue” with the mu­seum.

THE POS­I­TIVE STORY IS MISS­ING 6. Those look­ing for a tem­ple to EU pro­pa­ganda will be dis­ap­pointed. A vis­i­tor has to climb to the fourth floor be­fore see­ing the blue and gold EU in­signia. The dis­play on the found­ing of the Euro­pean Coal and Steel Com­mu­nity is mod­est, sur­rounded by ex­hibits about US-in­spired con­sumerism and Soviet tanks rolling into East­ern Eu­rope.

7. Ob­jects can mean dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. A tin of canned beef em­bla­zoned with the EU flag dropped into Sara­jevo dur­ing the 1995 siege could be seen as a tes­ta­ment to hu­man­i­tar­ian in­ter­ven­tion­ism. But lo­cals re­mem­ber this of­fer­ing “as worse than dog food”, says the cu­ra­tor, Martí Grau Segú, while the EU was crit­i­cised for do­ing noth­ing to avert hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe in the Balkans.

8. Like­wise, the EU’s 2012 No­bel peace prize is dis­played near a replica protest ban­ner against the award that con­demned the bloc for “cri­sis, chaos and un­em­ploy­ment”. Some crit­ics think the fo­cus on colo­nial­ism, war and, more re­cently, the mi­gra­tion cri­sis, means a pos­i­tive story has gone miss­ing.

9. “The mu­seum is like an empty shrine,” says Jakub Jareš, a his­to­rian at the In­sti­tute for the Study of To­tal­i­tar­ian Regimes in the Czech Repub­lic. The mu­seum is “quite Ger­man”, he adds, be­cause of the fo­cus on reck­on­ing with the trau­matic past. Jareš, a mu­seum spe­cial­ist, thinks the 10-year de­vel­op­ment time was not enough for the mu­seum to “achieve the goal they wanted … a Euro­pean nar­ra­tive”.


10. A decade in the mak­ing, this was the third at­tempt to cre­ate a Euro­pean his­tory mu­seum. When law­mak­ers em­barked on the cur­rent project in 2007, the EU was reel­ing from the re­jec­tion of the con­sti­tu­tion by French and Dutch vot­ers. Hans-Gert Pöt­ter­ing, a for­mer Euro­pean par­lia­ment pres­i­dent who pro­posed the mu­seum 11 years ago, said it would be a means to “cul­ti­vate Euro­pean uni­fi­ca­tion and me­mory of Euro­pean his­tory” at a time when the bloc was strug­gling to con­nect with vot­ers.

11. “All three [projects] have suf­fered from the same prob­lem, namely: what do you put into a mu­seum of Euro­pean his­tory,” says Sir Nor­man Davies, a Bri­tish his­to­rian, who has taken part in dis­cus­sions, on and off, since 1991. “The past is sim­ply too big. There is too much of it for ev­ery­thing to be shown,” says Davies, who has writ­ten his own take on the his­tory of Eu­rope and is now a mem­ber of the HEH aca­demic panel. The out­come “is not per­fect” but “much bet­ter than I feared”, he says. Although de­plor­ing Pol­ish gov­ern­ment “pro­pa­gan­dists”, he thinks they have a point.

12. The mu­seum will evolve – many pieces are on loan and will have to be re­placed. The top floor is half-empty and the di­rec­tor plans an ex­hi­bi­tion of vis­i­tor com­ments. “They are also part of the de­bate,” Itzel says.

(Chine Nou­velle/SIPA)

In­side the House of Euro­pean His­tory in Brus­sels, May 9, 2017.

(Chine Nou­velle/SIPA)

(Jean-Marc Quinet/SIPA)

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