Brexit through the gift shop

La Mai­son de l'his­toire eu­ro­péenne, un mu­sée contro­ver­sé.

Vocable (Anglais) - - Sommaire - JEN­NI­FER RANKIN

En mai 2017, la Mai­son de l’his­toire eu­ro­péenne ou­vrait ses portes à Bruxelles. Ce mu­sée gra­tuit re­tra­çant l’his­toire de l’Union Eu­ro­péenne pro­pose des ex­po­si­tions dans les 24 langues of­fi­cielles de l'Union. Créé et par­tiel­le­ment fi­nan­cé par le Par­le­ment européen, il a mis plus de dix ans à voir le jour. Comme on peut s’y at­tendre, son su­jet, ses ex­po­si­tions, les ob­jets qu’il pré­sente et son exis­tence même font po­lé­mique...

It be­gins 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.


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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