The primary mission of the House of European History in Brussels is: “to enhance understanding of European history in all its complexity, to encourage the exchange of ideas and to question assumptions.”
I was curious to see where their starting point would be. Which century? And also, having just written the article on Russian history, which area of the globe they defined as ‘Europe’?
First they had to explain the classical origins of the name Europa (a Phoenician virgin raped by Zeus disguised as a white bull) as depicted in Greek relics and legends connected to tribal origins of Cretans. This adds a veneer of antiquity but contributes nothing to understanding the modern aspirations of the European Community.
Where is Europe?
The question of the geographic territory of Europe is posed in a line of maps. It starts with Ptolemy, the scholar in Alexandria, Egypt who drew a map of the world as he knew it in 170 CE (the Common Era), which is actually not bad, showing awareness of lands of Africa further south and trade routes to Asia. After a couple of mediaeval maps, we arrive at maps which were becoming more accurate from the age of exploration, including a globe.
The last two illustrate how map-makers tend to make their own country the centre, with a Chinese map, and also an upside down one with Australia in the centre. Throughout the later galleries there were various maps which often revealed how some borders, especially in the east of Europe, have shifted. There was a good map of the railways of Europe from 1872.
The time of revolution
The question of the starting point of this history of Europe is answered in the huge wall projection of the time of Revolution, the 1790s, to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
The guide books emphasise that the history does not follow individual nations but rather displays what Europe experienced together. This gallery displayed the ferment of the 19th century: the popular risings and industrial change. There were also displays about colonialism, including the often reproduced diagram about how many slaves to cram into a trans-Atlantic ship. It did not feature much about Belgium’s enterprises in the Congo. For that, one needs a visit to the African museum. There was a German map which displayed competitively the size of Empires and their population.
A violent century
Then comes the 20th century with its two world wars, depicted both in huge wall projected photos and also in objects, like guns, uniforms and medals. The most telling map from 1939 showed the areas of Europe which were democratic, fascist, authoritarian or communist. Interesting to note that the Eastern European countries like Hungary and Poland, then as now, veered toward authoritarianism! Moving from the 19th to 20th century, it was easy to see how the workers’ movements also flowed into Communism, with a map of the Communist parties across the world in 1919.
After World War II, there was an explosion of consumerism, shown in a gallery full of desirable household purchases, including a small car.
But on the same floor there is a room devoted to the Shoah (Holocaust) with solemn quotations projected along the walls, from European leaders on the importance of remembering.
The European communities
Post-World War II we have reached the foundation years of the EEC. As this is within my lifetime, I am more critical of what has been included and what omitted. I am pleased that protest movements are on display, the anti-nuclear peace protests, and feminism, but there is not enough about the 1950s norms and events they were rebelling against. Nor is there enough about the end of Empires and increased migration from former colonies.
There is an attempt at showing population mix by an interactive display where you can input your own data, for two points (in a choice of birth, love, music, where living now etc) but, as it only includes capital cities and does not include the wider world outside Europe, it does not serve the purpose of including all visitors’ experience.
There was a welcome sitting place where one could watch a replay of Khrushchev meeting Nixon in 1959, but I was sorry it did not include the famous dialogue about how to cut carrots (Americans had a gadget, Russians a woman with a sharp knife).
There are six floors to this building, with a central space between the steps hung with glittering metal streamers on which were printed significant quotations about Europe, but I could not find where these are readably printed out.
‘La lingua dell’Europa e la traduzione’
On the top floor, there was a long book display of dictionaries of 24 languages of the EU. It is difficult to depict language achievements visually, but careful respect and use of one another’s language is one of the outstanding achievements of the EU. It is resource-intensive too, with all those interpreters and multi-language versions of each decision and regulation.
Opportunities for children to learn
Also on this floor is a corner for empathy in history: children are asked to imagine they are a child worker in a factory, or a child in a rich bourgeois family (this one wonders why the child in dirty ragged clothes she sees in the street has not been told by her nanny to dress respectably!).
There is a lot of helpful material for teachers who can book slots for their classes, and use the excellent worksheets, available in various languages of course. They also have sessions for the teachers themselves.
Encouraging British teachers to avail themselves of this rich treasure
I wonder how much of this is now available to British teachers. We were probably never much involved as the museum opened in 2017. I do not know what curriculum materials on these aspects of European history are available in the national curriculum, but they are probably puny. The second world war dominates history in this island to the exclusion of the positive achievements of the EU.
However there are at least two ways in which Britons can learn more about our shared European history: first by arranging to visit this museum (more group trips to Brussels by pro-EU British) and, second, by discovering more of this material online. This museum could do more to digitise some of its displays (those wonderful maps) so that people, especially school-children, could access them whenever. Google Arts has started to do this for some famous museums.
This museum has free entry, so as much as possible should be freely available on the world wide web. Of course, the best, especially with children who are used to interactive immersive learning, is to go in person to a museum. But next best, and saving on travel miles, would be to be able to click into a visit to this museum.
Virtual history tour
I sent this article to their press office and was pleased to get a same-day reply with the following useful information:
The House of European History launched its virtual tour platform on International Museum Day this year (May 18). The virtual tour features a full chronological tour of the permanent exhibition galleries, as well as 14 thematic tours, on for example World War I and II and milestones of European integration, and is available in 24 European languages. For teachers across Europe, including the UK, we provide online workshops to explain how to use the virtual tour as a learning tool and confidently teach students about European history and today’s European Union.
To give two further examples of our digital offer, for people who cannot physically visit the museum:
- The online collection allows people to explore the objects in our collection in greater detail, and grouped by specific themes.
- Expo 58 is a virtual reality recreation of the European Coal and Steel Community pavilion, held at the 1958 Expo in Brussels. Online visitors can go through its bustling multi-floor spaces and descend into the depths of its underground coal mine.
They are also following up my copyright queries about some of the maps. Full marks for quick efficient response from Brussels!