Boundaries and Heritage of Distinction part 5 – the House of European History: a sad celebration of the echo chamber

Last month I visited the House of European History, in Brussels. Opened in May 2017, the House of European History is located in a refurbished dental hospital. The bill for the total refurbishment and exhibition development was something approaching 70 million Euros – and for that sort of money, I had high hopes for something better than a trip to the dentists.

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The exhibition spaces follow a fairly traditional and not exactly innovative layout of chronological linearity, with a floor that pulls together various historical strands before embarking with the French Revolution and traveling on a upward trajectory through a series of floors towards the present. I have written before about such a chronological layout in the National Museum of Scotland – and almost teleological story to explain how we get to ‘today’ through an inevitable progression of ‘great events’ (often associated with great men), with each floor dealing with a succession of chronologically ordered events, which lead inexorably to ‘the present’.

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For a museum that claims to focus on transnationality and the experiences of ordinary people, such a linear pathway is a little disappointing. Indeed, in many ways the museum can be seen perhaps as being a little too faithful to French Revolutionary ideals, in the manner through which 1789 becomes ‘Year Zero’ within the inevitable progress towards the point at which the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the European Union in 2012. The 2012 Nobel medal and diploma were the first objects within the Museum’s collection, and it is perhaps a little alarming (especially for Europhiles) in the way that they appear to form a sort of ‘end point’ to the story. Is that it?!

In the first galleries, which document various strands of European culture before 1789, amid various displays of Classical material, about democracy and politics, trade and industry, religion and ‘civilization’, there is a very small section about imperial endeavor and the trade of enslaved people. The role of Europe within the slave trade and some reference to wider imperialism and colonization, therefore, is acknowledged – almost in passing – and this forms almost the only reference to non-white people in the entire building. More on this later.

Many Brexiteers will probably feel a sense of self-justification in the way that the Code of Napoleon – in various translations – is given such a central and prominent role as the basic root of the European Union. Indeed, within these sections of the galleries, the Museum sometimes seems to provide a proverbial red rag to a Brexiteer’s bull: culminating with the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, it seems that the EU was really Napoleon’s idea and that his peaceful intentions were just a bit ahead of his time?

The Museum is, to my mind, more interesting (and more successful) when it narrates the stories of the First and Second World Wars. While certain elements – of muddy trench warfare in the First World War, and a juxtaposition between Hitler/Nazism and Stalin/Bolshevism in the Second – are perhaps inevitable, the galleries work hard through these sections to tell a story of total war without getting bogged down in military history. It is vital not to loose sight of individual people and their experiences, particularly in relation to dealing with the Holocaust and the Shoah. However many languages the Codes of Napoleon were translated into, surely the memory and realization of holocaust lies at the heart of the so-called European project in the later 20th century.

Within the Museum, however, we are soon heading to the next ‘key event’, as the Cold War division of the continent is ‘inevitably’ reconciled through the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Again, these sections generally work through comparing the experiences of ordinary people, the availability of consumer goods and the growth of the welfare state. Conflicts in the former Yugoslavia form a backdrop to the post-1989 era, but where does it end? The Brexiteer might again be happy with that, since it seems to end in 2012 with Nobel Peace Prize!

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Looking back at the exhibition as a whole, it is a little disappointing to see such a singular narrative: it breaks into two at various points (Totalitarianism and Democracy; East and West of the Iron Curtain etc.), but there seems to be a supposed golden thread from Napoleon to today. The exhibitions try hard to deal with the Genocide, but hardly scratch the surface of empire and colonialism. Indeed, there is hardly a non-white face portrayed anywhere in the exhibition. There is a passing acknowledgement of the slave trade, but surprisingly little reference to decolonization and postcolonial migration.

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The museum claims to provide a history of integration, transnationalism and multilingualism, but I can’t help thinking that they have grabbed the wrong end of the stick on these accounts.

The entire exhibition is almost entirely free from written material on labels and signage, but rather relies on people carrying I-pads through which the audience can obtain information that is spoken in 24 different languages. Enabling visitors to experience and explore the museum through 24 different languages must have seemed irresistible on the drawing board, but in practice these devices serve to draw divisions between the visiting public. This is a celebration of Europe, in which everyone’s right to be different to each other can only be realised by recognising everyone’s right to draw boundaries between each other. This is a Europe that celebrates division, and which builds barriers by emphasizing and solidifying what separates us from our neighbours.

While in the Museum, I might be standing next to someone from Greece or Spain, Finland or Ireland, Slovakia or Belgium but since everyone is listening to their own narrative in their own language, the whole experience ends up as working to cement a sense of isolation. Even within our own language groups, everyone has to listen to their own I-Pads – take the earphones off and the Gallery spaces are eerily quiet; no conversation, no discussion, no participation, and certainly no ‘transnational celebration’. … family groups walking around as groups of individuals hardly talking to each other. Maybe that’s a good metaphor, in a media-bubble world of echo-chamber politics.