The House of European History

The House of European History is a unique museum project that communicates the chequered past of this conflicted continent.

“The study of history is the beginning of political wisdom” - Jean Bodin

I like to compare the academic project team, which has been working over the last four years to put together the House of European History, to a runner who is reaching the last third of a marathon. The team has already covered so many kilometres, but there are still so much more to cover before reaching the finishing line in spring 2016

(Image: E.Young / AACMA-JSWD)

A project of the European Parliament, the creation of the House of European History in Brussels has been debated since February 2007, when the then president of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pöttering, launched the idea in his inaugural speech: “I should like to create a locus for history and for the future where the concept of the European idea can continue to grow. I would like to suggest the founding of a House of European History” he said, setting off a process that was embraced unanimously by the executive bureau of the European Parliament.

The following year, a committee of experts consisting of historians and museum experts drawn from different European countries, was charged with drawing up the concept for the House. Their final report, entitled the Conceptual Basis for a House of European History, runs to 116 articles, the first 26 of which provide a solid basis for the creation of a contemporary museum in all its breadth and complexity.

The house that history built

According to the Conceptual Basis, the narrative of the House of European History is to create a place where people from all across Europe, with different levels of knowledge and from different age groups, can learn about the ideas, processes, phenomena and events which have created the Europe of today.

To a large though not exclusive extent, the museum’s permanent exhibition will focus on the 20th century. The creation and development of the European integration process will be portrayed within this overall context, it will be placed within a broader time frame and be physically exhibited within a modern exhibition, documentation and information centre.

Although the House of European History is an initiative of a political institution (the European Parliament), its academic independence and the objective portrayal of history is paramount. As with all museums, the House will serve as a bridge between the academic world and the general public as well as being tailored to the needs of its visitors. For this, the bureau of the European Parliament appointed a board of trustees and an academic committee to oversee the project.

For the academic project team that began work early in 2011, the stipulations in the Conceptual Basis that the permanent exhibition would not portray the individual histories of European states but rather focus on European phenomena, that its offers (exhibitions, programmes and so on) would be available in all of the languages of the European Union, and that the House of European History should build up its own collection, were all important starting points.

A unique project

Before the team – initially formed of historians and museum practitioners – had been recruited and had begun the work of developing the narrative for the permanent exhibition, the building that would house the new museum had already been designated by the European Parliament. Just behind the campus of the European Parliament in the Parc Léopold, the Eastman Dental Clinic for poor children had been established in a building dating from 1934 that carried the name of its philanthropist founder. Later turned into a building that housed offices and the European Parliament’s staff nursery, this was the location selected for the future museum.

In spite of its varied and interesting historical past – and its perfect location – this former clinic nonetheless required thorough renovation. In 2009, a tender for its upgrade and expansion was launched, and in spring 2011, the French architectural practice Chaix & Morel and their international partners won a competition to transform the building from an interesting but largely utilitarian facility into an attractive and welcoming museum.

To create a museum of European history may appear to be an impossible task. However, the idea is not new: a well-known museologist, Kenneth Hudson, had already commented at the end of the last century that “A single museum to include and represent European civilisation is to be seen.” He added immediately “It would need to be shaped by a genius, not by a committee. Large size would be the enemy. Any attempt to produce an encyclopaedia would be disastrous.” Of course, the people who applied to work on the team of the future House of European History understand that the word genius was meant figuratively; nonetheless, everyone in the team – which has grown over four years to comprise 33 colleagues, including curators, educators, collection managers, documentarians as well as communication, financial and legal specialists – are perfectly aware of the size of the challenge and, of course, of the even greater responsibility it implies.

Processes and phenomena

The experiences of the team in 2011, the year in which the draft of the exhibition narrative was created, will probably remain engraved on the memories of everybody. Not only because the team members had not known each other beforehand, nor because of the fact that they came from different European countries with different historiographical schools as well as different museological approaches, but also because of their more personal experiences and memories. It meant that the narrative could not be based on a compromise but, instead, needed to be founded on a very strong agreement between and within the team.

There were also a variety of challenges to overcome. Some of these were the obvious ones, such as working together in a foreign language and agreeing on common terminology for various historical and museological terms (whose respective meanings are in any case shaped by different national traditions), then moving on to include reading historical works in a variety of languages, abstracting from historiography shaped by a western perspective, abandoning national historiographical paradigms, arriving at transnational views on historical processes, and, last but not least, asserting firmly that we Europeans share a common history.

During the long process of developing the narrative for the permanent exhibition, the academic project team was able to depend on the advice and assistance of the members of the project’s academic committee, which comprises a number of historians and professionals from internationally-renowned museums.

For the main narrative of the permanent exhibition, the team based its work on the principle tenets of the Conceptual Basis paper and grouped them into clusters around chronological points, a selection of subjects were treated more thematically.

The criteria for the choice of processes and phenomena that were included in the narrative –and enriched through the musealisation process – were rather simple. They are 1) that the process, event or development should originate in Europe; 2) that it should have spread across Europe; and 3) that it would still be relevant today. On the other hand, the dilemma as to whether or not the House of European History would refer to a European identity resulted in a decision instead to centre on the idea of collective memory, in line with the definition expressed by, among others, the Swiss writer Adolf Muschg, according to which common memory both divides and binds Europe.

The subject of the 20th century became the centrepiece in the narrative of the permanent exhibition, with a particular focus on the European integration process after the second world war. However, bearing in mind that the museum’s future visitors would come from all over Europe and the world, carrying with them for the most part only the knowledge and experience based on his/her nation state’s history, the 20th century and the developments and events which so marked the continent will be contextualised. Six main themes, divided into thematic topics, will take the visitor from the foundations of Europe, be they geographical, political, social or cultural, through the main processes and events which have shaped the continent that we know and live in today.

“To create a museum of European history may appear to be an impossible task.”

A communicator of ideas

We understand exhibitions to be communicators of ideas, so that they should function as a medium that allows the visitor to understand the messages through a multisensory, participatory experience. We would like to create an environment for learning, an environment which will arouse our visitor’s curiosity that will invite him/her to challenge and contrast his/her own knowledge and experiences with those of others, so as to become open to exchange of views and discussions.

The permanent exhibition will not be the only offer of the future House of European History. It represents the core of its offer and at the same time the inspiration for a range of activities that will be organised for visitors. In the renovated building of the future museum there will be facilities for an array of planned activities. These include a small auditorium for debates, conferences or film screenings, two spacious multipurpose areas for our learning programmes, presentations, talks and other events and also a dedicated space for temporary exhibitions, where it is planned to expand and go deeper into particular topics from the permanent exhibition using different approaches so as to attract a range of visitors. In addition, a series of travelling exhibitions is planned for the future.

As a museum targeting a broad European audience, we of course need to reach out and therefore a strong online offer is planned. There will also be a cafeteria and a small shop to round off the visit. In addition, there will be beautiful views over the Parc Léopold from the building’s newly-added floors. And we promise that there will be sufficient chairs for our tired visitors, knowing oh so well that museum fatigue is not just an urban myth!

The House of European History is a part of an increasingly diverse offer of exciting visitor facilities and programmes which attract hundreds of thousands of visitors from Europe and from further afield. From that perspective as well, the team – now deeply involved in finalising the preparations for the new museum – anticipates that the House will become a welcoming place for learning and debate about the processes and events which have shaped Europe in the past, so that it also becomes a place where different voices and different views will be both heard and respected.

Executive Summary

• Began in 2011, the House of European History is scheduled for opening in spring 2016.

• It is located in the Eastman Building, a former dental clinic, in the European Quarter near Leopold Park in Brussels.

• With development costs met by the European Parliament, plans for the House have attracted controversy over content, costs and overall goal.

• The House’s board of trustees is chaired by former president of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pöttering; its academic committer is charied by the Polish historian Wlodzimierz Borodziej.

Taja Vovk van Gaal

As of 2011, Taja Vovk van Gaal is leader of the academic project team, House of European History at the Directorate General Communication in the European Parliament. She is a historian, sociologist, and museum adviser, and trained and worked as a curator in contemporary history and in cultural and project management. Previously, Taja was director of the City museum of Ljubljana, Slovenia. From 2006 until 2010, Taja was head of support at the European Cultural Foundation. From 1999 till 2011 she judged the European Museum of the Year Award and was member of the board of trustees of the European Museum Forum.