The House of European History
London4Europe Committee Member Michael Romberg visited the new House of European History on the European Parliament campus in Brussels.
On five floors the permanent exhibition tells the story of Europe. It starts, as all good European histories should, with a mythological tale: the story of Europa. Although following the action with Zeus in the form of a bull she ended up on Crete, she was not from Europe, but from Phoenicia (roughly where the coasts of Lebanon and Israel are now). That allows a discussion of where Europe is on the map, since land borders are arbitrary. And so to the view that “Europe” is a set of shared values, ideas, histories.
The museum then skips quickly to the nineteenth century to describe themes that are common to European history – both good and bad: revolutions, democracy, industrialisation, colonialism/ slavery and a sense of racial superiority, science. The museum does not tell national histories but rather shows how common the ideas were across Europe.
The museum is more narrative about Europe’s twentieth century history of wars; the rise, fall and rise again of democracies; the division caused by the iron curtain; the way the Holocaust was and is remembered; social and economic progress; the optimism of 1989 when the Berlin Wall was broken and it seemed that history had come to an end; the peaceful unification of Germany and the violent break-up of Yugoslavia; the mixed picture of today.
What is striking is that – apart from the great block on the flow of people and ideas across Europe caused by the Iron Curtain - so many developments happened in parallel across Europe: not just fashions and traded goods but ideas and art movements. Of course that is obvious when you visit any museum, from Dublin to Kiev, from Stockholm to Rome. They all tell their national political, cultural and artistic stories. Each one is different. And yet all are also the same. British history is no exception.
It is a museum of European, not EU history. However in the post-war era there are displays showing the moves towards European integration through the Council of Europe, the European Communities and then the EU.
Brussels of course is a European national capital as well as the “capital of Europe”. Away from the European Quarter it is full of the usual monuments: wars of liberation against the Spanish in the C16th and the Dutch in the C19th; memorials to the suffering in two World Wars; monuments of Kings including the colonialist slaver Leopold II. The contrast to the peaceful creation of the EU and its purpose in promoting peace, democracy and development is made manifest in stone.
I thoroughly recommend the museum to anyone who is serious about Remain. Or indeed who is serious about Leave. Because the museum punctures any European nation’s claim to exceptionalism, to standing outside the movements that drive the Continent.
(Allow 1½ to 3½ hours. Mutimedia guide on tablet in all EU languages to the permanent exhibition (you have to hand over your passport as a deposit for the guide); labels including in English to the temporary exhibition. Free entrance.)
The other museum l visited was the Musée Magritte. Surrealism - a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images.
Both museums are about dreams. What was it that President Donald Tusk said about the possibility of stopping Brexit? “Maybe l’m a dreamer. But I am not the only one.”.