Brexit through the gift shop: museum of European history divides critics | World news

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.

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.

National objects are jumbled together, so visitors can see common themes about nation-building, 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.

An anti-EU protest banner and Vote Leave T-shirt.

An anti-EU protest banner and Vote Leave T-shirt. Photograph: Jennifer Rankin for the Guardian

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.

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.

“Anything that makes Poland exceptional in Europe and anything that puts Poland into international context … makes [the government] uncomfortable,” said Włodzimierz Borodziej, the Polish academic who chairs the HEH academic committee.

Constanze Itzel and Martí Grau Segú, director and a curator at the House of European History in Brussels, pictured by the Vortex of History, a 25-metre-high installation.

Constanze Itzel and Martí Grau Segú, director and a curator at the House of European History in Brussels, pictured by the Vortex of History, a 25-metre-high installation. Photograph: Jennifer Rankin for the Guardian

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

“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”.

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 Pӧttering, a former European parliament president who proposed the musuem 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.

Exhibition space and artefacts in the House of European History.

Exhibition space and artefacts in the House of European History. Photograph: Jennifer Rankin for the Guardian

“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.

The academic committee wanted to ensure that “European history was not seen as the sum total of national histories, but an overarching view of developments”. Now Davies wonders if there ought to have been more concessions to national history – corners of the museum dedicated to great Europeans.

“Most visitors will have learned their history in a national context. There is a disconnect between the exhibition and what visitors want to see,” he says.

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.

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