EUSTORY Summit Workshop »Reopens« a Showcase of House of European History in Brussels

Blandine Smilansky | Photo: private
Blandine Smilansky | Photo: private

Blandine Smilansky works as an educator at the House of European History in Brussels which was opened in May 2017 by the European Parliament. At the EUSTORY Next Generation Summit 2017, she conducted the workshop »Europe on Display« together with her colleague Laure Goemans. They supported EUSTORY prize-winners from different countries to reflect and critically comment on selected narrations presented in the museum.

Katja Fausser, Managing Director of EUSTORY, interviewed Blandine Smilansky prior to the workshop.

KF: The House of European History (HEH) is a daring project, with curators from all around Europe working on a representation of the history of the European Union and of recent European history through the eyes of its member states. What was the main challenge when planning the permanent exhibition?

BS: To come up with a narrative for the House of European History, historians and museum professionals coming from many different countries looked at events, phenomena and processes which have a European historical significance and reveal something important for us today. To try and establish this 'common ground' you are referring to, the team decided to single out the idea of memory as a key concept for laying a theoretical basis for the museum. Along the line of this statement by the Swiss author Adolf Muschg: “What binds Europe and divides it is at its core one thing: the common memory.”, the HEH strives to be a reservoir of European memory, and asks the following questions through its exhibitions: How does memory shape different visions of the past? Can we say that we have a shared European past, when history has affected people differently?

The challenges the curatorial team encountered were manifold, starting with the difficulty of dealing with such a complex subject matter within a limited space to address visitors who may have little knowledge on the subject. The team had to make numerous decisions on what to present and how: this happened through multifaceted reflections and discussions that took several years, allowing to define an approach and implement it thanks to ambitious object research at the pan-European level and multilingual interpretative text writing.

KF: The museum exhibits a badge of the UK Brexit campaign, one of the signs that Europe is currently facing rough times. What do you think is the role of the HEH with regard to Europe’s future?

BS: First of all I think that our museums’s role in a context of widespread crisis is that of any contemporary museum: to play an active role in society, to include and empower as many parts of society as possible in the discussions and debates the museum initiates and takes part in. As a history museum, through the stories we tell we strive to help people build a deeper understanding of the present by engaging with and questioning the past, and even maybe learn something from this past to face the political and social issues of today.

Concerning the European project and the current threats to European integration, I believe the way the permanent exhibition presents this part of European history shows that European integration has never been a straightforward process. By keeping the narrative quite critical and open-ended while stressing some achievements and values Europe has largely contributed to develop, the HEH may help foster this bottom-up sense of belonging which cannot emerge from mere political statements.

KF: We understand that the museum sometimes abandons labels for the exhibited objects in the permanent exhibition, wishing to present history as »open to interpretation«. What were the reactions from your first visitors?

BS: It is interesting that you interpret the lack of object labels in the permanent exhibition this way. All the objects exhibited are presented in the multimedia tablet that provides the content of the exhibition in 24 languages. Nevertheless, it is true that there is an underlying objective for the museum team to foster multiperspectivity and critical thinking through this exhibition, allowing visitors to make meaning for themselves. The lack of text at first sight may indeed help convey this intention, which is realised mainly through the work of the curators who have tried to always address topics from more than one side, as well as the work of educators committed to using a questioning approach in their work with various audiences.

This makes the visit of the House quite a demanding experience, but so far from the reactions we get we find that visitors do feel intellectually and emotionally engaged, that they get a sense of the complexity of the subject matter and of its relevance today, and that they often would like to come back to explore it further. Some visitors feel frustrated by the complete lack of text in the galleries and showcases; what is sure is that the best way to fully experience the exhibition is to use the tablet and/or follow a guided tour.

KF: At the EUSTORY Summit 2017 you will be working with young Europeans from eleven countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Germany and Israel. Together you are going to develop proposals for their own exhibits for a European history museum. The group has already started working in a virtual classroom on the History Campus platform. What have the experiences been so far?

BS: Using the History Campus online forum a couple of months ahead of the Summit has proved a great experience for myself and my colleague Laure Goemans. After giving participants some background about the House of European History project and getting everybody to introduce themselves personally through an object, we set them to work. With all those motivated and inspired young people, we are 'reopening' one of the showcases of the permanent exhibition, analysing its contents and making new proposals. The preparatory phase gives us the opportunity to gather already a wealth of visual materials we will use in the workshop to make up and animate our new showcase: we can't wait to meet everybody in person and work together in Berlin!

KF: Thank you!

Katja Fausser was supported by Lucie Hennings, Körber Foundation

View the EUSTORY Summit workshop results.

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