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Our Common Past: The Museum Presenting a Transnational View of European History

By Taja Vovk van Gaal

This May, the House of European History opened its doors to the public. The project began as an aspiration expressed by former European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering in a 2007 speech to “create a locus for history and for the future where the concept of the European idea can continue to grow”. Displaying almost 1000 artefacts from 33 countries, the permanent exhibition sets out to tell the story of Europe, in each of its 24 official languages. From the myth of Europa in antiquity, to the European Union’s latest political twists and turns, the museum charts a course through Europe’s history, from its triumphant advances to its most sombre and violent chapters. Taja Vovk van Gaal, who led the academic team behind the exhibition, discusses the challenges of such an ambitious enterprise, as well as her hopes for what it might achieve.

Still today, history is largely seen through a national lens in Europe. How did you and your academic team go about the process of establishing a distinctive ‘European’ view of history? Was your approach about looking for points of convergence, or patching together bits of different European histories, or did you set out to find a completely new narrative?

There have been overviews of the main historical processes and events, notably the huge volume about the history of Europe written by Professor Norman Davies, also a member of our academic committee. But of course, compared to writing history books, a museum exhibition is a very different tool to present historiographical events and processes to, and interact with, the public. A visitor is always at the centre of a museum’s thinking, so with different objects and artefacts, but also with the atmosphere and light, and the combination of texts, visuals, and moving images, we can create a kind of impression, to give visitors a different kind of experience and this is why I think museums have been such good tools in unofficial learning processes.

In terms of coming up with a narrative, of course it was not easy because of the topic which is extremely complex, and also the challenge of space – of putting something so complex into a rather small space, and choosing what to present and how, to a visitor who might have limited knowledge of the topics.

In our case, it’s been even more complex because as you rightly said we are taught history in school from a rather national perspective which means that our visitors coming from all parts of Europe and abroad have a very specific point of view and knowledge and experiences about history, and now we are offering a kind of big plate, where these kinds of view could be challenged, widened, confirmed, or many more questions could be raised during or after the visit.

The members of our team came from many different parts of Europe; as well as from many different backgrounds and with different museological approaches. A very positive thing was that we spoke nearly all European languages which meant that through the latest literature from very different sides, and through discussions, we managed in an early stage of preparing the narrative, to lift ourselves from our national views to a more ‘transnational’ level, and also to discuss and agree which were or have been the processes and phenomena which we could say originated in Europe, that have spread throughout Europe, and have relevance today.

According to its mission statement, the museum sets out to understand the “shared past and diverse experiences of European people” – in other words, to put on display both our differences and what we have in common. Do you see any tension or contradiction there, or are these aspects in fact complementary?

I think that whatever the creators of a museum exhibition do, everything really depends on how it is perceived by visitors, because the visitors, with their own experiences, knowledge, and expectations, will always somehow transform the messages into a unique and individual understanding.

From the very beginning, it was decided that we should not follow a teleological approach, and I think this is visible in the exhibition; there are always more sides presented. As historians of course we are not the prosecutors or the judges, but what we have been trying to do is to secure enough tools for visitors to make their own interpretations based on facts. So in the end, I think our exhibition is very demanding both intellectually and also emotionally. But we found that visitors have generally understood these main messages, and in fact many of them after a first visit get a sense of the complexity of the topics, so they wish to come back and go deeper, or if they cannot due to distance, at least they are curious to start exploring more. And of course with all the tools available nowadays you can really go further into learning more about these different questions and processes.

The museum doesn’t shy away from addressing the darker aspects of Europe’s history such as war, slavery, and colonialism – which of course are still today very much bound up with political questions. What was your strategy in dealing with these areas, given that still today many of Europe’s most prestigious institutions are still struggling to determine their own narratives?

Firstly I think that it’s always a choice of the authors of such exhibitions, and one of our objectives was that the House of European History should become a kind of meeting place, a place for debates and exchanging views concerning our common past, which means that in the whole exhibition it was our intention to open up the questions which might be of historical significance but which also haven’t lost their significance in the present.

State terror, colonialism, slavery, and other processes which started in the 19th century and even before that, are still very much part of current discussions, and we wanted to connect and confront them with the experiences of the present, because our visitors are people of the present and the future, with that past. We wanted to convey that these things have roots, and that there have been experiences which led to consequences with which we need to live today.

As a curator and historian, how heavily did political questions in general weigh on the work and the process of selection which you had to carry out when putting together the exhibition?

What was very important was that our team had a lot of support. From the very beginning it was decided that the academic project team, which was responsible for content and building up the museum, would have academic independence. Of course, as historians and museum professionals we are also people of the present. But I would stress that we really had quite a lot of space to manoeuvre with the Academic Committee as our advisory body.

Across Europe, rising nationalism and populism seem to threaten the future of European integration or even call the entire European project into question. Do you think that having a narrative about European history and a sense of common history is important to support the political construction of Europe? Can institutions such as museums play a role in this?

I wouldn’t have a single answer because among the thousands of museums in Europe the approaches are very different. But we are now seeing that in recent decades museums have changed their role dramatically, and that many museums have been playing a very active role in society, on different levels, also tackling the current burning issues, reaching out to very different visitors through their activities.

In our museum, we give an overview, a frame with the reasons and the basis which the European integration process started from. Looking at these milestones of integration it becomes clear that the development of the European Union has never been a straightforward process, there have always been circumstances in which something has failed, and if you had three steps forward you might have two steps backwards. So even if the current situation can be seen as very difficult, looking back we can see it has never been easy, neither during the Cold War nor after the fall of the Iron Curtain – there have always been setbacks and problems to be solved in order to move further but also to determine what and where that ‘further’ should be. There have been a lot of discussions around building up European identity, and for our museum from the very beginning we decided that we would build our concept on shared memory, because we thought it was more organic and it’s not top-down.

Is it fair to say that this is a museum with a certain agenda – to make people think about Europe differently, in a more positive way, and to reflect on their own sense of European identity?

I will answer this very personally, I would like to believe that this museum would help our visitors to think about the present situation and to spark curiosity about our past. This is probably because I was born ten years after the Second World War, so for my generation, this war is in our blood. It is at such a close distance that the terrors of this war are embedded in shaping my identities, as well as my views. And that of course probably depends on where you are from and where your roots are, so for the generations of young people who haven’t experienced borders and wars, it might be self-evident that in Europe we live today without these problems and crises. But per se I think that what an individual takes from this museum, and the exhibitions, is really a choice, and this is why in a way we leave the narrative quite open-ended, although I think that throughout the exhibition the values which it stands behind are clearly visible.

The museum’s chronology goes right up to the present day – portraying the most recent events in Europe’s development such as the economic crisis, and even Brexit. Is it a risk to place events which are still unfolding in a museum setting?

The last floor of the museum is designed to be interactive and to gather opinions from our visitors on current events in Europe and the world, which is done through questionnaires, for example. Several main events are presented there, such as the EU’s receiving of the Nobel Peace Prize, and we tried to include different perspectives on this – an official one but also others such as anti-austerity demonstrations, and so on.

As for Brexit, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realise that this will influence not only European integration but consequently all the Member States, as well as the UK. So it was a completely normal thing that we started collecting material which was used around Brexit, just as we also exhibit material from the referendum from the seventies in the UK. But, for these recent events, we don’t evaluate them. We are presenting them with some objects, but we don’t evaluate them because we are historians, and maybe in 15, 20, 25 years this will be a part of our history and then interpretations will be possible in the context of further developments.

Since the museum opened, what has been the overall response from visitors? Have there been any reactions that you didn’t expect?

We knew from the beginning that this was a first real attempt to present European history, and of course we expected critical remarks because we had to – if we didn’t have any critical remarks, it would mean a real failure! But we have had in general very positive reactions, although there was one which really surprised us: some people commented that they would expect one room to be dedicated to the Holocaust. But in determining our approach, it was decided that the exhibition would be chronological, starting with the nineteenth century, therefore the Holocaust has been shown in five different parts of the exhibition, with the last chapter being dedicated to the memory of Shoah, therefore chronologically going up to today. But this is a very relevant comment and it shows that the recognition and visibility of the Holocaust should perhaps be more exposed. So these kinds of remarks are extremely valuable to us because they show that our visitors are engaged, but also it shows that our exhibition is so complex that it’s very easy to miss something. Just last week we got a comment saying that we forgot the war in former Yugoslavia. In fact, we dedicated one whole subtopic to this issue, but obviously it was missed by this visitor. This is also why we are discussing how to develop more focused guided tours and make things more visible to enable our visitors to find their way around the exhibition. As I said the exhibition is extremely complex, and from the beginning we decided to layer it, which means that in ninety minutes, the time in which we assume a visitor could still follow a narrative, you get the basic overview of those events and processes. But then, you can always come back and go deeper and deeper.

Our Common Past: The Museum Presenting a Transnational View of European History