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Can Museums Help Build a European Memory? The Example of the Musée de l’Europe in Brussels in the Light of “New World” Museums’ Experience


The important role museums played in the construction of nation-states in the late 18th century and in the 19th century generated an abundant literature. In today’s word, these institutions of knowledge are unanimously recognized as lieux de mémoire, capable of generating publics and, more or less successfully, self-identifying (mostly national) collectives. The present chapter intends to analyze how two history museums are projecting a questioning a sense of belonging and its problematic relation to a common present through the celebration of a common past. In particular, we are interested in how supra-national identities are negotiated through these traditionally national agencies of culture in the exhibition C’est notre histoire!, held in 2007–2008 at the Musée de l’Europe in Bruxelles and at the National Museum of Australia, opened in Canberra in 2001. The National Museum of Australia will be regarded as an example of recent negotiations and dissents on an alternate post-national identity construction. It can allow us to revisit the idea of Europe’s museums made of new uses, practices and discourses on multiple identities and groups who were traditionally forgotten in or excluded from a clear-cut national identity. It will also allow us to examine the scenographic representations of a European identity which can not be summarized as the juxtaposition of fixed national narratives and artefacts.

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  1. We define “museums of the new worlds” as museums which specifically display political identities formerly grounded in the myth of empty territories discovered by European settlers.

  2. The contact zone is, for Clifford, a space of exchange, interpenetration and negotiation between two or several voices. The term is forged by Mary Louise Pratt (Pratt 1991), who uses it to define the space of the first “encounters” between the European colons and newly conquered peoples. For museologists such as Clifford, the contact zone is a space of colonial and imperial conquests.

  3. Declaration of the Association du Musée de l’Europe, 1997.

  4. The museum does not yet have a permanent collection. The European soap is composed of the following episodes: “Les Grecs, les Celtes et les Romains”, “Byzance et la chrétienté”, “L’unité par la foi”, “Les Guerres de religion”, “L’unité par les Lumières”, “Les guerres idéologiques”, “L’unité par le projet (1945–…).”

  5. For example, the possible European future of Turkey is not presented in the exhibition.

  6. Cited in Charléty (2006).

  7. See in France the Historial de Péronne, also called Historial de la Grande Guerre, for example.


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Correspondence to Christine Cadot.

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This article was originally published in French as part of the book ‘Les Artistes et la Politique. Terrain franco-américain’ edited by Violaine Roussel © Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, May 2010, ISBN: 978-2-84292-257-3). All rights, except for the English language rights, are with Presses Universitaires de Vincennes. Springer thanks PUV for giving us their kind permission to reprint. For copyright and permission requests for languages other than English please write to or call +33 (0) 1 49 40 67 50.

Translated by Jennifer Brady.

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Cadot, C. Can Museums Help Build a European Memory? The Example of the Musée de l’Europe in Brussels in the Light of “New World” Museums’ Experience. Int J Polit Cult Soc 23, 127–136 (2010).

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  • History museums
  • Memory
  • Europe
  • Identity
  • Representation
  • Collective memory
  • Deliberation
  • Participation
  • Founding Fathers
  • Construction
  • Teleology
  • Scenography
  • Post-national identity
  • Historiography
  • Past
  • National Museum of Australia
  • Musée de l’Europe