Have you ever visited one of those small underfunded museums that deal with fringe issues and are kept alive against the odds of political and economic interest by the tiresome work of some dedicated, almost obsessed collectors? The House of European History in Exile is such a museum. Underfunded and in a state of disarray, it presents the history of a European Union that has long ceased to exist. A future audience is given the chance to look back at the Second Interbellum (1945-2018), a time when Europeans lived on a peaceful and prosperous continent before the Great Recession, the reawakening of nationalism and before separatism put an end to the European project.
In the museum, visitors are sent on an individual journey through a labyrinth of rooms filled with relicts of a united Europe. The Domo introduces an imagined audience to the complexity of a European Union forgotten by most – illustrations of EU directives and of the Ordinary Legislative Procedure in Esperanto are certainly an interesting read.
IV: Your exhibition "Domo de Eŭropa Historio en Ekzilo" is part of the third Tok Toc Knock Festival organized by the KVS (Royal Flemish Theatre). Your background is also that of a theatre director. What inspired you to present the fictional history of the EU as a museum instead of as a play?
Bellinck: The initial idea when KVS was planning the Tok Toc Knock festivals was that the artists should reach out to the local community and create a work of art that interacts with the site where the festivals are taking place. For instance, they asked directors to make a play on a central figure from the area. The first festival was set in the Cité Modéle and the corresponding play was inspired by Braem, the architect who planned Cité Modéle. In Saint-Joose-ten Noord, where the second festival was set, they made a play about Guy Cudell who was the Mayor of that commune for 46 years. So for the festival in the European District, they asked me to make a play about Jean Monnet, which I eventually declined. One of the reasons was that at the time I was also working on a play on Robespierre and the French Revolution and I didn't want to become the guy who makes historical documentary theatre on French key figures.
The idea to create a fictional museum was born during a visit to the theatre museum in Riga, one of those fin de siècle houses built by the founding father of Latvian theatre. I was the only visitor in the museum and there was an old lady with big glasses who insisted on guiding me through the museum. I had a similar experience in the Museum of Revolution in Timisoara where an elderly veteran of the Revolution had collected everything he could find on the Revolution and built his own museum. This place was a huge source of inspiration. They didn't have much space, they constantly had to move and the whole museum was in a state of renovation with things lying about so you don't know whether they are a part of the exhibition or not. This was completely different from the experiential museums that everybody is building these days, where you can touch things, smell things, climb into a ditch and immerse yourself, but after you leave you've felt a lot and learnt but little. In Riga and Timisoara, there is nothing to experience from a sensationalist perspective, but you are in a place that really breathes out what it wants to talk about and is inhabited by the people who worked to build it. This is when I thought I could try something similar with the European Union. Show the EU as something that is strangely familiar, but widely unknown.
IV: When did you start working on the project and how did you go about it?
Bellinck: In August. Well, I started a bit before that, collecting things that might be interesting but then in August I started reading up on my topic. Of course I generally try to keep informed, but it is very hard to do that. The way the press reports about the European Union is at times lamentable, the way national politicians communicate about it is often even worse. I started reading everything I could gather. I began with the Dutch historian Geert Mak because I hadn't read In Europa yet and I think it is an absolute masterpiece. If you haven't read it yet, do! The Dutch TV channel VPRO made a documentary out of it which is also played as part of the Tok Toc Knock festival in the Maalbeek. I read lots of information on how the EU works as well as many Euro-critical books. At the same time I also conducted a great number of interviews with political scientists, historians and politicians, and went to lectures on the European Union. In November, we eventually started working on the building which used to be an old boarding school. We first had to dismantle some walls to create an open space and then began setting up the exhibition.
IV: You certainly did your homework. The historical facts are well-researched and even your predictions for the future are credible. Yet, you are not telling us how the European Union came to an end and what caused the next war. Given that you are looking back at the EU from the future, that information would have to be available.
Bellinck: It is not in the exhibition because it does not matter. If we assume that we are in 2060 then you could compare it to looking back to the 1920s and 30s; a relatively little known period compared to the wars. The Interbellum is therefore an interesting starting point if you pretend that everything that came afterwards is common knowledge. It is also important for the fiction; the exhibition becomes much more credible if you don't make too many explicit predictions. Nevertheless, I do have a scenario for the future based on futurological research. I created a timeline because it is very important for me to know what happened but that shouldn't necessarily be part of the exhibition.
IV: Another striking feature of the exhibition is the use of Esperanto as the dominant language. What inspired this choice?
Bellinck: On the one hand it is part of the strange familiarity I was trying to create. The European Union is something we all know but don't quite understand and the use of Esperanto underlines that point. On the other hand, Esperanto is of course a highly symbolic language that was created to facilitate the understanding among people of different nations in the late 19th century. Nowadays this language is almost dead, but in the fictional world I wanted to create, it could be possible that Europeans start re-using Esperanto as a weapon in their fight for new unity.
IV: You spoke of a possible play on Jean Monnet before but eventually none of the traditional founding fathers of the EU made it into the museum. No Monnet, no Schuman nor Adenauer. The only person that is individually honoured is Otto von Habsburg, a great European indeed, but relatively unknown. What drew your attention to him?
Bellinck: I briefly considered having Schuman in the exhibition but eventually opted for Otto von Habsburg because he has something of a mythical potential. In the museum he is presented as one of the real founding fathers because he was very much involved in the Pan-European Union, which was already active before World War II. You have to consider that I chose the fictional perspective of an organisation called The Friends of a re-united Europe and it is already clear from their name what their main message is. A movement like that would need an inspirational figure to get them going and a mythical personality like Otto von Habsburg could provide that inspiration. It is surprising that this key figure in European history is rather unknown here in Belgium but that makes him even more interesting for this exhibition.
IV: The Domo de Eŭropa Historio den Ekzilo will be open for visitors until the 14th of June. Surely you already have a new project for the time after that.
Bellinck: My next project will be some sort of a documentary. I was asked by a friend to join her to Spain, where we'll be working on a film on the plantations in the Almeria region. It will, among others, address issues such as pollution and the exploitation of illegal aliens that are not supposed to enter to European Union but are allowed on the fringes to do the work we don't want to do. What's in the pipeline as well is a theatre project on Romanian history which is still in the experimentation phase.
The exhibition reopend in September 2013. For more information see KVS.be