Raivis Sīmansons. Imagined Museum. A new museological formula?

Paper presented at ICOM / ICOFOM workshop The Future of Tradition in Museology on September 3, 2019, Kyoto, Japan


On a purely theoretical level every museum starts with a concept. This may just concern its mission or overall objective, but such thinking can extend to a clearly defined programme setting out what and why it collects, researches and exhibits. This makes all museums essentially a product of initial abstract thinking. On a practical level, however, the crucial distinctive attribute of a museum – in its European conception – is that it always has a collection of objects; by definition it cannot remain a set of ideas. The fundamental debate on the superiority of the idealist over the empirical, or vice versa, as the basis of acquiring knowledge has been a perennial concern at the heart of the Western philosophical tradition. Seen in the light of the contemporary practice of museum-making in continental Europe, this old dilemma unexpectedly becomes relevant anew. 

In this article the position of the European Parliament’s prestige museum project of the decade – the House of European History (HEH) in Brussels – towards this issue will be outlined. What might merely seem a technical concern, in museological terms reveals far-reaching implications of the conceptual – idealist – approach in the contemporary history museum practice. 

The tradition of the primacy of an object dates back to the age of Pliny the Elder, who died in 79 CE. In his Natural History we find the earliest system of classification of the natural world capable of being translated into a physical collection (MacLeod, 2000, pp. 3-10, cited in MacGregor, 2007, p. 2). This system became the basis centuries later for the museum in our modern understanding of the term. As per ICOM Museum Definition (2007), the museum became an institution inextricably bound up with preserving, studying, and communicating material and intangible culture. At the beginning of this 2000-year journey, natural philosophy did not merely rely on ‘direct observation’ that would alone be deemed satisfactory for an idealist worldview, ‘but rather on series of judicious comparisons that in turn necessitated the establishment of study collections’ (MacGregor, 2007, p. 1). Thus, all forms of proto-museums followed the method of empirical research. This included the collection of natural rarities, gemstones and artworks in the Roman times, of holy relics by the Church in the Middle Ages, the princely Schatz- and Kunstkammerand cabinets of curiosities in the Renaissance, as well as the organised scientific classification systems of the modern era. All contributed to the museum acquiring the distinctive profile of an empirically oriented institution in pursuit of exploring and making sense of the world though its collections of objects. 

It was therefore the Aristotelian empiricist view, not Plato’s idealistic philosophical tradition, that laid the foundations of methodological collecting and researching of objects, as a way to discover and understand the physical world in its entirety as a system. It is to this school of thought and practice that the museum, as we know it, owes its existence. Or at least that view held sway for centuries, up until a few decades ago, during which time museum historians would have unanimously agreed that ‘the role of an object in a museum is constitutive, then: without an object there is no museum’ (Grote, 1994, p. 13). 

The primacy of an object, and of collecting and collections per se dominated the development of modern European museological theory and practice in different forms from the seventeenth to twentieth century. But the empiricist methodology in acquiring knowledge and, accordingly, the primacy of an object was challenged by the postmodern enquiry of epistemology (see for example Foucault, 1970). In museum theory this shift was pointedly announced as ‘The New Museology’ (Vergo, 1989). It signalled an attempt of a critical rethinking of the ‘linear progressive history of an essentialist “museum”’ (Hooper-Greenhil, 1992, p. 21), which had dominated the scene thus far. Working through Foucault’s concept of epistemes – ‘the unconscious, but positive and productive set of relations within which knowledge is produced and rationality defined’ (Foucault, 1974, p. 191, cited in Hooper-Greenhil, 1992, p. 12) – Hooper-Greenhill is pointing out that the ‘function’ of the museum, its principles of selection and classification in a contemporary museum, have radically changed in comparison to the conventional ‘keeping and sorting the products of Man and Nature’ (p. 22). 

When the museum has been discovered, or more accurately rediscovered, as an essential component of the political sphere, the premise of the primacy of an idea, of setting the concept over the object, proves to have far-reaching consequences for the prospects of establishing new historical museums by the political elite. Here the influence of the German post WWII phenomena of contemporary his- tory (Zeitgeschichte), which as a side effect effectively produced a new type of historical museum – that of contemporary history – has to be considered. After Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of Bundestag, initiating this trend in West Germany in the 1980s and Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament, taking it to European level in 2007, hardly anyone nowadays, at least in the continental Europe, could be taken by surprise if a politician, upon taking up office, would announce establishing of a new historical museum, just as if it would be another major infrastructure project, regardless of the fact that there was no collection, no staff and no premises in place. Similar announcements (e.g. in Austria (2006), the Netherlands (2008), and France (2012)) have been constant during the last decade – brought to completion or not – and the number of history museums started with a bare idea, a concept, instead a collection of objects, has been notable. Accountable for this is the museological innovation of the last decades, namely the contemporary history museum, sometimes manifesting under the title of a House of History. One might argue that, in examining the development of these new ‘conceptual museums’ while they are born from a concept, an idea, rather than from collection objects, the fact that they then assemble their collections over a certain period of time means that eventually they adopt the empiricist methodology. However, the very turn of imagining a museum (what once used to be an end product of a long and meticulous collecting and attributing process) first, and then looking for objects to match its concept in a relatively short period of time, is quite a novelty for a history museum in a considerably long development process of European museum tradition. This innovation, to cite the former President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, for whom establishing of the HEH was a ‘significant innovation in the way in which an advanced democratic system approaches its relationship with the past’, turns the centuries-old axiomatic museological formula on its head. 

The Parliament’s enthusiasm to engage with the past, however, begs fundamental questions about politics of history, which is pointedly described by Leggewie and Lang (2011) as a battlefield of European memory. Amidst this on-going fight the HEH ‘marks the high point in the European Parliament’s history politics’ (Kaiser, 2016, p. 1) and provides a case study of this new museological formula of an ‘imagined museum’ in action. 

While the encyclopaedic approach typical to traditional museology served as a roadmap and inspiration for generations of collectors and scholars, who aspired to build ever more sophisticated and comprehensive classification systems for the physical macrocosm and then present them in the microcosm of the museum, the conceptual museum like HEH essentially aspires to do that same with the macrocosm of Europe’s history, but starts with the concepts, not objects. It is encyclopaedic in a different way: its programme being turned into collection of objects, not the other way around. Simon Knell (2014, pp. 3-4) in addressing the collecting problem facing museums in the 21st century, places the contemporary museum against the empirically grounded museum of an age of discoveries. He is saying that the ‘hard fact’ concept of knowledge gathering gave way to post- modernist deconstruction where legitimacy and authority are manoeuvred into the arguments of one group to question the collecting and interpretive rights of another. What consequence does that have for a historical museum? 

Provided that working with history in a museum is different from other disciplines which are intrinsically object based or require collections to establish a language and logic, it turns out that history has no need of objects and for the most part uses them as illustration. Except for some minor varieties of specialized history museums (art, design, military history etc.), history as a discipline is not based on an object technology as a language. What historians require is evidence that is purposeful and so the written word is much more powerful. Objects, by contrast, are ambiguous and interpretable – capable of manipulation, serving as an evidence only for the narrative. These were the both museums of the Kohl’s era – the German Historical Museum in Berlin and the German House of His- tory in Bonn who pioneered this approach of a narrative illustrated by objects that serve as a kind of evidence but which are being controlled by the narrative (Knell, S. et al., 2012, p. 13). With the HEH in Brussels opening its doors in May 2017 this museographic technique has been taken to a transnational European level. It aligns with the ‘basic assumption of contemporary museology ... that the collection is to be considered as means’ (van Mensch, P. and Meijer-van Mensch, L., 2010, p. 2.) and even transcends it, turning collection of objects into tools in conveying the preconceived idea, the concept. 

Thus, the imagined museum appears to represent a new museological formula, which is gaining currency. Called into existence, as a rule, by the leading political figure in power, it nevertheless depends on museum professionals for its realization. Here the ICOM Museum Definition and professional ethics come into play as a minimum warranty in delivering yet another imagined museum. 



European Parliament (2013). Building a House of European History. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. 

Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things. London: Travistock Publications. Grote, A. (ed.) (1994). Macrocosmos in Microcosmo: Die Welt in der Stube: Zur Geschichte des Sammelns 1450 – 1800. Opladen: Laske + Budrich. Hooper-Greenhil, E. (1992). Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge. London and New York: Routledge. 

Kaiser, W. (2016). Limits of Cultural Engineering: Actors and Narratives in the European Parliament’s House of European History Project. Journal of Common Market Studies, 55, 518-534. https://doi. org/10.1111/jcms.12475 

Knell, S., Axelsson, B., Eilertsen, L., Myrivili, E., Porciani, I., Sawyer, A., & Watson, S. (2012). Crossing Borders: Connecting European Identities in Museums and Online. EuNaMus Report no 2. Linköping University Interdisciplinary Studies, No. 14., Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press. 

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Leggewie, C., & Lang, A. (2011). Der Kampf um die europäische Erinnerung: ein Schlachtfeld wird besichtigt. München: C.H.Beck. 

MacGregor, A. (2007). Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century. New Haven and London: Yale University press. 

van Mensch, P., & Meijer-van Mensch, L. (April 2010). Collecting as intangible heritage. Collectingnet Newsletter, 9, 2-4. 

Vergo, P. (Ed.). (1989). The New Museology. London: Reaction Books. 


Raivis Sīmansons

Muzeologs PhD, Žaņa Lipkes memoriāla kurators | PhD in Museum Studies, Curator Žanis Lipke Memorial