‘A Window onto Europe’: this concept makes one involuntarily think of Peter the Great and his accomplishments in establishing Russia as a naval power, transferring the capital from Moscow to the newly built Saint Petersburg and carrying out lasting state reforms along the lines of Enlightenment thinking. Thus he literally and metaphorically left the backwardness of medieval forms of governance behind in the mainland and opened a window to Europe at the shores of the Baltic See as a promise of modernisation and progress for the vast Eurasian landmass.
In European historiography, the history of the Baltic region and its role in modernising Russia has been looked at mostly through the lens of political and economic history, and less via socio-historic sources. The latter, though, can reveal that the concept of a ‘Window onto Europe’ suggests more than the hard power alone, and might challenge the commonplace perception of the Baltic See region as culturally confined to the borders of the current day European Union. The neologism ‘North-Eastern Europe’, which encompasses the Baltics, Finland, and the North-Western Russia alike, should serve here as a tool in broadening the perspective.
Before the late 18th and 19th century national and industrial revolutions gained momentum, a ‘republic of letters’ effectively functioned among the elite of educated Europeans as a substrate of epoch-changing ideas. Almost like a precursor of the freedoms that every European Union citizen is nowadays granted, and which effectively makes up the European public space, the ‘republic of letters’ of the Enlightenment age constituted a transnational European public space of its time, geared towards critical examination of the societal realities.
In the introductory part of the permanent exhibition of the House of European History, the Age of Enlightenment is presented as part of the European Heritage through the example of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which included a contribution from the Baltics by the Polish-Lithuanian Count Ogiński. Another witness to this ‘republic of letters’ features in the House during its first year, as part of the first temporary exhibition, Interactions. It is the original hand-written travel manuscript of a doctor, collector and pioneer museologist from the wealthy Martini-Himsel family of Riga, Nicolaus von Himsel.
If telling history through objects is what museums are for, this voluminous, leather-bound, but, until now, unpublished manuscript plays this role perfectly in a dual sense. Firstly, it offers an encyclopaedic description of social, economic, and cultural life of a vast number of European cities of the mid-eighteenth century. Secondly, it tells a great deal about the author himself as a typical representative of his milieu and the region he comes from.
For several generations, it was a tradition of the Himsel family of Riga to choose medicine as their field of study. Nikolaus von Himsel (1729 – 1764) was not an exception. After the end of Great Northern War and Riga’s surrender to Peter the Great, he started medical studies in 1747 at the University of Königsberg. Four years later, in 1751, he finished his studies at Göttingen, where he also earned a medical doctor’s degree under the guidance of the prominent scientist and man of letters Albrecht von Haller.
Not long after returning to Riga in 1752, the young doctor embarked on his ‘Grand Tour’ – the popular practice of young gentlemen going on a multiannual educational trip around Europe prior to starting a practical life. This lasted until 1757 and he visited an impressive number of European cities and also stayed in some places for longer periods.
It is a well-documented fact that only a few years before Himsel embarked on his journey, the first and most popular ‘Grand Tour’ guide of the time was published in London—Thomas Nugent’s (1700 – 1772) The Grand Tour—containing an exact description of most of the cities, towns and remarkable places of Europe; Himsel, who spent 10 months in Great Britain (from May 1755 to March 1756), could not have missed this bestseller. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that, while reading the popular ‘Grand Tour’ guides and getting inspired by them, Himsel dreamt about publishing a travel guide of his own. However, unlike the guide compiled by Nugent, which saw three editions from 1749 to 1778, Himsel’s own travel manuscript in three volumes – which, according to experts, had hardly any equivalents in terms of encyclopedic scope, not only in the Baltics but in all Europe – has never been published. Having gone through the twists and turns of history, it has luckily been preserved.
After von Himsel’s early death (1764), as per bequest, the Martini-Himsel family collection of scientific and artistic relicts came into custody of the city of Riga and effectively formed the basis for the establishment of the Riga City Museum in 1773, the first public museum in Riga and, indeed, in the entire Russian Empire. Seen in a wider European perspective of the birth of a public museum, it is placed just between the British Museum, which was established in 1753 upon a similar bequest of a private individual, Sir Hans Sloane, and the Louvre in 1789, following the popular revolutionary upheaval.
When labouring on representing Europe’s journey to modernity like the House of European History does, it is useful time and again to remind oneself of its civic society roots and the network of humanist-minded individuals who stood at its beginnings. It would be interesting to find out how the eighteenth century traveler from Riga used to answer the question of where he came from: from the Russian Empire, the Baltics, or simply from the North of Europe? Which identity – political, national or perhaps regional – did he have in the first place? And when meeting with other representatives of his class in London, Paris, Saint Petersburg, Berlin or Rome, how would he have distinguished between them?
This remains to be discovered in a further research of the manuscript, but if the universalist-humanist agenda of an access to information, i.e. to knowledge and critical thinking, is the most decisive element of modernity, and the public museum our modernity’s paradigmatic artifice, the House of European History, which continues the European museum-making tradition with its active, mediating function, can be rightfully positioned as part of a larger communication system in service of European values.
Against the background of increasingly destabilized international politics dominated by hard power and geopolitical interests, the North-Eastern European dimension with its notion of a ‘Window onto Europe’ can prove once again to be a way forward; this time, though, reconfigured and used as a channel for soft power, accentuating the common ground we share.
Sometimes at odds with national historiographies in Baltics and Finland, the perspective of North-Eastern Europe transcends the commonplace delineation along geopolitical borders and offers inclusive but realistic views on Russia as historically connected to the Baltic world.
Seen in this light, the concept of a ‘Window onto Europe’ acquires completely new meaning and effectively turns North-Eastern Europe into a missing cultural link that can connect Russia with Europe in geopolitically troubled times. An object like von Himsel’s travel manuscript is clear proof of that.
First published in Mork, A. and Christodoulou, P. (eds) (2018) Creating the House of European History, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union
Exhibition Journey of a Bon Vivant open until 22 June in the Mūkusala Art Salon, Rīga.
Photo: Didzis Grodzs