A virtual visit to the European Community pavilion at Expo 1958 Brussels

Interview with Anastasia Remes, PhD, Historian of Museums, Exhibitions and Europe

A virtual visit to the European Community pavilion at Expo 1958 Brussels

Bureau International des Expositions

A new virtual reality exhibition, THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITY AT EXPO 58, brings the pavilion of the European Coal and Steel Community Pavilion at Expo 1958 Brussels back to life. Visitors are invited to explore a 3D model of the pavilion through a virtual tour at the Jean Monnet House or online. The exhibition is based on Anastasia Remes' PhD research, which she conducted at the History Department of the European University Institute. On the 65th anniversary of the Expo, Dr. Remes lays out the story behind the exhibition and highlights the importance of the pavilion at a crucial time for European integration.

At the time of Expo 1958, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was only seven years old. What was the goal of its pavilion at the Expo? In what ways did it reflect the changing nature of public diplomacy at the time?

Anastasia Remes: In 1951, six Western European nations signed the Treaty of Paris with the ambitious program of placing their coal and steel industries under the authority of a supranational organisation. The European Coal and Steel Community was born. For its High Authority, the predecessor of the European Commission, it was clear that informing the public about this transfer of sovereignty from the national to the supranational level was a necessity. A Press and Information Service was founded for this very purpose. Its first director, Max Kohnstamm, stressed the need to inform the public in a clear and understandable manner. Yet the work of the Service went beyond the task of providing information. Indeed, Kohnstamm spoke of its mission to disarm the opponents of integration. The underlying goal was to solicit the public’s support for the European Community by stimulating the rise of a European consciousness.

The European Coal and Steel Community’s participation in Expo 1958 Brussels, the first World Expo to take place since its creation, presented a significant opportunity to introduce the general public to the new institutions that had been established. The extent of this public cannot be underestimated, as around 80% of Belgium’s population at the time visited Expo 1958. Six million people ended up visiting the Community’s Expo pavilion. The European officials called its participation in Expo 1958 the Community’s largest propaganda endeavor to date.

"The underlying goal of the pavilion was to solicit the public’s support for the European Community"

The ECSC’s participation in Expo 1958 is representative of a new trend that was emerging in public diplomacy in the post-war period. After the Second World War, a series of international organisations were established, and they quickly became important actors in the field of diplomacy. They did not restrict themselves, however, to the realm of traditional diplomacy. Indeed, they also intervened in the domain of public diplomacy. World Expos allowed them to put themselves and their mission on display for millions of people. Already at Expo 1939 New York, the League of Nations had created its own pavilion. However, at Expo 1958, Belgium decided to dedicate a whole section of the site to the new international organisations that had been established. The host country asked them to present their international solutions to the problems the world was facing. With their pavilions, the international organisations gave another meaning to the field of international public diplomacy.

The exhibition on the European Communities at Expo 1958 allows visitors to rediscover the ECSC pavilion today. Where did the idea for this virtual Expo come from and what message does it aim to convey?

Anastasia Remes: When I started my doctoral research project, I knew that I wanted to develop a public exhibition alongside my academic inquiry into the European Community’s participation in World Expos. The European pavilion in Brussels in 1958 in particular presents an important case study in the Community’s search for public legitimacy because it was the first time the European Coal and Steel Community was confronted with the task of presenting itself and its mission to the general public. My research thus sheds light on how the European Community attempted to consolidate its public legitimacy. Since this story was, from the very beginning, designed to reach a wide audience, it did not make sense to keep my findings limited to the academic community.

Through the figure of the Expo hostess, who is revived as an avatar, we can experience first-hand how the story of European integration and its necessity were communicated to the public. The 1950s discourse is thus brought back to life. By visiting the exhibition, we dive back into the roots of the European Community. We learn that, even though the focus was on integrating the coal and steel industries, there was also a wider project of uniting Europe, especially since by the time Expo 1958 opened, the ECSC had been joined by the European Economic Community and Euratom. By visiting the ECSC pavilion today, we get a glimpse of how the Community’s Expo participation embodied the European idea in the 1950s.

"By presenting a virtual reconstruction, visitors get the chance to explore the pavilion and really get a sense of the spatial experience of being at the Expo"

3D reconstructions and virtual reality present new opportunities offered by digital technologies to engage with the past. They fit particularly well with the subject of World Expos, since these events have always sought to present cutting-edge developments in the technologies of display. By presenting a virtual reconstruction of the Expo 1958 pavilion, visitors get the chance to explore the pavilion and, especially when they see the exhibition with the help of VR goggles, really get a sense of the spatial experience of being at the Expo. The exhibition is also interactive, visitors can choose which areas of the exhibition they want to explore more in-depth. By clicking on hotspots, they can see documents, architectural blueprints, photographs, and even videos. The digital exhibition thus allows us to do justice to the rich source material I retrieved from archives across Europe.

How was the content of the virtual exhibition curated? Were there any challenges in creating this digital reconstruction of the ECSC pavilion?

Anastasia Remes: Developing the digital exhibition was essentially a process of translation, starting from an academic text in order to create an engaging exhibition that would be both accessible and interesting to a wide public that has limited knowledge of the history of the European Community and of Expo 1958. While writing the exhibition script, I sought to keep the balance between avoiding long texts while still being able to communicate the nuances of this story.

"The pavilion covered 10,000m2, so it was necessary to make a rigourous selection of what to recreate"

Another challenge was the sheer size of the pavilion. The exhibition sprawled over more than 10,000 square meters. It was thus clear from the beginning that we could not recreate the entire exhibition inside the pavilion but that we would need to make a rigorous selection. Of course, we also have limited access to knowing what was actually shown. Our reconstruction will always be an interpretation shaped by our present interests and views. Still, due to the fact that the exhibition was very thoroughly documented by photographers, we were able to get a comprehensive overview of the building and the individual displays. With the drawings of the architects and even a TV segment offering a tour through the exhibition, we had a pretty good sense of the space. Still, we needed to fill in the gaps. Since we had almost exclusively black-and-white photographs of the pavilion, we had to recolourise them, based on textual descriptions. For the digital modeling, MONOGRID worked with Unity and three.js. To create renderings of the Expo public, they relied on artificial intelligence. Creating the exhibition was a process of multiple months, during which we had a continuous exchange with MONOGRID and the curatorial staff of the House of European History. Further information on the technical aspects of the exhibition can be found here.

How was the participation of international entities such as the ECSC or the Council of Europe welcomed by visitors at Expo 1958? Were there any particular exhibits or features that had a notable impact on the public?

Anastasia Remes: Even though Belgium dedicated an entire section of the Expo site to the subject of international cooperation, Expo 1958 was still very much shaped by the overall Expo focus on national representations. The major national pavilions were still the ones that drew the largest crowds. They certainly had attractive exhibits on offer; the Soviet pavilion, for instance, showed the Sputniks, the first artificial satellites successfully sent into space. Expo 1958’s international section, the Cité de la coopération mondiale, was located at the periphery of the Expo site. The organisations that were present were new players that could not lean on decades of public diplomacy experience and the expertise developed in previous Expo participations.

"A life-size model of a coal mine shaft became one of the stars of the Expo"

The European officials working in the ECSC’s Press and Information Service worried that the subject of European integration would be too abstract and dry to interest those not yet invested in the Community project. That is why they developed spectacular exhibits that would visualise the work they were doing in a tangible and attractive manner. They exhibited a very large and mobile scale model of a metallurgical plant and even created a life-size model of a coal mine shaft in the basement of the pavilion. Here, coal miners worked for the entire duration of the Expo and enacted the process of coal extraction for the general public. The coal mine became one of the stars of the Expo. Overall, these decisions proved to be effective. The ECSC pavilion received significant press coverage and was very popular with school groups coming to see Expo 1958. On some days, the European pavilion received over 30,000 visitors.

After Expo 1958, how did the participation of the European Communities evolve at following Expos? In what ways were these pavilions shaped by the content and message of nation state pavilions?

Anastasia Remes: The European pavilions were shaped by national pavilions in the sense that they used a lot of the symbolic repertoire that had been developed in the realm of national representation. They not only created a separate pavilion but also celebrated a ‘national’ day. At Expo 1958, the ECSC also presented a hymn and a flag, symbols that are associated in the first place with nationalism. Even though the Community project transcended national borders, it still relied on the same strategies of state-building.

"With their pavilions, international organisations gave another meaning to the field of international public diplomacy"

The European Community (and later the European Union) developed an official contribution to every World Expo that followed (more information on the European Community’s pavilion at Expo 1967 Montreal can be found in my article in the 2019 edition of the BIE Bulletin). These pavilions followed the same trends that we can perceive in the development of Expos throughout the last decades. We see, for instance, a move away from exhibiting objects towards offering more immersive digital experiences. Particular to the European Union, however, is that the organisation also grew and changed continuously, expanding in Member States, competencies and values. These transformations are reflected in its Expo pavilions as well.


The exhibition is available to visit online: https://expo-58.historia.europa.eu/#/en/

THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITY AT EXPO 58 can be experienced in virtual reality with a headset. At the moment it is exhibited at the Jean Monnet House in France. The exhibition is now available in three languages, and is in the process of being translated into all languages of the European Union, so it can be integrated in the permanent exhibition of the House of European History in Belgium.

 


Further reading


Remes, Anastasia. “Exhibiting European Integration at Expo 58: The European Coal and Steel Community Pavilion.” In World Fairs and the Global Moulding of National Identities by Joep Leerssen and Eric Storm, 375–403. Brill, 2021. 10.1163/9789004500327_016

Anastasia Remes and Jessica Burton, “Children, European Integration and Expo 58: A Pavilion and a Comic as Educational Devices Outside of the Classroom,” in Building Europe through Education: Actors, Spaces and Pedagogies in a Historical Perspective, ed. Raphaëlle Ruppen Coutaz and Paolo Simone (forthcoming with Routledge).

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