One side of Place du Luxembourg is dominated by a monster, its two arms extending to clasp the diminutive station building in front of it. Until a few months ago, visitors to this area could do little but wander around the paved area in front of this hulking monolith (as I like to call it), buffeted by the mischievous winds that like to gust through this exposed area (blowing hair up, skirts up, umbrellas inside out), be rained on unrelentingly, peer at the many windows that look out but do not welcome enquiring eyes. The visitors wondered, understandably, what they were doing here. And what all these young, well-dressed people were doing in there, emerging to smoke furtive cigarettes on the steps, or relaxing after work in a heady mix of beer, interns, lobbyists and burgers on the square outside.
I have also often wondered what I was doing there. But I have at least been inside. Ironic how an institution which prides itself on being elected by the people should have remained so mysterious and inaccessible. Some kind of visitor experience - other than a centre suppyling leaflets in multiple languages - was clearly overdue.
Generally I think most people would agree that an institution's attempt to say what it does and why it does it can only be a good thing. So I was pre-disposed to like this new visitor centre, even before trying it out. Yes, it cost more to kit out than the education budget of a small country, and doubtless involved much agonising about linguistic diversity and how to present the trickier bits of European history. But a lot of thought has been invested in this new visitor experience - sometimes perhaps too much.
|It's a long way to a whole lot of places|
I decide that for my second visit to the Parlamentarium (the fact this is the second is already a good sign), I would be accompanied by my boyfriend: someone with limited understanding of what the European Parliament does. I'm interested to see what he will make of it.
It's Wednesday evening and we collect our audio guides and are soon at our first exhibit. Not the best start, this. Only minutes in, and we are struggling to use our new-fangled i-phone guides and trying to distinguish between three horribly similar white models. Now, which one is Strasbourg, which one Spinelli, which one Weiss....? Who cares? They're not the most imaginative of models. To add to our confusion, neon text flashes by on the screen, as if we were on the trading floor of the NASDAQ. And a lot of suspended signs tell us where Helsinki, Riga and Vienna are. I am frustrated: by my inability to use the technology; and what this is supposed to teach us. It's as if they only had a small space and were unsure what to put in it. A guide takes pity on us and explains we need to sweep the back of our device across the smiling kids icon to get our audio to work. But I know there is better to come, so we abandon this and move on.
In part 2 there are more guides and a dark tunnel. Screens embedded in walls give some of the historical background: a background of gas masks, destroyed cities, queues, rationing and evacuations in various EU Member States - the context which led to the development of the European Union. This is interesting, although I struggle with the way it is presented and would have liked a more traditional format. The oh-so-smart smart phone manages to get me on the internet and I need expert help to free myself of its tyranny. Meanwhile some of the smiley face signs are already rubbed off. There are no smiles in this dark corridor of history, anyway. Sometimes there's no audio either and you just have to read your screen to yourself. There's something about part 2 that is frustrating me. So we keep walking, no better informed. I'm pondering one of the quotes on the wall:
'What, in concrete and practical terms does the independence of nations mean in the world of today, a world of the closest economic and political interdependence, which means the destiny of all mankind is indivisible.' (Julius Braunthal)
Sorry, Daily Mail. I deliberate this throughout my visit and at the end I still think he has a good point.
After a pause, where I put my head in Verdi's head in a corner (again, purpose of this uncertain), we're on to part 3. Part 3 is good, and we've worked out how to use our i-phones by now. Things have got more interesting. We're in a well-lit space, with counters containing papers on the political genesis of the European Coal and Steel Community, and letters discussing the new Franco-German cooperation in the Ruhr region, and another letter showing that this was all welcomed by the US at the time. The touch screens are a help rather than a hindrance (better than reading a lengthy piece of text on the wall.) I read the story of de Gaulle vetoing - twice - the UK's membership of the EU, describing the UK as the "cheval de Troie des Etats-Unis". Perhaps the most interesting part, though, is a wall of photos from the last few decades, capturing a moment in history in each Member State. You can read a short synopsis of the event on your i-phone: moon landings, martial law, the Solidarity movement, Dolly the sheep.... The boyfriend is interested to learn that in 1963 there were already protests calling for a Federal Belgium; and to see laid-off workers in front of the Vilvoorde factory. And then there are also the early mobile phones, circa 1986;
"The only thing you can do with these early mobiles is make calls", says my audio guide.
"But making calls is really all I need it for. Well, it's still my main purpose", I protest, glaring at my futuristic i-phone, accusingly. By the way, the Parliament is obviously really, really proud that it helped make roaming charges cheaper. But this is all European history, not about the European Parliament per se. But no matter, we are interested. Apparently the late 1990s saw record highs in European unemployment. Both of us wonder if those records have since been broken.
Part 4 is a wall of MEP faces. There's not much more to say about those. Moving on....
This is where you can see the EP in action! A 360 degree cinema; all action enhanced for dramatic effect. You are seated in the auditorium to watch the orators, almost as if you were taking part in the debate: championing the rights of European citizens, protecting the environment, alerting us to dangerous hazards, human rights abuses, outrages in one's constituency etc, etc. The people around me seem to enjoy it. I learn something new. Nobody walks out.
It's a shame, but by the time we're on to part 6 (my favourite part) the attentive (and multilingual staff) are hovering around us, indicating it is time to take our leave. Meanwhile, the boyfriend's face has lit up with glee at the prospect of what we're supposed to do next: trundle wheelie-screen boxes across a map of Europe, pausing to hear historical snippets and facts about different European cities. Again, the link to the European Parliament is not always obvious, but as we only have time for a brief play around here I cannot remember if we learn about particular pieces of European legislation at this point. I think we do. Anyway, as I said, this is fun so make sure you spare some time for it. Along the wall there are globes to be spun, which show the European Parliament's cooperation with third countries.
After this we pass by the final exhibit, a bizarre collection of belongings from a handful of MEPs, where you can see their owners talk about future challenges - for the Union, I guess - or possibly the Whole World. All a bit odd. But then comes the final flourish. As the young staff look on, visitors are free to express their hopes for the future - via a high-tech neon screen, bien sûr. For better or for worse, there's no censorship. We say whatever pops into our heads and then leave, satisfied with ourselves and our visit.
In summary: a visitor centre (long overdue), helpful young staff, doesn't cost a single euro cent. There's also a café and a gift shop selling various things with questionable links to the European Parliament. Said café goes untested for once. We say this Parlamentarium is worth a visit.
Parlamentarium - The European Parliament's Visitors' Centre
Willy Brandt Building
Rue Wiertz 60/ Wiertzstraat 60
BelgiumFor opening times see:
(Open until 20:00 Tuesday and Wednesday)
Suggested visit time: around 1.5 hours