The Itinerant Archive

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The project of the Mundaneum and its protagonists is undoubtedly linked to the context of Brussels. Residency of King Leopold II, who supported the awakening of his countries desire for greatness by a steady stream of capital flowing in from his private colonies in Congo, 19th century Brussels formed fertile ground for an ambitious institutional project with internationalist ambitions such as the Mundaneum. Its tragic demise was unfortunately equally at home in Brussels as it fell prey to a complex entanglements of dis-interested management and provincial politics, finally letting the remains of the archive slip out of the city. This tour through Brussels is a kind of itinerant monument to the Mundaneum in Brussels. It takes you along the many temporary locations of the archives, guided by the words of care-takers, discoverers and biographers that have crossed it's path. Following the increasingly dispersed and dwindling collection through the city and centuries, you won't find any traces of its passage, though you might discover many unknown corners of Brussels.
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1919: Musée international

Outre le Répertoire bibliographique universel et un Musée de la presse qui comptera jusqu’à 200.000 spécimens de journaux du monde entier, on y trouvera quelque 50 salles, sorte de musée de l’humanité technique et scientifique. Cette décennie représente l’âge d’or pour le Mundaneum, même si le gros de ses collections fut constitué entre 1895 et 1914, avant l’existence du Palais Mondial. L’accroissement des collections ne se fera, par la suite, plus jamais dans les mêmes proportions.[1]

En 1920, le Musée international et les institutions créées par Paul Otlet et Henri La Fontaine occupent une centaine de salles. L’ensemble sera désormais appelé Palais Mondial ou Mundaneum. Dans les années 1920, Paul Otlet et Henri La Fontaine mettront également sur pied l’Encyclopedia Universalis Mundaneum, encyclopédie illustrée composée de tableaux sur planches mobiles.[2]

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Start at Parc du Cinquantenaire 11, Brussels in front of the entrance of what is now Autoworld.

In 1919, significantly delayed by World War I, the Musée international finally opened. The project had been conceptualised by Paul Otlet and Henri Lafontaine already ten years earlier as a mix between a documentation center, conference venue and educational display. It occupied the left wing of the magnificent buildings erected in the Parc Cinquantenaire for the Grand Concours International des Sciences et de l'industrie.
The ever ambitious process of building the Mundaneum archives took place in the context of a growing internationalisation of society, while at the same time the social gap was increasing due to the expansion of industrial society. Furthermore, the internationalisation of finances and relations did not only concern industrial society, it also acted as a motivation to structure social and political networks, among others via political negotiations and the institution of civil society organisations.

Museology merged with the International Institute of Bibliography (IIB) which had its offices in the same building. The ever-expanding index card catalog had already been accessible to the public since 1914. The project would be later known as the World Palace or Mundaneum. Here, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine started to work on their Encyclopaedia Universalis Mundaneum, an illustrated encyclopaedia in the form of a mobile exhibition.

Museology merged with the International Institute of Bibliography (IIB) which had its offices in the same building. The ever-expanding index card catalog had been open to the public during business hours since 1914. The project would be later known as the World Palace or Mundaneum. Simultaneously, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine started to work on their Encyclopaedia Universalis Mundaneum, an illustrated encyclopaedia in the form of a mobile exhibition.

Walk under the colonnade to your right, and you will recognise the former entrance of Le Palais Mondial.

Only a few years after its delayed opening, the ambitious project started to lose support from the Belgium government, preferring to use the vast exhibition spaces for commercial activities. In 1922 and 1924, Le Palais Mondial was temporarily closed to make space for a rubber fair.

1934: Mundaneum moved to home of Paul Otlet

Si dans de telles conditions le Palais Mondial devait définitivement rester fermé, il semble bien qu’il n’y aurait plus place dans notre Civilisation pour une institution d’un caractère universel, inspirée de l’idéal indiqué en ces mots à son entrée : Par la Liberté, l’Égalité et la Fraternité mondiales − dans la Foi, l’Espérance et la Charité humaines − vers le Travail, le Progrès et la Paix de tous ![3]

Cato, my wife, has been absolutely devoted to my work. Her savings and jewels testify to it; her invaded house testify to it; her collaboration testifies to it; her wish to see it finished after me testifies to it; her modest little fortune has served for the constitution of my work and of my thought.[4]

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Walk under the Arc de Triumph and exit the Cinquantenaire park on your left. On Avenue des Nerviens-Nervierslaan turn left into Rue Sainte Gertrude-Sint Geertruidestraat. Turn left onto Rue Colonel Van Gele-Kolonel Van Gelestraat and right onto Rue Louis Hap-Louis Hapstraat. Turn left onto Avenue d'Auderghem-Oudergemselaan and right onto Rue Fétis-Fétisstraat.

The ministry of public works decided to close the Mundaneum in 1934 to make place for the extension of the Royal Museum of Art and History. An outraged Otlet posted in front of the closed entrance with his colleagues, but to no avail. The official address of the Mundaneum was 'temporarily' transferred to his house at Rue Fétis 44 where he lived with his second wife Cato Van Nederhasselt.
Part of the archives were moved Rue Fétis, but many boxes and most of the card-indexes remained stored in the Cinquantenaire building. Paul Otlet continued a program of lectures and meetings in other places, including in his home.

1941: Mundaneum in Parc Léopold

The upper galleries ... are one big pile of rubbish, one inspector noted in his report. It is an impossible mess, and high time for this all to be cleared away. The Nazis evidently struggled to make sense of the curious spectacle before them. The institute and its goals cannot be clearly defined. It is some sort of ... 'museum for the whole world,' displayed through the most embarrassing and cheap and primitive methods.[5]

Distributed in two large workrooms, in corridors, under stairs, and in attic rooms and a glass-roofed dissecting theatre at the top of the building, this residue gradually fell prey to the dust and damp darkness of the building in its lower regions, and to weather and pigeons admitted through broken panes of glass in the roof in the upper rooms. On the ground floor of the building was a dimly lit, small, steeply-raked lecture theatre. On either side of its dais loomed busts of the founders.[6]

Derrière les vitres sales, j’aperçus un amoncellement de livres, de liasses de papiers contenus par des ficelles, des dossiers dressés sur des étagères de fortune. Des feuilles volantes échappées des cartons s’amoncelaient dans les angles de l’immense pièce, du papier pelure froissé se mêlait au gravat et à la poussière. Des récipients de fortune avaient été placés entre les caisses et servaient à récolter l’eau de pluie. Un pigeon avait réussi à pénétrer à l’intérieur et se cognait inlassablement contre l’immense baie vitrée qui fermait le bâtiment.[7]

Annually in this room in the years after Otlet's death until the late 1960's, the busts garlanded with floral wreaths for the occasion, Otlet and La Fontaine's colleagues and disciples, Les Amis du Palais Mondial, met in a ceremony of remembrance. And it was Otlet, theorist and visionary, who held their imaginations most in beneficial thrall as they continued to work after his death, just as they had in those last days of his life, among the mouldering, discorded collections of the Mundaneum, themselves gradually overtaken by age, their numbers dwindling.[8]

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Exit the Rue Fétis-Fétisstraat onto Chaussee de Wavre-Steenweg op Waver, turn right and follow into the Rue de l'Etang-Vijverstraat. Turn right on Rue Gray straat, cross Place Jourdan plein into Parc Leopold park. Right at the entrance is the building of l’Institut d’Anatomie Raoul Warocqué.

In 1941, the Nazi-Germans occupying Belgium wanted to use the space still used to store the collections of the Mundaneum in the Palais du Cinquantenaire. Everything was moved to the Parc Léopold except for tons of periodicals, which were simply destroyed, and a vast quantity of files on the international associations, which were assumed to have propaganda value for the German war effort. This part of the archive was transferred back to Berlin and apparently re-appeared in the Stanford archives many years later. It must have been taken there by American soldiers after World War II.
Until the 1970's, the Mundaneum (or what was left of it) would remain here, in the Parc Léopold. Georges Lorphèvre and André Colet continued to carry on the work of the Mundaneum with the help of a few ageing Amis du Palais Mondial. It is here that both the Belgian librarian André Canonne and the Australian scholar Warden Boyd Rayward come across the archive for the very first time.

2009: offices Google Belgium

A natural affinity exists between Google's modern project of making the world’s information accessble and the Mundaneum project of two early 20th century Belgians. Otlet and La Fontaine imagined organizing all the world's information - on paper cards. While their dream was discarded, the Internet brought it back to reality and it's little wonder that many now describe the Mundaneum as the paper Google. Together, we are showing the way to marry our paper past with our digital future. [9]

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Exit the park onto Steenweg op Etterbeek-Chaussée d'Etterbeek and walk left to number 176-180.

In 2009, Google Belgium opened its offices at the Chaussée d'Etterbeek 180, only a short walk away from the last location that Paul Otlet has been able to work on the Mundaneum project.
Celebrating the discovery of its "European roots", the company has insisted on the connection between the project of Paul Otlet, and their own mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. To celebrate the desired connection to the Forefather of documentation, the building is said to have a Mundaneum room. In the lobby, a vitrine with one of the drawers filled with UDC-index cards, on loan from the Mundaneum archive center in Mons.

1944: Grave of Paul Otlet

When I am no more, my documentary instrument (my papers) should be kept together, and, in order that their links should become more apparent, should be sorted, fixed in successive order by a consecutive numbering of all the cards (like the pages of a book).[10]
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OPTIONAL: Continue on Steenweg op Etterbeek-Chaussée d'Etterbeek toward Rue Belliard-Belliardstraat. Turn left until you reach Rue de Trèves-Trierstraat. Turn right onto Luxemburgplein-Place du Luxembourg and take bus 95 direction Wiener.

Paul Otlet dies in 1944 when he is 76 years old. His grave at the cemetary of Ixelles is decorated with a globe and the inscription "Il ne fut rien sinon Mundanéen" (He was nothing if not Mundanéen).

Exit the cemetary and walk toward Avenue de la Couronne-Kroonlaan. At the roundabout, turn left onto Boondaalsesteenweg-Chaussée de Boondael. Turn left onto Boulevard Géneral Jacques-Generaal Jacqueslaan and take tram 25 direction Rogier.

Halfway your tram-journey you will pass Square Vergote (Stop: Georges Henri), where Henri Lafontaine and Mathilde Lhoest used to live. Henri Lafontaine supported Otlet's projects all his life.

Get off at the stop Coteaux and follow Rue Rogier-Rogierstraat until number 67.

1981: Storage at Avenue Rogier 67

C'est à ce moment que le conseil d'administration, pour sauver les activités (expositions, prêts gratuits, visites, congrès, exposés, etc.) vendit quelques pièces. Il n'y a donc pas eu de vol de documents, contrairement à ce que certains affirment, garantit de Louvroy.[11]

In fact, not one of the thousands of objects contained in the hundred galleries of the Cinquantenaire has survived into the present, not a single maquette, not a single telegraph machine, not a single flag, though there are many photographs of the exhibition rooms.[12]

Mais je me souviens avoir vu à Bruxelles des meubles d'Otlet dans des caves inondées. On dit aussi que des pans entiers de collections ont fait le bonheur des amateurs sur les brocantes. Sans compter que le papier se conserve mal et que des dépôts mal surveillés ont pollué des documents aujourd'hui irrécupérables.[13]

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This part of the walk takes about 45", and will take you from the Elsene-Ixelles neighbourhood through St-Joost-Saint-Josse to Schaarbeek-Schaerbeek; from high to low Brussels.

Continue on Steenweg op Etterbeek-Chaussée d'Etterbeek, cross Rue Belliard-Belliardstraat and continue onto Jean Reyplein-Place Jean Rey. Take a left onto Steenweg op Etterbeek-Chaussée d'Etterbeek. If you prefer, you can take a train at Bruxelles Schumann Station to North Station, or continue following Etterbeek-Chaussée d'Etterbeek onto Maria-Louizasquare-Square Marie-Louise. Continue straight onto Gutenbergsquare-Square Gutenberg, Rue Bonneels-Bonneelsstraat which becomes Rue Braemt-Braemtstraat at some point. Cross Chausséee de Louvain-Leuvense Steenweg and turn left onto Rue des Moissons-Oogststraat. Continue onto Houwaertplein-Place Houwaert and Dwars Straat-Rue Traversière. Continue onto Chaussée de Haecht-Haachtsesteenweg and follow onto Rue Botanique-Kruidtuinstraat. Take a slight right onto Groenstraat-Rue Verte, turn left onto Rue de Quatrecht-Kwatrechtstraat and under the North Station railroad tracks. Turn right onto Rue du Progrès-Vooruitgangstraat. Avenue Rogier-Rogierstraat is the first street on your left.

In 1972, we find Les Amis du Mundaneum at Chaussée de Louvain 969. Apparently, the City of Brussels has moved the Mundaneum out of Parc Léopold, into a parking garage, 'a building rented by the ministry of Finances', 'in the direction of the Saint-Josse-ten-Node station'.[14]. 10 years later, the collection (or what is left of it) is moved to the back-house of this building at Avenue Rogier 67.
Andre Canonne who has become director of the ...

1985: Espace Mundaneum under Place Rogier

On peut donc croire sauvées les collections du "Mundaneum" et a bon droit espérer la fin de leur interminable errance. Au moment ou nous écrivons ces lignes, des travaux d’aménagement d'un "Espace Mundaneum" sont en voie d’achèvement au cour de Bruxelles.[15]

L'acte fut signé par le ministre Philippe Monfils, président de l'exécutif. Son prédécesseur, Philippe Moureaux, n'était pas du même avis. Il avait même acheté pour 8 millions un immeuble de la rue Saint-Josse pour y installer le musée. Il fallait en effet sauver les collections, enfouies dans l'arrière-cour d'une maison de repos de l'avenue Rogier! (...) L'étage moins deux, propriété de la commune de Saint-Josse, fut cédé par un bail emphytéotique de 30 ans à la Communauté, avec un loyer de 800.000 F par mois. (...) Mais le Mundaneum est aussi en passe de devenir une mystérieuse affaire en forme de pyramide. A l'étage moins un, la commune de Saint-Josse et la société française «Les Pyramides» négocient la construction d'un Centre de congrès (il remplace celui d'un piano-bar luxueux) d'ampleur. Le montant de l'investissement est évalué à 150 millions (...) Et puis, ce musée fantôme n'est pas fermé pour tout le monde. Il ouvre ses portes! Pas pour y accueillir des visiteurs. On organise des soirées dansantes, des banquets dans la grande salle. Deux partenaires (dont un traiteur) ont signé des contrats avec l'ASBL Centre de lecture publique de la communauté française. Contrats reconfirmés il y a quinze jours et courant pendant 3 ans encore![16]

Mais curieusement, les collections sont toujours avenue Rogier, malgré l'achat d'un local rue Saint-Josse par la Communauté française, et malgré le transfert officiel (jamais réalisé) au «musée» du niveau - 2 de la place Rogier. Les seules choses qu'il contient sont les caisses de livres rétrocédées par la Bibliothèque Royale qui ne savait qu'en faire.[17]

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Follow Avenue Rogier-Rogierlaan. Turn left onto Brabantstraat-Rue de Brabant until you cross under the railroad tracks. Rogierplein-Place Rogier is on your right hand, marked by a large overhead construction of a tilted white dish.

In 1985, Andre Canonne convinced Les Amis du Palais Mondial to transfer the collection to la Centre de lecture publique de la Communauté française. It was agreed upon that the Mundaneum should stay in Brussels.
In 1990, the operation of moving the archives from their temporary storage in Avenue Rogier and the Royal Library of Belgium to Place Rogier had finally started under the guidance of André Canonne. Unfortunately, Canonne died just weeks after, and the museum never materialised. In the following three years, the collection remained stored in the same location but without much supervision. It was reported that doors were left unlocked and Metro passengers helped themselves to handfulls of documents.
The collection had in the mean time attracted the attention of Elio di Rupo, at that time minister of education at la Communauté française. It was the beginning of the end of The Mundaneum as an itinerant archive in Brussels.

You can end the walk here, or add two optional destinations:

1934: Imprimerie van Keerberghen in Rue Piers

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OPTIONAL: (from Rue Piers, 20") Follow the Boulevard du Jardin Botanique-Kruidtuinlaan onto Boulevard Baudouin-Boudewijnlaan onto Boulevard d'Anvers-Antwerpselaan, down in the direction of the canal. At the Sainctelette bridge, cross the canal and take a slight left into Rue Adolphe Lavallée-Adolphe Lavalléestraat. Turn left onto Rue Piers-Piersstraat. Alternatively, at Rogier you can take a Metro to Ribaucourt station.

At number 101 we can still find Imprimerie Van Keerberghen, the printer that produced and distributed Le Traité de Documentation.

Rue Otlet

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OPTIONAL: (from Rue Piers, ca. 30") Follow Rue Piers-Piersstraat and turn left into Chaussée de Merchtem-Merchtemsesteenweg and follow until Chaussée de Gand-Steenweg op Gent, turn left. Turn right onto Rue Ransfort-Ransfortstraat and cross Chaussée de Ninove-Ninoofsesteenweg. Turn left to follow the canal onto Mariemontkaai-Quai de Mariemont and left at Rue de Manchester-Manchesterstraat to cross the water. Continue onto Rue de Liverpool-Liverpoolstraat, cross Chaussee de Mons-Bergense Steenweg and continue onto Dokter De Meersmanstraat-Rue Dr de Meersman until you meet Rue Otlet-Otletstraat.

(from Place Rogier, ca. 30") Follow Boulevard du Jardin Botanique-Kruidtuinlaan and turn left onto Adolphe Maxlaan-Boulevard Adolphe Max and De Brouckèreplein-Place De Brouckère. Continue onto Anspachlaan-Boulevard Anspach, turn right onto Rue du Marché aux Poulets-Kiekenmarkt. Turn left onto Rue des Poissonniers-Visverkopersstraat and continue onto Arteveldestraat-Rue Van Artevelde. Continue straight onto Anderlechtschesteenweg-Rue d'Anderlecht, continue onto Bergensesteenweg-Chaussée de Mons. Turn left onto Rue Otlet-Otletstraat. Alternatively you can take tram 51 or 81 to Porte D'Anderlecht-Anderlechtsepoort.

Although it is said that this dreary street is named in honor of Paul Otlet, it already mysteriously appears on a map dated 1894 when Otlet was not even 26 years old [18] and again on a map from 1910, when the Mundaneum had not yet opened it's doors.[19]

Outside Brussels

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1998: The Mundaneum resurrected

Bernard Anselme, le nouveau ministre-président de la Communauté française, négocia le transfert à Mons, au grand dam de politiques bruxellois furieux de voir cette prestigieuse collection quitter la capitale. (...) Cornaqué par Charles Picqué et Elio Di Rupo, le transfert à Mons n'a pas mis fin aux ennuis du Mundaneum. On créa en Hainaut une nouvelle ASBL chargée d'assurer le relais. C'était sans compter avec l'ASBL Célès, héritage indépendant du CLPCF, évoqué plus haut, que la Communauté avait fini par dissoudre. Cette association s'est toujours considérée comme propriétaire des collections, au point de s'opposer régulièrement à leur exploitation publique. Les faits lui ont donné raison: au début du mois de mai, le Célès a obtenu du ministère de la Culture que cinquante millions lui soient versés en contrepartie du droit de propriété.[20]

The reestablishment of the Mundaneum in Mons as a museum and archive is in my view a major event in the intellectual life of Belgium. Its opening attracted considerable international interest at the time.[21]

Et puis un jour, par hasard, je découvris le musée du nouveau Mundaneum à Mons lors des journées du Patrimoine. Le décor constitué de meubles à fichiers, surmonté par une mappemonde géante qui pivotait lentement, mis en scène par Benoît Peeters et François Schuiten, n’avait rien à voir avec ma propre vision du Mundaneum quelque trente ans plus tôt.[22]

In 1993, after some armwrestling between different fractions of the Parti Socialiste, the collections are moved from Place Rogier to former departement store L'independance in Mons, 40 kilometres from Brussels and home to Elio Di Rupo. The Mundaneum Archive Center opens here in 1998.

Salle André Canonne

2007: Crystal computing

Jean-Paul Deplus, échevin (adjoint) à la culture de la ville, affiche ses ambitions. « Ce lieu est une illustration saisissante de ce que des utopistes visionnaires ont apporté à la civilisation. Ils ont inventé Google avant la lettre. Non seulement ils l’ont fait avec les seuls outils dont ils disposaient, c’est-à- dire de l’encre et du papier, mais leur imagination était si féconde que l’on a retrouvé les dessins et croquis de ce qui préfigure Internet un siècle plus tard. » Et Jean-Pol Baras d’ajouter «Et qui vient de s’installer à Mons ? Un “data center” de Google ... Drôle de hasard, non ? » [23]

Google Data Center I and II

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  1. Paul Otlet (1868-1944) Fondateur du mouvement bibliogique international Par Jacques Hellemans (Bibliothèque de l’Université libre de Bruxelles, Premier Attaché)
  2. Jacques Hellemans. Paul Otlet (1868-1944) Fondateur du mouvement bibliogique international
  3. Paul Otlet. Document II in: Traité de documentation (1934)
  4. Paul Otlet. Diary (1938), Quoted in: W. Boyd Rayward. The Universe of Information : The Work of Paul Otlet for Documentation and International Organisation (1975)
  5. Alex Wright. Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age (2014)
  6. Warden Boyd Rayward. Mundaneum: Archives of Knowledge (2010)
  7. Françoise Levie. L'homme qui voulait classer le monde: Paul Otlet et le Mundaneum (2010)
  8. Warden Boyd Rayward. Mundaneum: Archives of Knowledge (2010)
  9. William Echikson. A flower of computer history blooms in Belgium (2013)
  10. Testament Paul Otlet, 1942.01.18*, No. 67, Otletaneum. Quoted in: W. Boyd Rayward. The Universe of Information : The Work of Paul Otlet for Documentation and International Organisation (1975)
  11. Le Soir, 27 juillet 1991
  12. Warden Boyd Rayward. Mundaneum: Archives of Knowledge (2010)
  13. Le Soir, 17 juin 1998
  15. André Canonne. Introduction to the 1989 facsimile edition of Le Traité de documentation File:TDD ed1989 preface.pdf
  16. Le Soir, 24 juillet 1991
  17. Le Soir, 27 juillet 1991
  20. Le Soir, 17 juin 1998
  21. Warden Boyd Rayward. Mundaneum: Archives of Knowledge (2010)
  22. Françoise Levie. L'homme qui voulait classer le monde: Paul Otlet et le Mundaneum (2010)
  23. 'Le Mundaneum, Google de papier'

What links here

Facts about "The Itinerant Archive"
PersonPaul Otlet +, Henri La Fontaine +, Henri Lafontaine +, Georges Lorphèvre +, André Colet +, Philippe Monfils +, Philippe Moureaux +, Bernard Anselme +, Charles Picqué + and Elio Di Rupo +
PlaceChaussée d'Etterbeek 180 +
"Date" is a type and predefined property provided by Semantic MediaWiki to represent date values.
1920 +, 1919 +, 1914 +, 1922 +, 1924 +, 1934 +, 1941 +, 1944 +, 1985 +, 1990 + and 1993 +