(The author of this blog entry is not an English native speaker. Do not hesitate making suggestions or proposing language corrections. A French version is available here.)
The Atomium was built in 1958 as the flagship structure for the 1958 Brussels World’s fair. “Symbol of the atomic era and its hopes for progress”1, it was used as a tool to promote civil nuclear energy2. It was also a spectacular advertisement for Belgian metal industry companies3. More discretely, it was also linked to Belgian colonialism, a vivid illustration of the role Belgium played in providing the United States with Uranium from Congo4.
It was meant to be demolished after the end of the world fair, but, due to its public success5, it was left untouched and it became a landmark of Brussels. It was completely renovated twenty years ago. A commemorative 2 € coin was minted by the Belgian central bank in 2006 to celebrate the completion of the restoration.
The 1958 Atomium had a strong message. What about the 2006 Atomium and the commemorative coin ? Official communication is almost mute on the topic. The publication of the coin’s design in the Official Journal of the European Union (May 3, 2006) is blunt: “Subject of commemoration: Atomium”. The official website for the sale of Belgian commemorative coins adds one information : “Special 2 euro coin to celebrate the reopening of the Atomium in Brussels”6.
While the official Atomium website is rich with phrases like “a totem in the sky of Brussels” and “the most Belgian of monuments”, one would be at pain to find an explanation on its message today. On the other hand, on its “Discover” page, it clearly explains that “It was thus this vision of the peaceful use of atomic energy for scientific purposes that determined the design and construction of the Atomium.”, and that “[At the World Fair,] there was a large – and somewhat controversial – colonial section testifying to Belgian rule in the Congo, at a time when the international context was evolving towards the end of European control of the colonies.”
The Belgian 2 € coin itself is not much help for informing about its message ; its simple, almost schematic, design does not provide with any context nor comment.
“Naïve modernism”7 or colonial memory are certainly not the message Belgian authorities wanted to see associated with the 2006 commemorative coin. But we would like to know their intentions: what does the 2006 Atomium mean for them?
In a way, the Belgian commemorative 2 € coin embodies the differences and the conflictual relations between heritage, memory and history. The Atomium was chosen as its topic because it is a symbol, and that’s that. If it is considered as a symbol of Brussels or Belgium, no explanation is given on the exact nature of this symbol, nor on the values attached to it.
As a consequence, it is like cultural (manmade) heritage acts the same as natural heritage. It is there, it is beautiful and worthy of admiration but it has no meaning.
- Région de Bruxelles-Capitale. Inventaire du Patrimoine Architectural, Atomium (no date): “Symbole de l’ère atomique et de ses perspectives de progrès pour l’humanité”. [↩]
- Bureau International des Expositions, Atomium: The Beginning of the Nuclear era (April 20, 2017). [↩]
- C. Nys, “The Atomium of Brussels–“Irreparably Improved”?.”, ICOMOS–Hefte des Deutschen Nationalkomitees 73 (2020), p. 59-62 [↩]
- Dennis Pohl, Uranium exposed at Expo 58: the colonial agenda behind the peaceful atom, History and Technology 37:2 (2021), p. 172-202, DOI: 10.1080/07341512.2021.1960074. [↩]
- D. van Lente, Biography 7: Peaceful Atom: The Brief Career of a Symbol of Co-operation and Prosperity. In : Materializing Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010. p. 286-289. [↩]
- “Pièce spéciale de 2 euros en l’honneur de la réouverture de l’Atomium à Bruxelles.” [↩]
- I borrow the phrase from the summary of an article I could not read: R. DEVOS, C. NYS et M. PROVOST, The Brussels Atomium and the popular appeal of ‘humanized’ nuclear science. In : 8th International Docomomo Conference: Import-Export: Postwar Modernism in an Expanding World: 1945-1975. Docomomo US (2008). p. 421-428 [↩]