In 1964, as he was entering for the first time the Institute of Anatomy at Leopold Park in Brussels, an Australian student who was writing a thesis on information science at the University of Chicago, stumbled on to a unique and forgotten heritage, and the life of one man, Paul Otlet, to whom he dedicated the rest of his own life. Boyd Rayward was the first to rediscover the Mundaneum, 20 years after the death of its founders.

Saved from oblivion and relocated since 1993 in a former department store close to the Grand Place, the Mundaneum –a unique archive heritage of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation – was reopened in June 2015, following two years of makeover. The new scenography was entrusted to two great artists capable of dreaming impossible worlds: François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters. They placed a fresco on the ceiling and a huge globe sphere in the centre of the space. On the sides, they incorporated the original wooden drawers, many videos and an exciting interactive tour.

Genesis of an insane project

At the end of the 19th century, the Mundaneum was created in Brussels at the initiative of Paul Otlet (1868-1944), a pioneer in modern information science, and Henri La Fontaine (1854-1943), who later won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913. Both humanists and idealists, the two men had set themselves the challenge of collecting and indexing all the knowledge of the world. Both Otlet and La Fontaine were lawyers, employed by the Edmond Picard law firm in Brussels. Sharing a passion for bibliography, they decided to reference all the books published! Despite a booming economy at the end of the 19th century, people were beginning to challenge the social and sociological order. Those were politically charged thoughts, since they were questioning the place of the worker, the entrepreneur or industrialist.

From 1895 to 1934, the two men wrote 18 million searchable index cards that they filed in 15,000 drawers! This was the era of world exhibitions, which fascinated the public: in Paris in 1900, and Brussels in 1910. The idealist dream of Otlet and La Fontaine kept expanding, with a plan to create a world city of ideas. With this city, whose plans and scale models were drawn by Le Corbusier, the idea was to “put stones around ideas,” said Otlet. The project was dropped at the dawn of World War I.

These millions of index cards were the tangible form of newly established supra-networks that went beyond the usual and conventional divisions of knowledge. The classification method for such cards, called Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) is still in use today in libraries and archives. This method is also the ancestor of the search engine. In an article published in Le Monde newspaper in 2014, the Mundaneum was nicknamed the paper-based Google.

The Mundaneum reminds me that nothing is new – it is always about rediscovering by other means, with new technologies and new capabilities. The Mundaneum, Memex and now the Internet and World Wide Web are only the latest manifestation. I look forward to discovering the next stage,” said the American Vinton Cerf in Mons in 2013. Cerf is credited as being the father of the Internet and co-inventor of the TCP/IP protocol. The exhibition also contains drawings by Otlet dating back to 1930. His sketches already herald videoconferencing, on-screen reading and remote learning and conferences!

The Mundaneum was a private endeavour, entirely funded by its authors. This ambitious project was to contribute towards developing world peace. At the beginning of the 20th century, it became a resource centre with a universal dimension. Its collections, made up of thousands of books, newspapers, small documents, prints, glass plates, postcards and bibliographic records, were created and hosted in different locations in Brussels, including the Palais du Cinquantenaire, in the park of the same name. In 1934, the Mundaneum was evicted from there in order to accommodate a rubber trade fair in its stead. The archives were subsequently stored in different locations, at the Leopold Park or under Rogier station, until they were rediscovered in 1964. They now belong to the Wallonia-Brussels Federation.

State-of-the-art repositories

Today, the Mons building holds more than 6 km of archives, kept in underground reserves. There is also a professional scanner, a reading room adjacent to the repositories, and a temperature-controlled space dedicated to the preservation of glass plates. The 45,000 glass negatives from the Norbert Ghisoland Foundation were added to the collections. The archive building also contains an educational space, a conference room, a reception lobby and refurbished offices. Brussels could definitely learn a thing or two from Mons when it comes to top quality repositories. We already spoke about it a few months ago.

Maps of knowledge

The temporary exhibition entitled Mapping Knowledge, shown until May, provides an overview of the graphical means used to convey information. And several contemporary artists have harnessed those graphical means. A timeline shows that with the passing of time, documents used to transmit information (geography maps, etc.) become more and more complex. With regard to contemporary art, we spotted Chris Harrison’s maps showing the density of Internet connections in the world. And there is Aleksandar Macasev, who indexes his mood of the day. Grids, networks, lists, charts, and directories are schematized forms of increasingly complex data sets. Ultimately, our visit leads us to Big Data, all the information transmitted between people via the Internet. A vast mass of data which is very difficult to format or structure, the nightmare of modern-day bibliographers. That’s because information that is not organised cannot be used. Gone are the days of varnished wooden drawers filled with index cards!

The Mundaneum
76 rue de Nimy
7000 Mons
Tuesdays – Fridays, from 13:00h to 17:00h, weekends and festive days from 11:00 to 18:00

Mapping Knowledge
Until 29 May 2016


Portrait de Paul Otlet, Mundaneum

Vue de l'exposition, Mundaneum

Vue de l’exposition, Mundaneum

Vue de l'exposition, Mundaneum

Vue de l’exposition, Mundaneum

Le plafond, Mundaneum

Le plafond, Mundaneum


La ligne du temps, Mundaneum


Aleksandar Macasev, Chromapost, Mundaneum

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.