Both an archive centre and an exhibition space, the Mundaneum in Mons personifies the surprising history of two Belgian lawyers who, at the dawn of the 20th century, invented an ingenious system for gathering together all the knowledge of the world.
More knowledge for greater wisdom
They have earned their place among the great minds of the 20th century. There was a time “before” and a time “after” Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine. These two Belgian lawyers who were passionate about books and keen to uphold humanist values had the crazy idea of indexing all the knowledge of the world to disseminate this understanding. They believed that it is access to knowledge that will save mankind from its desire to fight. In 1895, Otlet and La Fontaine invented the Universal Decimal Classification system to file all sorts of documents, as well as a Universal Bibliographical system containing bibliographic index cards ordered according to their classification. This system, revolutionary in its time, is still used in libraries today in 130 countries! So a century ago, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine designed the first paper search engine in history in Belgium. Google’s ancestor was born.
A life of information gathering
The two men spent their lives collecting all sorts of documents, including newspaper articles, photographs, posters and postcards. The founded the International Press Museum and were involved in many different international organisations and institutions. Henri La Fontaine was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913! In Brussels, they set up the World Palace-Mundaneum, in which they presented their collections as well as their networks, showcasing knowledge in all its forms. After fading from people’s memory after the Second World War, the Mundaneum reopened in Mons in 1998.
Questions that are still relevant today
Today, the institution has two objectives: to promote the legacy left by these two visionaries, and to raise questions about access to knowledge. The Mundaneum’s archive centre holds around 6 kilometres of documents, or around 12 million items. As well as the founders’ personal papers, there are collections from the International Press Museum, as well as an impressive iconographic collection including posters, postcards, glass plates and three archives dedicated to pacifism, anarchy and feminism. All of this is available to the public on demand. Every year, in its museum area, the Mundaneum pursues the task initiated by its founders by asking questions about society today. The issues raised a century ago are more relevant than ever. Isn’t access to knowledge a vital issue for our society?
Museum currently closed for renovation work, due to reopen in June 2015.