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EU museum opened in Brussels

What are the things you expect to see at the EU museum? You will see there Scarlet lingerie, a Soviet ballistic missile and the good-luck charm of a Portuguese truck driver.

All are on show, however, in a Brussels exhibition designed as the core of a Museum of Europe which organizers hope to open in the next few years to illustrate the continent's road to unity after the devastation of World War II.

"We have tried to show Europe in a different way, to attract people to something that maybe they saw as cold, bureaucratic, distant," says Elie Barnavi, an Israeli historian and former diplomat who is one of the driving forces behind the planned museum.

The idea, Barnavi explains, is to blend the "macro and micro history" of postwar Europe by showcasing grand events like the breakup of Europe's colonial empires, the creation of the EU or the collapse of the Berlin Wall alongside the daily life of citizens over the past six decades.

That's where the red nylon panties come in. They are shown with an early model TV and fake tiger-skin rug in a recreated 1950s apartment representing the emerging consumer society in Western Europe.

In another display, a Soviet missile lies nose-to-nose with an American one in a dark corridor symbolizing Europe squeezed by the superpower standoff.

Portuguese truck driver Carlos Manuel Perreira's lucky Virgin Mary statuette is part of an interactive, multilingual video display illustrating how the abolition of border controls in Europe has transformed the trucker's trade.

Perreira is one of 27 Europeans - one from each EU nation - selected to personalize Europe's story.

Other featured individuals include a Latvian survivor of the Soviet gulags, French and British diggers of the Channel tunnel, a Luxembourg army veteran of NATO's mission in Afghanistan and Slovak ice-hockey-star-turned-politician Peter Stastny.

Among the hundreds of objects on show is the outsized pen wielded by Solidarity leader Lech Walesa to sign agreements with Poland's waning communist government in the 1980s; a watering can used by West Germany's postwar leader (and keen gardener) Konrad Adenauer; a toppled statue of Lenin from Hungary; and an electric lamp made in Belgium from a World War II shell case.

The exhibition, entitled "It's Our History," aims to avoid becoming entangled in the EU's notorious institutional and bureaucratic intricacies - but they too find a place.

There's a bulky original copy of the Treaty of Rome, the document signed in 1957 that laid the foundations of the EU; a transparent trash can filled with pesetas, marks and other currencies made obsolete by the euro; and an EU negotiating table where visitors can consult figures on agricultural subsidies or transport flows from embedded computer screens.

The story of the Museum of Europe is almost as tortuous as EU treaty negotiations.

A group of historians and politicians in Brussels has been trying for 10 years to find a permanent home for the collection. Plans have been held back by legal, political and financial tangles.

A proposal to host the museum in an annex of the European Parliament building at the heart of Brussels' EU district fell through, but Barnavi hopes the museum will open within a few years in a sprawling complex of turn-of-the-century warehouses in the city's canal district. The current exhibition, which moves to Paris in March, is housed in a basement of one of complex's vast restored storerooms.

Organizers face the problem of how to marry often conflicting views of history among EU nations. The French and British, for example, tend to have differing views of Napoleon - who shows up in the exhibition's final sound-and-image extravaganza.

Efforts to please all and the exhibition's part funding by the EU have exposed it to criticism that it may present a sanitized vision of Europe's history.

"It's a misuse of money," says Jens-Peter Bonde, a veteran euro-skeptic leader in the European Parliament. "Every time we have a subsidy from the EU Commission I always fear that it's for propaganda."

The exhibition, however, doesn't shy away from Europe's dark side.

Among the exhibits is a faded beige dress worn by a little girl murdered in Auschwitz. There's a collection of bugging gear used by the Stasi secret police in East Germany, and a pile of dirty clothes in a graffiti-daubed shipping container symbolizing the desperate journeys of illegal immigrants.

In one of the show's most striking transitions, visitors pass directly from a garish mock-up of a 1980s apartment complete with cassette player blaring tinny disco hits into a shockingly realistic reconstruction of a torture chamber from Franco-era Spain.

Barnavi, a former Israeli ambassador to France, says he was inspired by Europe's efforts to move beyond its somber history.

"I don't even have a European passport, but I think it's a great thing," he said in an interview. "Ideologically I'm very close, it's a great step forward for civilization."

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