Luxembourg City History Museum is the city in miniature. The museum offers both a microcosm of European history and a window onto one of our most beguiling borderlands. “It’s a very vertical museum, much like our city itself, all valleys and vertiginous hills,” says spokesman Boris Fuge. “Visitors are often impressed by the spectacular panoramic lift which slices through six floors of the site, linking the upper city to the rock foundations”. Visiting Heads of State have dutifully traipsed round the museum but, grins Fuge, “For dignitaries, it’s not exactly a celebrity haunt, more a rainy-day retreat.”
Their loss is our gain. The museum mirrors the city that surrounds it. Tucked into a cluster of patrician mansions, it feels besieged by its past, much like the city itself. Battled over by the great powers of the day, Luxembourg has always fought to preserve its heritage. Inside, the sense of `fortress Luxembourg’ emerges, with its ramparts and rock faces. The museum occupies the site of a monkish retreat, according to Fuge: “Here the powerful Abbot of Orval had his city residence, which acted as an embassy and even as a refuge in times of war.”
The city’s strategic setting made it a pawn for its neighbours, including France, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. The displays help you get to grips with the fortifications, once among the most impregnable in Europe. Here, you can engage with the Unesco-listed old town, perched on a rocky spur, riven by gorges, riddled by rock passages, and framed by dizzying cliffs. Fuge particularly likes “the hidden corners which reveal secret staircases, vaulted cellars and low-ceilinged rooms”. The museum traces the city’s millennial history from its foundation to its flourishing role at the heart of Europe. But there’s no neglecting broader themes, such as the emergence of Luxembourg as a bastion of European institutions. “We’ve even tackled witchcraft in a previous exhibition,” smiles Fuge.
The current exhibition celebrates the Centenary of the Luxembourg Red Cross, which is rooted in the bloodshed and sacrifice of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, in which Luxembourgers also tended the wounded. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from controversial areas, such as the ineffectual role of the Red Cross in the Nazi era. Luxembourg’s association was forcibly incorporated into the German Red Cross while, on the wider international front, there are charges that the Red Cross failed to champion detainees in the concentration camps. Nor does the exhibition gloss over the fresh challenges to the Red Cross. It tackles issues such as whether we should offer aid and under what circumstances. “We raise questions but let visitors reach their own conclusions,” says Fuge, as ever, the fair-minded Luxembourger. In essence, this is living history, what the museum does best.