Remembering Czech Expo success at the Brussels Atomium

The Czechoslovak pavilion, photo: CTK

Expo 1958 was the first global event of its kind after the Second World War. Nearly 50 countries brought their latest scientific breakthroughs and their most prized cultural offerings to Brussels to dazzle the millions of people who visited the fair. The event is remembered proudly by Czechs – with the Czechoslovak pavilion taking top prize.

On a recent visit to Brussels, it seemed only right that I should visit the site of one of Czechoslovakia’s finest hours. My guides were both employees at the 1958 Expo, Erik Schellen and his wife Ghislaine de Jonghe. They took me to the building that has become synonymous with this, perhaps the most important World’s Fair:

Erik: “The Atomium is a series of nine big spheres put together with tubes, and in the middle tube there is a very fast elevator, which we have just taken. You can go down by normal steps if you wish. In some of the spheres there are exhibitions, but right now we are in the upper sphere where there is a very nice restaurant with a view of all of Brussels.”

Ghislaine: “There is a sphere especially for kids who can come with their school and sleep over here. For kids this is very interesting and they like it.”

The Atomium is also where Erik and Ghislaine had their 50th wedding anniversary in 2008. The two met while working at the Expo, and have been together ever since. At the time, Ghislaine was a snappily-dressed guide at the European Steel Pavilion, while Erik was working in one of the Expo’s central attractions, the American pavilion:

Erik: “It was the first time in Europe that an RCA colour television was displayed. There were three Americans for the technical part, and I was with two Belgian colleagues to assist them.”

The Czechoslovak pavilion,  photo: CTK
What other technical big firsts were there at the Expo 1958?

“I don’t know exactly about the technical new things. I think it was more about the presentations of different countries. Of course, the Americans came out with a completely different display from the Russians, and that was the main thing.”

So, the Expo provided rival countries with a chance to get one up on each other but, Ghislaine suggests, the spirit of cooperation was also important at the fair:

Ghislaine: “It was after the war and there were a lot of ideals. And, it was about the fraternity between people from all around the world. It was a very optimistic view people had at that time. People had hope, and that was very important.”

Some 46 different countries had a pavilion at the international exhibition. The adjacent Russian and American displays were perhaps the most imposing but, according to Erik, it was some of the smaller pavilions which proved most remarkable:

Erik: “One of the most popular small things was a very little pavilion of Thailand, which was actually a little bit lost amongst the other exhibits. It was very special, it was the first time we had seen something like this.”

Laterna Magika in the Czechoslovak pavilion,  photo: CTK
Ghislaine: “It was like a jewel, inside there was nothing, but the outside was splendid. People here didn’t know what it was about, but suddenly there was this thing here.”

Erik: “Of course, every country tried to display their main product, or the main thing that was really special to them.”

But of all of the pavilions, big and small, it was the Czechs who walked away with the gold medal, as well as an array of other accolades. Erik Schellen again:

Erik: “The Czech pavilion was very popular because of the Laterna Magika, and this was very special, and my wife visited this many times.”

Can you tell me a bit about it, Ghislaine?

Ghislaine: “Yes. Well, it was very original. Because you saw first a screen of twin girls of around 20 years old, who firstly welcomed everybody and who then explained what the pavilion was about, and who told people a bit about their country. And then those two girls appeared on the stage. The film alternated with reality, and it was very original and special. And it made a great impression, I must say. So every time I had a few hours off for lunch, I went there.”

Expo 58 is fondly remembered in the Czech Republic today, perhaps because of Czechoslovakia’s unexpected success at the event. But what about elsewhere? What do Ghislaine and Erik think the legacy of that World’s Fair is, apart from, of course, their marriage?

Ghislaine: “I think, first of all, it let us get to know the world. Because there were so many countries we didn’t know, and when we visited the pavilions of those countries, it made us want to travel to those countries, because everything there seemed so interesting. So, it was the first glimpse we had of many countries.”

Erik: “Nowadays, everybody has the possibility to travel all over the world, but that was not so in 1958. You had different borders, which were very difficult to cross; you had to have lots of papers. And it was very expensive, but now you can go all over the world at very low cost in comparison to that time. It is completely different now.”

While most of the Expo has been packed up and is now scattered all over the world, the Atomium building still marks the Brussels skyline, and continues to attract visitors from around the globe.