Sparked by a collection of over 2,000 images, two projects led by Prof Karin Priem from the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH) reflect on the industrial heritage and societal impact of major Luxembourg-based steel and iron producing company ARBED, examining the social and educational initiatives of the company and how it helped shape Luxembourg’s national and international identity in a time of industrialisation.
LAUNCHED IN 2013 AND 2014 RESPECTIVELY, THE FAMOSO PROJECTS FOCUS ON THE INTERACTIONS BETWEEN INDUSTRIALISATION AND CULTURAL, ECONOMIC AND SOCIETAL TRANSFORMATIONS IN LUXEMBOURG, AND BEYOND.
“I was fascinated by these images”
In 2010, the Head of Luxembourg’s National Audiovisual Centre (CNA) introduced education historian Karin Priem to a collection of over 2,000 photographic glass plates related to the Luxembourg steel company ARBED (United Steelworks of Burbach-Eich-Dudelange), mainly from the years 1914 - 1950.
ARBED was a global player in the 20th century steel and iron industry – it has since gone through some mergers and in 2006 finally became the world’s largest steel producer ArcelorMittal.
Prof Karin Priem, Head of Public History and Associate Professor in History of Education at the University of Luxembourg’s C²DH says:
“I was fascinated by these images – spanning from the company’s social and educational initiatives, to its products and the production site but also workers, engineers and industrial leaders - and they were not really known at the time – I was more or less the first researcher who was able to look at them. I wondered: why were they made?”
“I asked one of my team members to check in the National Library if we could find any publications about or by ARBED and we came across a booklet from the 1920s. We recognised the photographs in the booklet from the glass plates collection. Then I understood these images were made to promote ARBED, its products, its leading role within the country, also in terms of social reforms.”
Raising a series of questions of why these images came to be, what was behind them, and what they were used for, Karin Priem and her team set about digging deeper into the industrial past of Luxembourg and the history of ARBED.
ARBED rolled out a range of social and educational initiatives for their workers and the workers’ families: there were housing projects; hospitals; anti-tuberculosis campaigns; sanatoria and preventoria.
Additionally, the children of ARBED workers were provided with education and health care initiatives in so-called open-air schools. A highly innovative vocational training school was established not only to train ARBED workers, but also to investigate how their bodies interacted with machines.
“The aim was to use the energy of the human body in the most harmonious way, so that workers would not suffer from fatigue in their future careers.
"ARBED was looking for an optimum human-machine interaction, the school’s psycho-technological laboratory not only tested and analysed the energy and movement of the human body, but also workers’ psychological dispositions. This testing was the most innovative part of the school and achieved international recognition at the time.”
ARBED vocational training initiatives also reached into the leisure time: there was a scouting group, physical exercise was offered – including a pool inside the school, a library, a music band, there was modern gymnastics – all these initiatives contributed shape the workers bodies and minds.
“The school as a whole was very much at the verge of modernity; ARBED wanted to shape a new elite of workers who would be attached to the company and would have a certain mentality and lifestyle.”
“These social initiatives often were looked at as philanthropic initiatives, but we found out that the rationale behind was to make workers more reliable by making them healthier, happier with their existence, better educated – also their children – it created a kind of community and made workers more productive.
“My team and I finally called the result of these initiatives ‘Corpornation’ – there was almost no Luxembourgish family that didn’t have ties to ARBED. Indeed, ARBED was not only profoundly changing environments but also people’s private and working lives. It was a dominant if not the most important aspect of identify formation in Luxembourg – also in the long-run and with strong influence on national heritage making.”
ARBED promoted a similar so-called ‘Luxembourg model’ when the company expanded to Brazil in the early 1920s. Therefore, the companies influence was also analysed from a transnational and global perspective.
The main purpose of the more than two thousands of glass plates that inspired Prof Priem became clear: Now that ARBED had rolled out these initiatives, it was important to make sure people knew about them – they were a tool to shape a positive corporate image, both at home in Luxembourg and at the international level.
“Photography was the tool to mediate all of these different success stories of ARBED – the products, all the social and educational initiatives - because photography is a technology that allowed for massive dissemination and reproduction, and could be used in printed brochures, promotion campaigns, slides, films, etc.
Not only in Luxembourg - industrialists were using it as a technology to convince various audiences, to impress, and to promote their cases in various ways.”
The images and the FAMOSO projects were highlighted at a 2017 exhibition organised with the CNA, which concentrated on these glass plates as a technology to shape corporate identity.
The project did not only highlight ARBED’s visual campaigns, but also looked at counter images that were created by workers and their associations.