1910 - 1944



“The Visualizations of Paul Otlet”


Since the World Wide Web is being populated by an exponential growth of information, there is a growing interest in the problem of how, through techniques of mapping and visualization, we can regain an overview of those expanding fields of knowledge in which one so easily gets lost.

The same problem posed itself already in the first decades of the twentieth century, when the industrialisation of the printing press was responsible for a similar information boom.

In his Mundaneum in Brussels, the Belgian encyclopaedist and internationalist Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and his staff undertook the utopian project of mapping the world of knowledge, not just in the sense of cataloguing all what had been published, but also more literally in the sense of drawing together all what was known into a visual synthesis.

This digital exhibition analyses in four chapters the thousands of images that Otlet and his team of the Mundaneum produced.

Each chapter discusses a different collection of images. These collections differ from each other both in terms of their format, visual language, and the nature of the information they visualize (encyclopaedic, bibliographic, social and political).

1. Mapping encyclopedic knowledge

Since 1910 Otlet had been developing his International Museum in the Palais du Cinquantenaire in Brussels, later in the interwar period to be renamed the Mundaneum or Palais Mondial. 

The International Museum in Brussels was conceived as a ‘museum of ideas and of facts’, a sort of spatial encyclopaedia set up in such a way as ‘to visualize’ and synthesize what is known, and this from an internationalist point of view.

Otlet restructured the museum along three sections that focused respectively on history, geography and science, preceded by a hall of introduction. 

In addition to various objects, models, and graphic material, the museum contained posters which aimed, through visualization, to ‘transpose’  knowledge from books and documents which are by their nature ‘discursive, slow and compact’ into ‘intuitive, direct and rapid’ explanations.

As a result of his engagement with the museological display of information, Otlet worked in the  late 1920s on an ‘Atlas of Civilisation’, together with Anne Oderfeld. The Atlas was conceived to be a museum of ideas condensed into a visual textbook. 

Just like Leibniz’s concept of the Atlas Universalis (1678), it was to be a collection of iconographic documents forming together an educational set of maps covering the entire world of knowledge.

Unlike the English word ‘atlas’, the original French word ‘atlas’ refers, not to a volume of geographic maps but to a collection of images, reproductions of paintings, or other iconographic documents that are joined to a work to make it more comprehensible.

In the context of a major congress of the World Federation of Education Associations in 1929, Otlet started collaborating with the Austrian sociologist and political economist Otto Neurath (1882-1945) on a Nuovo Orbis Pictus, a picture encyclopaedia named after the Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658) published by the father of modern education Johann Amos Comenius (1592–1670). 

Although the project was never realized, we can see how Otlet started to adopt Neurath’s method of pictorial statistics as published in Neurath’s atlas Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft [Society and Economy] (1930).

Otlet and Neurath both believed that visual education could offer an international and general form of education that had the potential to have an immediate impact on social and political structures.

Analogous to the idea of making the International Museum more mobile by converting it in the medium of an atlas, Otlet explored how the atlas could take the form of multiple media; it could take the mediaformat of speech, toys, pictures, books, movies, audio discs, radio broadcasts, and even an excursion; depending on the age and the sort of knowledge that was to be conveyed.

In the 1930s the Mundaneum produced several atlases, which were conceived to be part of the unpublished and unfinished Atlas Mundaneum or Enyclopaedia Universalis Mundaneum (EUM), which contained, according to Otlet, about 8.000 pictures.

2. Mapping bibiliographic knowledge

Otlet drew thousands of sketches while reflecting about the organization of knowledge. His personal papers are filled with these sketches annotated with scribbles. 

It was through a process of schematization, or as Rudolf Arnheim called it, a process of ‘visual thinking,’ that Otlet fleshed out particular concepts or thoughts. 

In his autobiographic notes, Otlet noted that ‘I find that I must draw certain ideas, certain graphics. And it is in my mind that I make the movements that draw: a circle, a triangle, a line’.

In these sketches, he mixes symbolic, iconographic, and geometric elements with textual notes in a metaphorical language that is difficult to understand for the layman. 

Some of the figures—such as the sphere, the pyramid and the network—recur so often in this drawings that they became, what I would call, ‘dead metaphors’: metaphors that have been so heavily invested with multiple meanings and personal associations that they no longer reveal the original concept they stand for.

One of the figures that return time and again in his sketches is the ‘Sphere of the World’ or the ‘Sphaera Mundaneum’. 

Otlet used it as the symbol for his Mundaneum in Brussels. It is also the symbol of the Mundaneum today, the archival and exhibition centre in Mons. 

The sphere represents Otlet’s metaphysical view that the world is essentially an ordered and indivisible system in which everything is connected to everything:

“We could also, schematically, represent the totality of the world by giving an approximate concrete view of the elements present with the means of a sphere in which the diverse big circles, divided into segments, connect to the diverse categories of elements and to their subdivisions, circles and segments which are imagined as being projected into one central point at which they intersect to reveal the sum of their mutual relations.”

When I was unlocking the EUM collection in 2007 in the archives of the Mundaneum, the schema entitled the ‘Mundothèque’ caught my attention. 

It shows Otlet’s answer to the problem of organizing one’s ‘personal documentation’. 

He conceived it to be a sort of personal workstation that in many ways similar to our current personal desktop computer. 

Like our Personal Computer, the Mundothèque made use of ‘hardware’ (the side shelves carry ‘instruments’ such as a radio, a telephone, a micro, a screen to read microfilm, a television, and a record player); a ‘browser’ (the UDC catalogue on the left of the lectern); and a personal collection of ‘My Documents’ (the personal library with books and administrative archives), which included a special folder to store the user’s music, movies (‘phono-ciné’), pictures (‘archives encyclopaedium‘, and ‘photothèque’); and even a ‘realiteca’—a sort of collection of objects and scientific models.

3. Mapping social knowledge

Paul Otlet played a prominent role as a highly regarded documentalist and internationalist in the professionalization and institutionalization of the discipline of town and country planning. 

For an exhibition on Town Planning that he curated for the World Exhibition in Ghent in 1913, his team prepared a collection of visualizations about municipal services. 

As a cofounder and with the support of the Union Internationale des Villes, he and the Belgian urban planner Louis Van der Swaelmen (1883-1929) hoped to get an Encyclopédie des Villes [Encylopedia of Cities] off the ground that would contain the most important examples of town and country planning.

His continued engagement with sociologists, social engineers and urban planners, led him to create a series of municipal atlases: the Atlas Ixelles (1936), the Atlas Saint Gilles (1936), the Atlas St. Jans Molenbeek (1937), the Atlas Etterbeek (1938) and the Atlas Antwerpen (n.d.). 

The size of these atlases varies between a dozen and fifty pages. Most of them consist of thematic maps and pictorial statistics that visualize statistical data taken from official municipal reports.

Many images were simply copied from other sources. The Atlas Antwerpen contained graphics redrawn from the booklet Antwerp, a statistical booklet covering the years 1918–1928 (1930) written by Jan Albert Goris (1899–1984), better known as a Flemish writer Marnix Gijsen, and designed by the Belgian modernist graphic designer Jos Leonard.

Besides his municipal atlases, he created an Atlas Belgique [Atlas of Belgium] in 1936, which was designed as a series of posters (64 x 67cm) that could be hung as educational material in a classroom or on museum walls.

Although Otlet used multiple grahic methods to visualize and compare quantative data, many of his graphics followed the Isotype code of Otto Neurath. Neurath’s influence is evident in many of his statistical maps.

Yet, Otlet’s graphical methods were eclectic, pragmatic and derivative. 

The multiplicity of techniques that he used set him apart from others who were working much more systematically in creating rigorous forms of statistical representation for the use of urban mapping such as Neurath or the Dutch architect Cornelis Van Eesteren. 

Otlet prioritized encyclopaedic systematization over graphical standardization.

4. Mapping POLITICAL knowledge

Visualizations did not only serve Otlet well to express or exhibit his ideas about documentation and encyclopedism, but also to propagandize his internationalist ideas. 

Similar to the slideshow technology we use nowadays, he used projected images to explain and convince people of his ideas about international politics.

Otlet actively lectured on the problems of the War and the idea that only a League of Nations could prevent or stop it in the future.

During the First World War he published extensively on these matters in a series of articles and books. 

One of the most innovative ideas that he advocated was the recognition and inclusion of international non-governmental organizations as members of the League of Nations. 

Besides a political and economic League of Nations, he pleaded for the existence of an intellectual League of Nations.

Another major cause that Paul Otlet pressed for was the centralization of international institutions. Centralisation, he and many other internationalists believed, would save lots of time and energy because it would lessen the distance between the different places of work in the field of internationalism.

He collaborated with many architects to express that idea spatially, and these plans in turn helped him in advocating the idea of a world capital city. 

On the basis of Otlet’s schematic sketches, architects of international repute, such as Ernest Hébrard, Le Corbusier and Victor Bourgeois, visualized the idea of a World Centre as a concrete reality. 

In 1913 Otlet co-opted the plan for a World Centre of Communication, designed by Hendrik Christian Andersen and Ernest Hébrard, to be based in Tervuren, a Brussels suburb.

In the 1930s, Otlet increasingly used the notion ‘Cosmopolis’ to describe his concept of the Cité Mondiale. His adoption of the term might have been inspired by the anarchist and pacifist Henri Léon Follin (1866–1935), who publicized his individualist ideology under the concept ‘Cosmométapolis’. 

Despite many differences, Otlet and Follin held similar political viewpoints in the sense that they both believed that more power had to be attributed to those levels above and below the national level. 

While Follin’s Cosmo(meta)polis was a metaphysical city of the human spirit, Otlet’s Cosmopolis or Cité Mondiale was a city that turned the cosmopolitan spirit in a physical and institutionalized form.


What makes Otlet such a unique figure and original thinker is the extraordinary organizational imagination that he was gifted with, by means of which he explored the issue of knowledge organization progressively more in its social and political dimensions. 

His enduring efforts to represent his ideas in schematic form and his long-lasting engagement with the visualization of knowledge was part of what he perceived to be ultimate goal of knowledge organization: to bring knowledge to a synthesis.

The last image of this exbhition is taken from the Atlas Monde (1936), in which he took that visual synthesis to extremes: 

“What would our notion of geography be if we did not dispose of maps to fix the facts? If we did not have Atlases which showed in a collection of maps the entire surface of the Earth; a proper coordinate system to fix the position of each group or point (meridians and parallels)? The series of pictures that are shown here [in the Atlas Monde] tries to cover, like maps and atlases, the entire Universe considered from the viewpoint of the different sciences. It is, above all, an enumeration of what exists; a categorized and concatenated inventory, through which by intuitive generalization, the development of certain great laws of existence emerge.”

Dr Wouter Van Acker discusses Paul Otlet


This exhibition is based on Wouter Van Acker’s doctoral dissertation Universalism as Utopia (Ghent University, 2011). This disseration is a biography of the utopian projects that Paul Otlet undertook in his life and is based on the analysis of thousands of schemas drawn by Otlet and his contemporaries. An essential part of this doctoral research project was the digitization of a selection of about 1300 images from the archives of the Mundaneum by the Ghent University library. This digital exhibition demonstrates the richness and variety of the collection held by the Mundaneum. All texts were written by Wouter Van Acker. He is a lecturer in contemporary architecture and architectural history at Griffith University. His research is focused on the history and theory of architecture and urban planning in the 20th century.

Credits: Story

Rôle — Wouter Van Acker for the Mundaneum

Credits: All media
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