The Museum of Communism
Prague, Czech Republic
The House of Terror
The National Park Service and other cultural organizations struggle to tell the often-painful stories of injustices and the battle for civil rights. Empowered by the need to commemorate local landmarks and by a growing number of visitors to iconic sites like the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, museums and civil rights interpretive trails are opening or are under development in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. A recent New York Times article noted that a surge of visitation at sites important to the civil rights movement has forced communities in the American South to face a difficult past.(1)
Similar desires to discuss difficult pasts have inspired interpretive efforts at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, Civil War battlefields, and newer national parks that address the abuse of civil liberties, such as Manzanar National Historic Site. While these events remain difficult topics, time has lent some perspective and distance to our understanding of the events.
But what if these painful stories happened just 15 years ago? Today, Budapest, Hungary, and Prague, Czech Republic, are cities thronged with visitors and residents enjoying their architecture, music, cafes, and nightlife. But at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Budapest and Prague were the capitals of grim Eastern Bloc countries.
Other than a few concrete behemoths and an occasional Trabant automobile stalling in an intersection, traces of the Soviet occupation have been largely erased from the landscapes of the two cities. This year, the Czech Republic and Hungary were admitted to the European Union. Both countries have already made the transition to a capitalist economy; their streets are lined with name-brand stores and choked with traffic. Guidebooks and tours focus on the legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the glories of Art Nouveau architecture. Only synagogues converted into small museums remain to tell the tale of the Nazi pasts. In the interest of interpreting the more recent past, two museums have opened in Prague and Budapest to address these similar stories in divergent ways.(2)
The Museum of Communism in Prague offers a chronological review of the prewar tensions of the 1930s through the collapse of the Soviet Union. Modest in scale with no state-of-the-art trappings, it relies on photographs, topical groupings of art and artifacts, and extensive captioning in Czech, English, and German. One exhibit depicts the bare shelves and shoddy merchandise of Communist-period stores. The text notes that the Czechoslovakian economy was reduced to a system of bartering for goods and services. Other exhibits provide insight into the educational system and the role of organizations such as the Young Pioneers in indoctrinating the next generation. A mock up of a Committee for State Security (KGB) interrogation room is the single attempt to provide an immersion experience.
A videotape traces the role of public dissent and demonstrations from the failed efforts of the "Prague Spring" in 1968 to the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989. It offers a different experience from the typical history-museum film in the United States. The commentary is limited, allowing the action and 1990s pop music to tell the story. The museum is located around the corner from Wenceslas Square, the site of historic demonstrations, so visitors can experience the square after touring the museum.
The Museum of Communism was the brainchild of American Glenn Spicker and Czech designer Jan Kaplan. It revels in the irony of its location between a McDonald's and a casino and has a strong anticommunism point of view. The museum's website offers electronic Soviet-period postcards with updated slogans that visitors can send to friends. The website's guestbook offers a fascinating glimpse into visitor perception of the museum's interpretation of the recent past. Responses range from enthusiasm that the story is being told to disparagement of the museum's biased viewpoint and desire for a more traditional interpretation.
The House of Terror in Budapest offers a very different experience. Located in a large fin-de-siècle mansion that successively housed the secret police headquarters of the Nazi Arrow Cross during World War II and the Hungarian Communist Party in the following decades, the museum is both a historic site and an exhibit experience. The experience begins before entering the building, as the shadow of the word "terror" from the signage is cast on its facade. Inside, the atmosphere is made oppressive with discordant music and galleries that are more performance art pieces than traditional history museum displays.
Every gallery is designed to tell one facet of the story to maximum effect. While exhibit labels are in Hungarian, headsets providing detailed narration in English are available. (The touch screen monitors and search aids in the galleries and on the museum's website are available only in Hungarian.) The intent and implementation differs greatly from the Museum of Communism. For example, one gallery features a period car resplendent in the symbols of Communist-Party privilege and power located behind a black curtain. In another, the floor is a map of Russia with projecting cones representing the gulags where Hungarians were sent into exile, noting that the last exile returned in 2001. A cross bursts through the floor surrounded by photographs of priests and ministers who were persecuted and killed by the Communist regime.
A slow elevator ride takes visitors to the basement used by both regimes for torture. A flat screen monitor plays an interview describing the execution process. Upon exiting the basement galleries, a wall of photographs titled "The Victimizers" notes each participant's name and position in the Nazi or Communist regimes. Back upstairs, another gallery lined with uniforms shows a videotape of members of the Arrow Cross changing into Communist garb.
The House of Terror was controversial from the outset. It opened in 2002 with the financial support of the Hungarian government, just prior to a national election. Opposing political parties claimed that the museum was an attempt to link the Hungarian Socialist parties with the earlier Communist regime. Jewish organizations expressed concern that the museum's interpretation was skewed towards the Soviet period with inadequate attention paid to Nazi era and the Holocaust. Whatever your views, the museum's impact on the visitor is visceral. It is an overwhelming experience, regardless of one's familiarity with the political situation or the language.
The Czech Republic and Hungary are not the only Eastern European countries reexamining and attempting to interpret a difficult past. Similar museums recently opened in Berlin and Riga, the capital city of Latvia, and are under development in Estonia. As the United States takes steps to interpret its own difficult histories, increased contact and awareness of how these challenges have been confronted in other countries can only aid in our interpretation of the past.
National Park Service
1. Shaila K. Dewan, "Civil Rights Battlegrounds Enter World of Tourism," New York Times, August 10, 2004, http://travel2.nytimes.com/mem/travel/article-page. html?res=9904E0DC 1E3CF933A2575BC0A9629C8B63; accessed October 20, 2004.
2. For more information on the museums, visit the websites at http://www.museumofcommunism.com and http://www.houseofterror.hu