It was a bleak and dismal day in Prague, the weather had taken a turn for the worse ever since we had left Krakow. After recuperating in our cosy hostel, we were keen to venture out and one place I had come across when devising the itinerary for our trip was the Prague Museum of Communism.
I had studied the Cold War for my Modern History A Level and when devising our trip Megan had suggested that I research the places we were going and come up with a rough itinerary. For the past two years I’d been studying Ancient History at university and had completely forgot that Poland, Czechia and Budapest were former communist satellite states. The thought of visiting cities which had experienced communism first hand excited me. However my hopes to learn about life in Eastern Europe during the Cold War from a fond or at least neutral perspective turned out to be very mistaken and naive once I arrived.
The first taste of learning about Cold War history in Eastern Europe was in Warsaw when we visited the Royal Castle. A simple yet impressive Cold War exhibition in the courtyard had information boards documenting the start of the Cold War at the end of the Second World War, and the division of Europe between the two spheres of influence, continuing on until the present day. The exhibition at the Royal Palace was a great representation of the political history of the Cold War and its impact not just on the satellite states but on the world as we know it today. On our walking tour we were shown the infamous milk bars which were communist fixtures that still run as restaurants today. The impression we got of Poland’s attitude towards communism was bitter and resentful, especially when we learned the history of the Palace of Science and Arts. To tourists who don’t know it’s history, it’s an impressive building which stands out in the Warsaw skyline. To the people of Warsaw it’s a symbol of oppression, and a building project which claimed the lives of many Polish people in order to celebrate a corrupt regime. The people of Warsaw wanted the Palace of Science and Arts to be demolished, but it still stands today, and though I’m sure if you asked a Polish person what they thought of the Palace, they’d probably express their hatred of it. The fact that it stands today, to me it feels like a scar on the city, Warsaw was a victim of many horrific war crimes both during and after the Second World War, and the Palace of Science and Arts represents another trial that the Polish people have come through.
In Prague it was a completely different story, and this is where our visit to the Communist Museum comes in. I was excited to visit as I was keen to learn about the Cold War from the perspective of the places which experienced Soviet rule, whilst Megan hadn’t studied the Cold War before and so it was very new to her. The museum is located above a McDonald’s (which is ironic, and the museum gift shop plays on this fact hard), up some very steep carpeted steps. It cost to get in as with many museums in Eastern Europe and the student rate was just under £5.
On entering the museum there were two giant bronze statues of Lenin and Marx, which I can remember thinking was cool as I hadn’t seen any communist art before and thought it may have been destroyed. The museum provides written information stuck on the walls, and visitors identify the information in their native language through little flags which are put alongside the text. The first piece of information I read at the start was fine, it explained how Eastern Europe was taken over by the Soviet Union after the World War 2 as a result the victors’ division of Europe and that due to the fact the Czech Republic was a communist satellite state it could not receive Marshall Aid. This meant that they were not able to receive funds from the USA which would allow for a quicker post-war economic recovery, and being under the control of the Soviet Union meant that a communist economic policy was put into place and resulted in a slower recovery. I pointed this out to Megan and said that this summarised the beginnings of the Cold War perfectly.
From that point onwards the quality of information deteriorated. I suppose it depends where you’re coming from and what you’re looking for in a museum, but this museum did not meet my expectations. As a history student you are drilled to look at history from an impartial viewpoint, you study various materials whether it be political texts, personal testimonials or photos and objects, and come to your own conclusion about the period you’re looking at. At the most basic level history must be free from bias, this is something I and I’m sure many others will remember from school history lessons. The Prague Museum of Communism shocked me because it broke this rule, the information provided was written in mocking tone, particularly the descriptions of Marx and Lenin which appeared next to their statues. Describing their political beliefs and motivations as ‘romantic’ and giving wishy-washy accounts of what these two communist icons actually stood for. Another issue was that the display board next to Karl Marx’s statue referred to him as Karol at one point, though I’m aware typos happen, you don’t expect them in museums and certainly not someone’s name.
After this we came across a random outdoor section with a collection of notice boards dedicated to ‘exposing’ North Korea. Though I appreciated that a museum focussed on teaching its visitors about communism, I felt this part of the museum was trying too hard. Of course it’s common for museums to raise awareness of other issues, or to have sections dedicated to where else in history this occurred or what the impact of the history has on the world now. But the museums ‘exposé’ of North Korea felt contrived, and was consistent with the over-dramatic tone of the rest of the museum.
Back inside the museum the next section focussed on the reality of living under a communist regime. The rooms were cramped, with collections of communist art and aged displays filling the corners alongside the dubious noticeboards. Here I took issue with the museum’s description of education under the communist government, which condemned the Soviet Union for influencing the education system, making Russian and Communist theory compulsory subjects. I had a problem with this because of course any education system is greatly influenced by the government, the Nazis adapted their education system to incorporate Nazi ideology into it. With hindsight we are able to identify how certain regimes altered their education systems to indoctrinate the people. However the museum could have also acknowledged that under communist rule education from primary school to university was available to everyone, particularly giving those from lower classes the opportunity to pursue higher education. Though there were inherent problems with this system, which the museum focussed on, such as censorship and a focus on lower-class people rather than wealthy/middle class people. It seemed that the museum was scared to shed light on any positive aspects of communism, or to provide a neutral account for fear of promoting it.
This then led on to another section which focussed on the black market, by this point even I was confused. I felt sorry for Megan who wasn’t familiar with Cold War history, because after this point it just descended into more bizarre examples of how life in communist Prague was difficult. Apparently to buy American goods from the black market you’d have to exchange your communist money for pseudo-American money. Pretty confusing as it stands, but made even more so by the example used to illustrate how one might work in Prague to earn money, in order to exchange the communist money for the currency accepted on the black market. The museum decided to use the example of a woman prostituting herself, or as the display board put it ‘selling her body for a few hours of lovemaking’, to illustrate the depravity communism forced the people of Prague into. I would have taken it seriously, if the issue of prostitution had been handled in a delicate or relevant way, but instead this point was muddled in with explaining the issues of getting American goods from the black market and came across as completely bizarre. I understand that the museum was trying to show the horrors of the reality of communism, but it felt so forced, the anger was so real that I just couldn’t take anything from it.
Following on from this the museum went on to displays discussing how America was flourishing, and it all got very pro-America from there. Then there was a random fake bit of the Berlin wall which discussed the situation in Berlin, by this point I’d stopped paying attention, hence the very vague description. At the end of the museum was a video, which is pretty standard for museums these days, so I sat and watched it. The video was a series of clips showing communism in Prague from the 1960s-1980s, and included clips of police brutality. It fit in with the rest of the museum in its anti-communist standpoint, though I felt that if I wanted to make a video showing the horrors of a Conservative government I could make a video of the London Riots or any major political protest in London.
Ultimately I left the museum unimpressed, and wasn’t surprised to find this written in the guest book:
My own comment was ‘well that was interesting…’.
Looking back on my visit to the Communist Museum I am in two minds over what it was that frustrated me the most. I suppose I expected the museum to be something that it wasn’t, I would have appreciated its anti-communist stance if it had been more sophisticated or constructive. Instead I felt let down by the museum as I felt it perpetuated an anti-Russian attitude that was one of the outcomes of the Cold War, which is present in many American movies. However as I reflect on my visit a year later, I feel I have to appreciate that this was a raw representation of a nation who were taken over by a second dictatorial regime immediately after being liberated from one. I am lucky that I never experienced these regimes, however the vitriolic tone of the information provided by the museum presented me with a nation who have not yet recovered from this aspect of their past, and want to remove it from their national identity completely (a massive monument of the communist leaders, Mount Rushmore style, was destroyed after the fall of communism).
Ultimately I’m still confused by the Prague Museum of Communism and still feel it failed in its aims to represent hardship of the reality of living under a communistic regime in an educational way. It is even more difficult to appreciate this museum when I compare it with Budapest’s House of Terror which handled the horrors of both Nazism and Communism in a sophisticated and appropriate manner. If you are travelling to Eastern Europe and are interested in learning about the effects of communism on the satellite states, I’d recommend the House of Terror over the Prague Museum of Communism if you wanted to actually learn about the horrors of the regime. Yet I still find myself talking about the Prague Museum of Communism, and I do refer to it as the worst museum of communism. But by doing that I feel like I fail it by disrespecting the work of the curator, to them their museum teaches its visitors the harsh reality of communism in the harshest way possible and using the harshest examples. If that’s their truth I have to respect it, but from a history student’s perspective, I feel there is a time and a place for harsh truths. The museum could have easily supplemented some of the vitriol for personal accounts which would have had more of an impact on visitors than its constant condemnation of communism.
If you’re in Prague and its raining, or you have a few hours to kill, I’d suggest you to the Museum of Communism and come to your own conclusions.
What’s the worst museum you’ve been to? Let me know in the comments below.