Behind the mask: Prague’s Museum of Communism

Prague’s Museum of Communism offers an engaging, if not slightly monotonous, look at communism in Czechoslovakia. Moving through its political history, the museum goes past the facts and figures, offering a more personal insight into Czechoslovakia’s past.

Being a student who was brought up with a very England-centric historical education, the museum gave an accessible chronology of the rise and fall of communism in 20th century Central Europe. Making it attainable to locals and tourists is important for the experience, not everyone is going to be well-versed in the origins and later consequences of communism in Central Europe. Although I knew the basic outline of thought of Marx and Engels, the reminders at the beginning meant I could compare it against the intents and then how they were butchered to the point of almost no return.

There was a certain humanity about the museum which differed it from others. Including Czech jokes about the state of currency and trade in the communist era, the personality incorporated to the exhibit gave an insight which the facts could not. So often, people in museums become numbers and they can feel like incredibly impersonal places which reel off facts like government documents. Here, activists like Jan Palach who self-immolated in protest of the Soviet invasion in 1968, became humanised and not just a catalyst who brought about the end of the regime.

Continuing with this, the museum looked at how International Women’s Day and May Day were “forever discredited”. This was a result of compulsory participation in parades to force the image of unity. As a tourist, it can often be difficult to connect with the local culture. In this instance, relating the history to the present day and connecting contemporary attitudes to it, allowed a deeper knowledge of the environment around you.

If anything bad was to be said, the museum was monotonous. Looking at the consequences of communism in the Czech Republic is a serious topic and as a result, perhaps shouldn’t require ‘fun’ exhibits. As the history works its way forward though, the content does gradually become harder to take in. Structured in big lumps of text the whole way around, my concentration waned frequently. The use of physical representations of Communist lifestyle, such as a room in brutalist-style accommodation, were a welcome break and I think the museum would have benefitted from including more.

Although I feel it is the museum’s duty to be impartial, and provide information rather than an opinion, it felt as if the narrative of the Museum of Communism offered a commentary. Looking at the new social elite during the Communist period, of butchers, grocers and taxi drivers, it showed that a social hierarchy will always remain in society. Similarly, including information about the equality of women in this period was also a welcome surprise. Rather than just paint themselves the victim, the exhibit didn’t shy away from its country’s own actions, also discussing the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia.

For tourists especially, who are perhaps focusing more on the drinking aspect of Prague, it offers a promising engagement with the culture of the Czech Republic. As a history so often lost in the school curriculum, whether it be taught with facts and figures or not taught at all, the Museum of Communism provides a history which cares about its people as individuals.

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