Recently, the situation with Communist-era heritage has been enriched quite a bit. We can list several initiatives that are turning public attention toward the role of places built for various purposes during Communism.
The opening of Bunk’Art constitutes an important innovation, since it offers an example that is concrete, tangible and can be experienced by anyone.
Therefore, interest has been great. The Bunk’Art website talks about “A stream of people in Bunk’Art. 30 thousand visitors within a week” or about “Visitor record at Bunk’Art. 8 thousand people in line to see the bunker” (link in Albanian). According to the Ministry of Defence, it is a museum exhibition, created within the former wartime command center located in Shtish-Tufinë. More precisely, it is an underground nuclear bunker with 5 floors, 106 rooms and a gigantic hall for the People’s Assembly. It is certainly worth a visit for curious citizens and for those who want to dive into the fragile relationship between the authenticity offered by the bunker’s original spaces (walls, rooms, corridors, etc.) and the reproduction or falsification of historical truth through, among others, the refurbishment of these spaces with objects that had never been there.
Place of Witness and Memory
Next, we go to Shkodër, where the Place of Witness and Memory has just opened. Described widely in the media as a “museum of the crimes of Communism,” it was created at the former branch of the Interior Department, an investigation, interrogation and detention site for the Communist regime’s state secret police. The site offers an interesting combination of spaces, from those that have been newly built, such as the entrance hall with a library and an audiovisual room lined with photographs of the people that passed through this facility, to the spaces that were actually used during the Communist period, including the cells, torture chambers and courtyard.
While the assembly of the whole project offers us a good example of institutional interaction (including the former MTCYS, now Ministry of Culture, Shkodër Municipality and Franciscan Province), the same cannot be said for the treatment of the interiors and the testimony that they once bore. The destruction of certain parts in order to reconstruct them from the beginning and substitute new things was done indiscriminately, resulting in the loss of important authentic elements from the site. Another challenge, among others, related to the management of the site is how to involve the community of former political prisoners in its operation. However, this place has a special importance because it is one of the first examples of achievements, as well as mistakes that can be made when opening up and interpreting places of Communist persecution.
Another type of projects is virtual museums, an approach based on a public presentation of facts, testimonies and images, mainly of Communist crimes but also of daily life under that regime. The Museum of Memory, by the Albanian Institute of Political Studies, is one such initiative; online content from it was also exhibited briefly in the center of the Tirana. In the same spirit is a project called Virtual Museum, an installation in Skanderbeg Square, which uses electronic screens to show photos and names of those killed and imprisoned by the Communist dictatorship. Although these initiatives still haven’t been developed in a very interactive way, their value lies in the fact that they transmit into the public sphere the debates and aspirations that often remain within the four walls of specialized institutions and which, for this reason, are often not perceived as issues of public importance.
House of Leaves
Another initiative to follow with interest is the Ministry of Culture taking ownership (link to Council of Ministers Decision in Albanian) of the former Sigurimi (Communist secret police) building, across from the Bank of Albania, in the heart of Tirana. The goal, according to the authorities, is to turn the “House of Leaves” into a museum about the secret surveillance of the Communist regime. The development of this type of museum would fill an important gap in the network of existing museums in Albania. In addition, this could be an opportunity to stimulate the creation of more contemporary kinds of museum exhibitions. These would use accessible language and panel design that can be easily understood by visitors, as well as ways of organizing content around themes and narratives, to help visitors navigate the story that the museum is trying to tell.
Finally, it’s worthwhile to mention one other type of “desanctification” of one of the most exclusive places from the Communist dictatorship. Vila 31 was opened at last to the people of the capital city, in an attempt to return to them the residence of the former dictator Enver Hoxha, located in the former “Leadership Block” (blloku) in Tirana. It remains to be seen whether this one-time opening will remain an isolated initiative, but it’s worth highlighting that the usage of these spaces for cultivating new artistic works offers interesting possibilities for the future of Communist-era heritage in the country.What have you seen happening with Communist-era sites and spaces? Let us know in the comments.