Two museums separated by the Atlantic Ocean tackle similar issues, but from opposing viewpoints. Prague’s Velvet Revolution may be decades old, yet the relief at being free from communism is still palpable on a visit to the city, most notably in the Museum of Communism, where the reality of Czechoslovakian life from 1948-1989 is laid bare.
In contrast, Havana has been under the revolutionary eye of Fidel Castro (and, lately, his brother Raul) for decades, and its Museo de la Revolución is filled with artefacts described in chillingly stylistic communist prose, featuring phrases like ‘his courageous will’ and ‘an unbeatable soldier’. Having visited each museum in the last two months, I couldn’t help but compare these two attractions.
For convenience, and to avoid endless repetition, I’ll be using abbreviations – MOC for Prague and MDLR for Havana.
Setting the Scene
It’s a real sign of the times when you access the MOC by walking up a staircase above a branch of McDonald’s, and then you take a left at the top, with a casino to your right. In case you hadn’t guessed, we’re definitely not in communist Prague anymore. The building is in fact an 18th century palace, though the area taken up by the museum doesn’t exactly look palatial, but it’s worth persevering, past the shop, the Stalin and Lenin statues and the grumpy old lady who takes your tickets, to get to the good stuff. The main rooms are divided into three themes: the Dream, the Reality and the Nightmare of communism, accompanied by vast panels of text and a range of authentic and recreated exhibits.
The setting for the MDLR is an impressive and spacious colonial building, the former Presidential Palace no less, and isn’t far from the famous Edificio Bacardi. Outside the entrance you’ll find a tank, with further examples of military bulk nearby. Inside, be prepared for room upon room of remarkably well-preserved pieces dating back to the 1950s, as well as a range of miniature models depicting key areas, such as the pokey flat used to plan the 26th July actions. Bizarrely, there’s also a jungle area featuring waxworks of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, alongside a poetic quote about their lasting friendship. The building itself isn’t in the best shape, with several rooms being renovated and paintwork looking shabby, but this comes as no surprise in Cuba.
Winner: The MDLR takes the crown here, for the sheer volume of artefacts, and the inclusion of waxworks for no apparent reason.
As you walk around the MOC you’ll spot communist propaganda posters dotted around, illustrating different sections such as work and family life; these take the form of paintings, graphic screen prints or staged photographs. It’s also hard to walk past one of the earlier areas, filled with countless busts of leading political figures in what appears to be bronze and marble. Placed haphazardly next to each other, it feels overwhelming to have all those eyes fixed on you. Later on there’s also a selection of socialist realism paintings in bold colours – these are filled with improbably happy figures and make for an eye-wateringly bright propaganda tool.
The MDLR also places a strong emphasis on art, particularly on its uppermost level, where a contemporary exhibition has been staged to protest against the imprisonment of five Cuban patriots and sympathisers in the USA. I spotted propaganda across the city dedicated to these five prisoners, but this was the biggest concentration of political art. Downstairs it’s also worth photographing the Cretins’ Corner (Rincon de los Cretinos), containing caricatures of the country’s enemies, including former President Batista, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Winner: Again, the MDLR is victorious. Whilst the art here is controlled by the state, it’s still incredibly diverse. Socialist realism feels backwards in comparison.
A lot of pieces have been recreated at the MOC rather than being original artefacts, but there’s an attention to detail that carries you through the museum. The exhibitors makes no bones about the social impact of communism – it affected every aspect of people’s lives and turned neighbours against each other. That’s why the recreation of a shop with practically empty shelves, and the Soviet-infused classroom are so powerful – they show how the communist regime was ingrained in the everyday.
The later sections grab you even more, and the gravity of what you’re seeing really hits home. The persistent ringing of a phone in an interrogation room, followed by the sight of a noose, is undeniably chilling. Information about the show trials of the 1950s adds to the mood. Interestingly, whilst writing this post I stumbled across a piece by a Cuban blogger on the Huffington Post who visited the MOC. She blends her own experience of living under Russia’s influence with what she finds in the museum; it’s a fascinating read.
Obviously one of the big issues of visiting the MDLR is that history is only told from the government’s point of view, and not from the view of the people. This means that communist language seeps into every description, skewing the perspective of events and only focusing on achievements brought by revolution and subsequent legislation from the government.
Despite this bias, there were definitely some aspects that I agree were worth shouting about; Castro introduced the first special needs schools in the country and ensured that disabled people were looked after. He also implemented better maternity care standards and launched a specialist hospital to deal with paediatric heart conditions. In addition, literacy programmes reached out to previously neglected people in the community, with farmers and military personnel amongst those targeted for improvement. Women’s movements also grew over the years, and women were celebrated in the museum for their part in the revolution. Yet, of course, there were many issues brushed under the carpet and I left feeling as though parts of the puzzle were missing.
Winner: The MOC gives you the honest truth on historical events and has to take precedence in this category.
This was an easy choice in Prague: the museum’s short (and very dated) video left a lump in my throat, so much so that I watched it twice. Containing footage of protests and national events from the 1960s and 1980s, overlaid with Czechoslovakian music, it quietly showed the brutality and oppression that people faced under the communist regime. Plainclothes policemen pounced on protesters in the crowd, beating them senseless, whilst others looked on. Meanwhile a student was questioned for being out late at night, and was asked precise details about his school grades as a test of his character and behaviour. There was a real sense of being monitored and trapped in the system.
In the MDLR I was torn between a few eye-catching exhibits, including a skirt with hidden pockets for weapons and a child’s doll which carried plans inside its belly. However, my favourite was the spoon which saved its user’s life by deflecting a bullet; it was just one of many spoons kept in the museum (seriously, these guys must have been loath to throw anything away – it’s all here, from cutlery down to clothing and identity cards. There’s also a business card for the new regime). The building itself also tells a story, with bullet holes in the main staircase from a 1957 attack by students attempting to overthrow Batista.
Winner: Again, the MOC triumphs. The video emphasised the individual human consequences of communism, as well as the growing resentment which culminated in the Velvet Revolution.
The Museum of Communism (Na Prikope, Prague 1) is open every day except December 24th, from 9am-9pm. Entry is 190CZK for adults, 150CZK for students and free for under 10s.
The Museo de la Revolución (Refugio No 1, Habana) is open every day from 9am-5pm. Entry is 6CUC and bags must be checked in, at no extra cost.
On a practical note, it has to be said that both venues have equally grim toilets, so you might want to make use of nearby alternatives instead.
Obviously this isn’t just a case of choosing one museum over another, as they are very different; Prague’s MOC is privately owned and exists in a democratic country, whereas Havana’s MDLR is government-run and has to bend to Castro’s ideology. However, they are both worthy of your time and will really make you think.
What I would say is that you shouldn’t overlook the MDLR just because you don’t approve of what Cubans have to go through – it’s still an important place to visit, but clearly you are not going to get the full story there, so it makes sense to read around what you discover. When things do eventually change in Cuba, I will be excited to see whether Havana gets its own Museum of Communism and can confine its principles to the history books.