Those museums that make history visible to tourists in Central & Eastern Europe

They’re not all good, but at least these museums have an educative value. Without them, tourists would just spend a weekend taking photos of baroque statues and spend money on beer and meat-based staples.

070 - estonia - tallinn - panorama
Central & Eastern European cities, at least those that were not destroyed during World War II, have pretty old towns. Logical that they attract many tourists for city trips. Here Tallinn (photo April 2007)

And that’s because the industry of tourism relies only on two types of assets:

  • The visible beauty (whether it is natural or architectural)
  • The recreational potential of a place (entertainment, activities, or restauration)

These are the only assets that are able to attract a mass of tourisms ready to spend money. So what do you do when, for example, you want to promote tourism in a city which is not the prettiest, for example because it was almost entirely demolished during a war, and rebuilt in a non-graceful, brejnevian style?

Warsaw has the answer: building museums! The smartest way to offer something visible for tourists. And even better if these museums are huge multimedia complexes: it ticks the second requirement, offering entertainment to tourists. Follows a renovation of the old town in pre-war style, and there you go! Warsaw is experiencing a double digit growth in annual number of tourists.

And at least, these tourists learn something. Instead of seeing just the cute old town, where their hotel and their restaurants are, at least they go out of their comfort zone little bit and discover something about the country they visit.

Many Central and Eastern European cities have such big museums. Here is a little overview, classified as my 3 top and my 3 flop.

POLITICAL HISTORY MUSEUMS IN CENTRAL & EASTERN EUROPE: 

MY TOP 3

1. Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (Riga, Latvia; I visited in July 2010)

Riga
Riga: the Occupation museum is the dark building in the back. I didn’t take a photo, so I borrowed this one from Pulitzer Centre.

As the museum’s website says, “the Museum’s goal is to portray life during the three occupation periods suffered by Latvia and Latvians.” And indeed, it starts immediately with the display of a typical gulag room, where thousands of deported Latvians had to survive. Welcome.

Non-judgmental and educational, the exhibition follows the course of history depicting the fate of the Latvian nation, occupied first by the Soviet, then the Nazi, then the Soviet again. It is an excellent balance of clear rational explanations of the events and their causes, and of an emotional apprehension of the terror experienced by a nation for many decades.

Absorbed as I was by the museum, I could not finish it before the closing time and had to rush over the last exhibits. I will have to return one day.

2. Museum of the History of Polish Jews (Warsaw, Poland; I visited in February 2015)

warsaw jewish

The museum is in a brand-new, huge building.

This is a brand-new, long awaited by me museum in Warsaw. It opened its doors a year ago and I tried to visit, unfortunately the main exhibition was not ready yet. Perseverant, I went back and finally visited it last weekend.

The museum is a typical new multimedia museum, that focuses as much on the content as on the experience, with plenty of touchscreens that provide more detail in a sort of playful way. But luckily these are not just gimmicks: they provide the opportunity for those who want to deep dive into more details.

warsaw jewish2
Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes

 

The Museum has been built on the ground of what was the Jewish ghetto during World War II, facing the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes.

What I liked very much about this exhibition is that it is not just about the Holocaust (90% of Polish Jews perished), but really about the history of the Jewish people, from their emigration to Poland in the twelfth century to nowadays, richly documented and explained. The Holocaust part of the exhibition focuses mainly on Warsaw, but is rich in details I had not yet seen elsewhere.

Again, I entered the museum a bit too late, not expecting such depth, and had to rush over a number of exhibits. I will definitely go back next time I’m in Warsaw.

3. Gestapo Headquarters (Warsaw, Poland; I visited in February 2012)

You must be at least 14 years old to enter this museum, I guess this says a lot. This is where the Gestapo headquarters were during the Nazi occupation, and where the political prisoners from the Pawiak prison were brought by the Gestapo to be interrogated and tortured.

Many torture techniques are exhibited; you can see for example the ‘tram room’, a small room where prisoners were kept before interrogation. The room’s layout was like a tram, with just single chairs all facing the same direction. Prisoners were not allowed to speak, nor to sleep, nor to look around; the ones in the front row had no idea who were behind them; those in the back could recognize their companions but were not allowed to say anything. They were staying there for hours, sometimes even days.

This is not really a touristy museum, and it is more informative than entertaining. Its gloomy atmosphere stresses the solemn tone of the exhibit. However, I found it absolutely excellent, extremely well documented, and, needless to say, memorable.

2011 02 Warsaw 01
There is a display in the museum with this quote from Hitler that would seal the fate of Poland during World War II.

It is also the only museum I have ever had the chance to visit that was documenting the fatal destiny Hitler had decided for the Polish people.

MY FLOP 3

1. Museum of Yugoslavian History (Belgrade, Serbia; I visited in August 2014)

I admit it, I may have been unlucky with this one. When I visit the website today, I see plenty of interesting looking temporary exhibits. But at the time I visited, this was the most disappointing experience.

Serbia 238 - Belgrade
From the outside, the Museum of Yugoslavian history looks big and promising.

In the museum’s garden is the House of Flowers, where Tito’s grave can be admired. It also contains a couple of rooms displaying some photos and a few objects that played a role in Tito’s life. Very interesting is the collection of 128 Youth Batons that were offered to him as gifts everywhere, a symbol of the regime of those times, however this is it. A very thin exhibit for such a fascinating character, I was craving for more.

Serbia 233 - Belgrade
Tito’s Youth Batons collection

The main building of the museum, at the time of my visit, was half empty and hosted a sort of contemporary art exhibition that probably required a PhD in abstract art to be understood. I just stayed a few minutes to use the free wifi and left.

Given what the website promises nowadays, I will give this museum a new chance and visit again next time I am in Belgrade, however I will manage my own expectations.

2. Warsaw Uprising Museum (Warsaw, Poland; I visited in February 2012)

Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a fantastic idea to have a museum about the Warsaw Uprising. This part of history is heroic and tragic at the same time and needs to be told more. It is fundamental to grasp how much both the Nazis and the Soviets abused Poland during World War II.

Also, I do admit that this museum is well documented. The problem is that this is the type of museum that focuses on the packaging at the cost of the content. I spent a couple of hours there, experiencing a lot, but understanding nothing.

uprising
The museum is all about experience. At the time of visit, photos were forbidden. I have borrowed this one from In Your Pocket.

I remember hearing war noises that were terrifying. I remember seeing mini drawers that I could pull to discover people’s portraits. I remember being speechless looking at a reconstitution of demolished Warsaw.

But I also remember leaving the museum more confused than before, and rushing to find a history book to try and understand what exactly this Uprising was about and in which order the events actually happened.

I would still recommend visiting the museum, but read Wikipedia’s history page before.

3. Prague Communism Museum (Prague, Czech Republic; I visited in May 2011)

Now we’re reaching another level. A much lower level. This museum gives a short overview and contains some artefacts, but has very little historical interest. It is clearly anti-communist propaganda, but in a dogmatic way rather than anything else. Everything is subject to an anti-communist interpretation, offering no depth.

Prague 08
This is an extract of the displays. Nothing really fundamentally off topic, but it is all very simplistic and taking shortcuts; not a history museum. Observe the tone of the last sentence, which is a great example of propaganda.

Maybe a good refresher for those from Western countries who don’t remember their basic history classes (“Oh true, there was a Cold War!”). Or for those anti-communists that are just happy with propaganda confirming their negative opinion (“These commies were bad people”). As for me, I’ll just pass.

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