By Egle Rindzeviciute, Linköping University
Milky sunlight streams down through the glass roof of a patio at the Open Society Archives. On the wall there hangs a large clock which runs backwards. This work of art, Central Direction II by Harasztÿ István, could well represent the fate of museums of communism in Eastern Europe. The original museums of communism, abundant in the Soviet Union and state socialist countries of the Warsaw pact, were dedicated to displaying the achievements of the state socialist system and the Communist Party. When the state socialist regimes collapsed in 1989-1991, the clocks of communism started to tick backwards. Although the museums of communism were shut during this period of liberalisation, communism was soon to return to museum halls and memorial sites. Now the story of victory and achievement was replaced with a story of suffering and failure.
The workshop The Museums of Communism and Contemporary History in Post-Communist Eastern Europe: Lessons and New Approaches, which took place at Central European University in Budapest 13-14 May 2011, explored the ways in which the history of state socialism is assembled and represented in museums and memorial sites. During two days of presentations and discussions it transpired that there are distinctive differences between the museumification of communism in Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Germany and Lithuania. Whereas Germany has well developed exhibitions of the state socialist period, Serbia lacks any museum representation of the second half of the twentieth century. In Bulgaria several museums of communism were organised through private initiatives, meanwhile in Hungary a substantial state investment was made in the construction of the House of Terror. All countries, however, seemed to share one common feature: exhibitions of communism stirred controversies and raised difficult questions, ranging from the choice of material objects to political narratives. Displaying the communist past in the post-communist museums appears to be impossible without including other highly traumatic historical events, such as the Holocaust or Yugoslavian wars.
These are only some of the many issues that were explored in the workshop. The organisers, historians Constantin Iordachi and Peter Apor, are pulling together the many threads of the discussions into an edited book that will be the first comparative historical study of assembling and representing communism in European museums.