Written by: Oriada Dajko
The National Museum House of Leaves had been a mysterious building. Built in 1931, the place originally had the function of a maternity clinic. During World War II, and so under German occupation, it belonged to the Gestapo, while, during the first years of the subsequent regime, the building became an investigative center. Covered with leaves, it was then used as a platform from where the communist heads controlled and spied on people for the 45 years through which the system lasted, and acts of torture were carried out in its interior.
After the political turmoil of the ’90s, the building was abandoned and for decades had no function, until it opened on 23 May 2017 as the Museum of Surveillance. Nowadays, in its new role, it commemorates the psychological violence and complete control of citizens during the communist period in Albania (1944-1991).
Bunk’art 2: the underground past of Tirana
Located in the city’s center, with its approximate 1,000 m2, this underground tunnel was hidden from the public eye, and it was part of a bunker project that began in the early 1970s and led to construction of nearly 175,000 bunkers of various sizes across the country. Specifically, the now called Bunk’art 2, was built between 1981-1986 and intended to shelter the Interior Ministry officials in the event of a nuclear attack.
Opened on 19 November 2016, the Bunk’art 2 museum consists of 24 rooms, with many of them detailing the history of the Ministry of Interior Affairs between 1912 and 1991 and revealing the horrors of that time. The institution was thus eventually created as a memorial to honor the thousands of people who were executed in the past.
The educational programs “Remember to not forget” and “Impression” aim to acquaint the younger generations with the dark characteristics of the Albanian communist past and more broadly raise their awareness about the consequences communist regimes may bring. Particularly, by these educational programs carried out in high schools, students are offered the opportunity to talk with political prisoners of the regime. By admitting that history is just not only about facts, but it also has a lot to do with perspectives, these educational programs encourage and promote new talents that make a reflection on the past through art. In this way, students get a more in-depth understanding of history, and at the same time they can express themselves or perhaps start the first steps of an artistic career.
Moreover and along the same line, the involvement into the museums educational activities of persons who have been persecuted or interned and of their family members, further proves how the untold stories of their suffering in the past today become part of the development of the city’s identity.
Overall, we can say that engaging people carrying traumas related with the specified circumstances in the activities of the museum is a form of liberation, allowing the release of suffering and wounds that they have long suppressed within. Besides, their stories can also be seen as a form of liberation valid for the entire society from a long period of isolation and silence, sparkling a desire to heal and reconcile with a difficult past through the open confrontation with its legacies.
Nonetheless, an issue of such Dark Heritage in Albania is that many people who suffered directly, and so the relatives of the victims and the people who persecuted them are still alive. In this context, is Dark Heritage becoming a subject that could lead to troublesome debates?
To answer, we will turn to a recent study, whose results show that a large portion of citizens do not see the heritage of the communist past as a major problem which Albania is facing today (IDRA & OSCE, 2016). Conversely, and compared to the population as a whole, the persecuted individuals are the ones more likely to consider it as a problem. At the same time, and surprisingly, over a third of the persons who have been directly oppressed think that this heritage does not represent a problem at all (IDRA & OSCE, 2016).
In this light, we can conclude that Dark Heritage is not an unequivocally controversial issue as it might appear at first, and therefore turn to the possible beneficial effects that spark from it and especially in relation to the external visitors.
The attraction towards Dark Heritage
Since people started to travel, they have been drawn “towards sites, attractions or events that are somehow linked to negative historical events where death, violence, suffering or disaster played a major role” (Sharpley and Stone, 2009).
Precisely, for the two museums that represent the case-studies of this article, we can separate the tourists in two distinct groups: visitors with personal connection to the related history, that is to say victims and relatives of victims, and general visitors with no direct or indirect connections.
Why then visitors who are completely external to these events are attracted to places that speak about persecution, suffering and death?
One motivation, condensed in the popular expression “see it to believe it”, relates to participants’ interest in seeing the site out of a need to believe that such atrocities really happened(Global Heritage, 2016).
The second reason, namely “learning and understanding”, highlights participants’ interest in past communist systems.
The third reason is related to the fact that tourists follow new trends promoted by the media and, in fact, both the House of Leaves and Bunk’Art 2 are mentioned as Tirana’s main attractions in various blogs and magazines about travel and tourism (National Geographic, the Council of Europe, the Nomads Travel Guide and others).
As a whole, tourism is understood as one of the ways in which we attempt to approach and understand otherness (Willis, 2014). Under this light, as there is no doubt that empathy is a powerful catalyst for cross-cultural understanding, the issue of human sufferance may then fit better than others into the discourse.
Accordingly, we may in conclusion say that you can fully understand otherness and truly feel empathy when you know and understand even their dark side, a powerful driver for social reconciliation this last, on which perhaps we should further invest.
First published at ESACH BLOG, April 2021.
IDRA & OSCE Presence in Albania, Study report “Public knowledge and perceptions of it the communist past in Albania and the expectations for the future”. Tirana, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/8/1/286831.pdf
Stone P.R. and Sharpley R., The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism. Bristol, UK, Channel View Publications, 2009. Tourist on a graveyard – dark heritage site, in Global Heritage, 10 November 2016. Retrieved from https://thinkglobalheritage.wordpress.com/2016/11/10/tourist-on-a-graveyard-dark-heritage-sites/
Willis E., Theatrically, dark tourism and ethical spectatorship. New York, USA, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.