House of Leaves
More background info:
The “Sigurimi” (short for “Drejtoria e Sigurimit të Shtetit”, or ‘Directorate of State Security’) was communist Albania
’s equivalent of the KGB
. Like the latter it combined spying, counter-intelligence, surveillance of the population, censorship of the media, and in many cases apprehension, torture and incarceration of politically suspect individuals. Under the mantle of “security” it was basically an organization to suppress any kind of opposition and freedom. And it did that with ruthless determination and largely with success.
Telephone lines were bugged, secret surveillance cameras and microphones installed, mail intercepted, informers recruited, and so forth. It is estimated that about a third of the Albanian population had some form of contact with the Sigurimi, be it interrogation, threats, political imprisonment or even execution. Several thousands are said to have been “disappeared” by the Sigurimi. For more on Albanian political prisons see also under Spaç
This building in the centre of Tirana
was originally built in 1931 as a maternity/obstetric clinic, but was appropriated by the Gestapo
during the German occupation and later by the Albanian “Sigurimi” to serve as its main HQ after the liberation of Albania
and the takeover of communist
rule after WWII
. The main role of the Sigurimi at this location was electronic surveillance, postal interception and keeping tabs on and observing foreigners. It only ceased to function in those roles in 1991 shortly before the eventual collapse of communist rule also in Albania (after the rest of Eastern Europe had already rid themselves of the old regimes).
Unlike the similar Bunk’Art 1
and Bunk’Art 2
sites, this museum, which opened in May 2017, is not run by an independent NGO but is entirely government funded. Other than its informal name House of Leaves (an epithet that allegedly stems from the ivy that crawls up some of its walls) it is officially called “Muzeu i Përgjimeve të Sigurimit të Shtetit” in Albanian or in English ‘Museum of Secret Surveillance’.
What there is to see: Sandwiched in between more modern buildings, the museum, housed in a two-storey 1930s building, is set back a bit from the road. The outer fence separating the premises from the pavement is painted with all manner of topical symbolism, including, literally, bugs.
The ticket booth is separate from the main building, in a small container to the side. I was quite disappointed when I learned that photography was forbidden inside the museum exhibition. I routinely use photography as a memory aid when writing up chapters for this website, and also capture text panels for reading later. Since I couldn’t do that in this case, I have to rely on memory and whatever info I could find online. However, the no-photography rule seems to have been enforced less strictly at times other than when I was there, going by the many hundreds of photos to be found on Google Maps and on Tripadvisor! Anyway, I couldn’t use my proper camera, but as they encouraged you to use a smartphone to scan QR codes to access additional information online, I managed to sneak in a couple of shots using my phone.
The exhibition inside the building is subdivided into various subsections, beginning with the early history of the house (see above
). The text panels and exhibits’ labels are bilingual, in Albanian and English, but the original text materials are in Albanian only, without translations. The English is not too faulty as such, grammatically and orthographically, but the style is often quite flowery and metaphorical, sometimes to the point of obscurity.
The next topical main part is entitled “Bugs and other creatures”. This is about surveillance technology and large numbers of related items are on display – microphones, tape recorders, cameras, lenses, monitors spread out on a large table and one wall is plastered with several dozen portable tape recorders of more or less identical sizes.
The “Living microphones”, i.e. the human spies and informers, are the next topic, and on display are countless transcripts of intercepted conversations or interrogations. All these are in Albanian, of course. Also explained at great length is the internal hierarchical structure of the Sigurimi organization, with, obviously, Enver Hoxha at the very top. In contrast to his over forty solid years of dictatorial rule, the direct heads of the Sigurimi as such seem to have changed frequently.
A particularly unsettling section I found that on interrogation and torture. Various methods are illustrated graphically by drawings. Apparently, interrogators were specifically instructed in the use of torture. Video screens play victims’ testimonies (with English subtitles). Not easy watching.
The exhibition then continues upstairs. One section here specifies who the internal “enemies” were and what their “crimes” were supposed to be (e.g. “anti-communist agitation”). Again there are statistics, of how many people were arrested and for what, and how many were imprisoned (ca. 18,000) and executed (over 5500). There are photos of mock trials and more video testimonies.
The targeting of foreigners, i.e. mainly staff of foreign embassies (back in the isolationist years of Albania there were basically no other foreigners visiting the country), was one of the activities co-ordinated from this building. A rough bas-relief map of central Tirana shows the various connections it had to other locations, including embassies and an international hotel. An interesting element here is a video with a French diplomat recalling his experiences in Albania in the 1980s.
There follows a section on how surveillance and control penetrated everyday life in Albania
in that era. One of the most visual parts of the museum is a complete reconstruction of communist-era living room, with original period furniture, a radio and TV set (see also Bunk’Art 1
for a similar such reconstruction).
Another emphasis is how tight the surveillance of the “nomenclature” was in particular, i.e. nominally privileged party members were under the strictest observation. Again some telephone interception technology is on display, as well as transcripts and reports.
Back downstairs there are a couple of final sections, including one about photography, with a lab for developing negatives as well as technology for secretly opening letters and manufacturing keys. There’s an audio station with memories of that dark era, then a ramp leads out into the open air in the compound’s backyard.
An open-air exhibition out here includes a wall of photos of people responsible for the violations of human rights under communism, entitled “faces of the dictatorship”.
Back at the front of the building, make sure to also take a look at the concrete shelter – a flight of stairs leads underground to a long tunnel-like structure of raw concrete. If you have a torch you can explore the full length of it and go to the end part, where a metal ladder would have led up vertically, except the rungs are bent or broken. So you have to exit the way you entered. What the exact purpose of this bunker-like shelter was, remains unclear, though. A cubicle to the side of the main tunnel reveals a grubby squat toilet, so maybe this served as a kind of prison cell? I don’t know.
All in all, I have mixed feelings about the House of Leaves. Many parts are quite visual in nature, yet photography is not allowed (officially), which I found strange. And while some parts are engaging, many others I found rather tedious and the flowery yet “didactic” language not too helpful. On balance I found the Bunk’Art 2 exhibition, which is on a similar subject, somewhat more accessible and interesting. But the element of place authenticity is of course a strong factor here. So it is worthwhile visiting this place.
right in the heart of Tirana
’s city centre, opposite the Orthodox Cathedral and next to a flamboyant new skyscraper (the Alban Tower); address: Rruga Dëshmorët e 4 Shkurtit (as given on the museum’s website, though on Google Maps the street name is given as Rruga Ibrahim Rugova!).
Access and costs: easy to get to; not the cheapest
Details: easily walkable from just about anywhere within Tirana’s city centre; the street it is on is one of the main north-south arteries of the city centre, and it’s just opposite the Orthodox Cathedral, which can serve as a landmark for guidance.
Opening times: The museum’s own website gives conflicting information! In the website’s footer it says daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., but on the side bar it says 9a.m. to 4 p.m. and closed Mondays.
: 700 lek, free on certain public holidays and anniversaries and every last Sunday of the month except between June and August. I found the price a bit steep for what you get, especially compared to the 500 lek you have to pay to see the much more comprehensive Bunk’Art 1
No photography allowed inside the exhibition, only permitted in the open-air parts!
Time required: I spent about an hour at this museum, the official recommendation is 1-2 hours, so some may need longer, I guess especially if you use all the QR codes and read everything these access online while still at the site (I saved a few for reading later and now find they don’t work at home).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The National History Museum
as well as the National Art Gallery
are both just a stone’s throw away, as is the Bunk’Art 2
site, which is also thematically related closely to the subject matter of secret security and repression in communist Albania
, so that would make the prefect combination.
See also under Tirana
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The new Orthodox Cathedral is just across the road, and Skanderbeg Square just around the corner. In fact the central location of this museum allows for combinations with practically everything Tirana
has to offer in terms of tourism.
- House of Leaves 1 - outside
- House of Leaves 2 - former HQ of the Sigurimi
- House of Leaves 3 - listening funnels and bunker entrance
- House of Leaves 4 - going in
- House of Leaves 5 - inside the bunker
- House of Leaves 6 - stairs back to the surface
- House of Leaves 7 - inside the exhibition
- House of Leaves 8 - torture instructions
- House of Leaves 9 - faces in the rear courtyard