UPDATE April 2022: I've just been back to Tirana and saw the changes/expansions inside the exhibition and will update this chapter accordingly soon. Please bear with me and check back later.
Probably the most significant sight in Tirana
, at least from the outside: the gigantic mosaic on its front façade is without a doubt the most iconic image of Albania
at large. The content of the museum exhibition used to be of special interest to the dark tourist too, but at the time I visited it I found it quite severely downgraded by "refurbishments", with the entire section on the labour camps and repression during the totalitarian Hoxha
years gone. Only marginally dark elements remain for the moment.
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
What there is to see:
You will most likely recognize the huge mosaic on the front of this central Tirana
landmark building the second you set eyes on it. It is by far the best-known image of modern Albania
. It represents the country's heroic history from antiquity to the partisans that liberated the nation in 1944 (which marked the beginning of the Hoxha reign).
When I was there in April 2011, however, it was scaffolded-up, presumably for refurbishment. So I could only make out the famous mosaic through the scaffolding from a distance. Fortunately, though, a friend of mine who was there in 2008 let me have her photos from back then so I can show you the mosaic in its old glory all the same. At least the refurbishment is a good sign that the mosaic is likely to escape the otherwise destructive revisionist approach in Albania to anything that's a reminder of the Hoxha
Inside, the museum's contents are a lot more mundane than the proud façade may suggest. This is not just due to the fact that the museum apparently lost many of its prized exhibits during repeated looting in the chaotic 1990s. It's also the dearth of information in English and the generally rather stuffy nature of the museum.
So I shuffled through the downstairs part rather quickly … at least there was the promise of some more dark history covered upstairs … The first few halls on the ground floor cover early Albanian history (and pre-history), and as such are of very limited interest to the dark tourist anyway. Needless to say, the ubiquitous national hero Skanderbeg is lavishly represented, but that's neither surprising nor particularly spirit-raising.
Upstairs, the theme first continues with periods that leave the dark tourist rather cold too (lots of peasant-y stuff and the like). This is particularly true for a large hall in red with a gallery around the side in which religious items, primarily icons and pieces of painted altar triptych wood are displayed. I can confidently guarantee 100% that this section would not have been here between 1967 and the fall of communism in Albania (since Hoxha
had banned all religion in 1967 and made Albania
the first 100% atheist country … and I must admit that I can't really be too angry with the man about that one aspect of his otherwise repugnantly repressive regime).
Things get marginally more interesting as the exhibition trawls through the days of resistance against foreign occupations, though that against the Ottomans is less relevant to modern dark tourists than perhaps the partisans' efforts against Italy
! Many of the exhibits here are also rather yawn-inducing (piles of weapons, uniforms, documents without any information in English). But there are exceptions.
An especially notable one is a glass display case that contains (yes! I could hardly believe it myself!) items that belonged to Enver Hoxha
in the days when he led the partisans to victory in 1944, including a leather jacket and a revolver.
Dotted around the same hall are also some noteworthy statues and paintings in the predictable socialist realism
style, as well as more artefacts that can raise an eyebrow or two in different ways. For instance, there's a display cabinet from which the uncomfortably familiar red Nazi
flag looms! It is part of a set of trophies, items taken from a German officer in one of the battles fought in the liberation of Albania from Nazi occupation.
As a kind of counterpart to this, there's also an urn wrapped in bits of barbed wire, and containing soil/ashes from the Mauthausen
concentration camp in Austria
, in which – amongst thousands others – also a few hundred Albanians perished.
On a wall nearby there's a black plaque with a list of names and a dedication: to those righteous Albanians who during the German occupation and the Holocaust
sheltered Jews and thus saved them. As far as I understood it from descriptions in guidebooks this plaque used to be outside on a corner of the museum building. Why this has been moved here, I cannot say.
However, it was a much more significant change at the National History Museum, that turned out to be a real blow: the very prime attraction to the dark tourist was gone when I visited in late April 2011! This was the section about the Hoxha
years from WWII
to his death in 1985. Instead, the last hall of the museum, where I presume this part of the exhibition would have been, was completely bare, cordoned off and possibly about to undergo refurbishment. I can only speculate, but I fear this might be a permanent loss. Whatever may fill this section when the refurbishment is complete, I doubt it will still cover the full dark scale it once did.
That would be so typical of Albania, which seems to have adopted a clear path of revisionism. It's not uncommon to find this in formerly communist countries (cf. e.g. the Tito museum
), but Tirana
is a particularly stark example. Instead of dealing with the past, the official line seems to be to rewrite history instead. For the principle as such, I suppose, Stalin would be proud of them – though less so for being included in this wiping out of traces of the real past. (But: as if to make up for it, you can still find a rare large Stalin
statue hidden away behind the National Gallery
These changes at the National History Museum must have come about very recently, shortly before I was there in late April 2011. I must have missed the old section so narrowly – as e.g. the In-Your-Pocket guide for "spring/summer 2011" still hailed the museum as the only spot where you can get information about the totalitarian Hoxha years and see "harrowing" displays about the labour camp system. No longer, you can't! It's just too bad that I didn't get to Tirana earlier to have seen it … oh well.
There was, on the other hand, a section about former King Zog and his descendants. I presume some current family member would theoretically be the heir to the throne, should the monarchy ever be reinstated … who knows …
The museum shop also needs to be mentioned. It is mostly an arts-and-crafts affair and also has some general touristy stuff (like postcards and Albania scarves and T-shirts). I couldn't resist and bought a massive glass paperweight featuring the Albanian national flag (which I have always found one of the most visually appealing in the world). However, there was nothing like proper information material about the museum and in particular: nothing about the country's dark parts of 20th century history. I drew a blank there, again.
Labelling and texts are mostly in Albanian only, except for the odd information panel (e.g. "Albania during the Second World War") and a random proportion of the artefact labels in English (partly halfway decent in translation, sometimes not so much). Overall, way too little to be sufficient for foreign visitors.
In sum, then: without the part of the exhibition about the dark era under Enver Hoxha
, there is very little for the dark tourist worth seeing in this museum, which isn't particularly well geared up for foreign visitors in any case. You will have to decide for yourself whether it still warrants even a brief visit.
Should, however, that final hall in the museum turn out to be, or at least include, a section about that period of Albanian history, then that would change things dramatically. So, if anyone hears about or gets to see the new part and can report back, please contact me
and let me know! (Especially as I doubt I will make it back to Tirana myself any time soon.)
on the northern side of Skanderbeg Square, right in the centre of Tirana