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 permanent exhibition inside, however, is so old-school and so uninviting to international visitors that it largely fails to impress.
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More background info: Albania
has plenty of history, going back to antiquity, and including centuries of Ottoman rule, to warrant its own national history museum. It’s only surprising that it came into being so late, opened in October 1981. Of course, when it was built is was still the communist
era under dictator Enver Hoxha
, so the periods of the partisan fights against fascism and Nazis
had to be especially celebrated.
The museum’s most significant exhibit is arguably not inside but the giant mosaic on the front façade above the entrance. It’s supposed to be depicting, or “summarizing” Albania’s history and is the collective work of five Albanian artists. It is one of the most important works of socialist realism
anywhere in the world and has become an icon of modern Albania
. The group of figures on the left represent pre-20th century history and cover the fight against Romans and Ottomans, the group of four figures on the right (two of them women) represent the fight for independence by partisans in the 20th century up to the end of WWII
, and the three figures in the centre represent Albania’s march into a glorious socialist future, led by a woman in traditional dress but with a rifle in her raised right hand. Next to her are a worker (but of course!) and a soldier waving a large Albanian flag. Clearly, the right and central parts also served to celebrate this communist path as such.
After the fall of communism
in 1991/92 such a celebration was no longer so welcome, and indeed the mosaic was subsequently “tampered with”. Apparently one of the artists who was involved in the original 1980 design, Agim Nebiu, was commissioned to alter it, namely by taking out some of the communist symbolism (an act of politically motivated, iconoclastic revisionism, you could say). Originally, there was an Albanian gold-rimmed red five-pointed star behind the head of the woman marching at the front in the centre. But this star has been removed, or rather made to look as if it’s part of the Albanian flag flying behind her. But that gives the flag a very odd, unnatural shape. The same symbol used to be part of the flag itself too in the communist era, but on the mosaic this has been “purged” as well. The partisans on the right at least retain the red stars on their caps (why these were allowed to remain in place I don’t know). Another alteration, however, is more difficult to interpret. Originally, the worker marching next to the central woman was clutching a red book to his chest, but that was altered too. It now is some unidentifiable object, like a piece of cloth or leather. But why remove the red book? Was it perhaps seen to represent the works of Enver Hoxha
? (I’ve seen volumes of those at the Bunk’Art 2
site, and they were indeed clad in red leather.) Or was the mere concept of a worker with a book already too communist? We can only speculate … Now that the mosaic is undergoing refurbishment again (see below
) you may wonder whether it might be restored to its original state … but I doubt that very much.
The contents of the museum’s permanent exhibition were also affected, especially the parts about the Enver Hoxha years. As described below, on my first visit in 2011 there was no mention of that era to be found at all. That section of the museum must have been simply removed. In 2012 a new exhibition about that time was opened, now decidedly anti-communist and concentrating mostly on the victims of the political and physical repression of opposition, the labour camps, mock trials and executions. Enver Hoxha still barely gets a mention. I wonder whether the “permanent” exhibition will see further changes in the future …
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, this famous front façade 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 (see the photo gallery below
When I revisited Tirana eleven years later in April 2022 and headed for this museum, I couldn’t believe my bad luck. Again, I found the front façade and the grand mosaic scaffolded-up and behind a reproduction of the image of the mosaic on a canvas cover. So yet again, I was unable to marvel at it in the flesh. You have to wonder, was the 2011 refurbishment of the mosaic too shoddy to last more than eleven years, or is the Albanian capital’s air quality so poor and aggressive to the mosaic that it needs refurbishing every decade?
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.
On both occasions, on my first visit in 2011 and again in 2022, I moved 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 focus on early Albanian history (and prehistory), and as such are of 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. Such a 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. Interestingly, I found this section closed and boarded up on my return visit in 2022 – perhaps it is undergoing some refurbishment.
Things get marginally more interesting as the exhibition trawls through the days of resistance against foreign occupations, against the Ottomans and later against Italy
. Exhibits include heaps of weapons, uniforms and documents, but the labels and descriptive texts are mostly in Albanian only, with just a few lines of English added, so the significance of many objects doesn’t really reveal itself to foreign visitors.
One element that sufficiently speaks for itself is a large socialist-realist mural on one wall depicting partisans battling their enemy in a fabulously glorifying depiction. In a a way this echoes the grand mosaic on the front façade.
Amongst the exhibits I found in 2011 but must have missed in 2022 (or has it been removed?) is a glass display case containing 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 my return visit in 2022 I failed to spot this item as well.)
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. (And it’s another item that I did not see on my return visit in 2022 – either I wasn’t paying sufficient attention, being rather underwhelmed by the exhibition’s unimproved state, or maybe this plaque has been moved again.)
On my first visit (in 2011) I was primarily there to see 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. So that was a great let-down.
Years later a friend of mine who had visited this museum informed me that when he was there this section about the communist years of repression was back. So on my second visit in 2022 I was especially intrigued what I would find there now. Unfortunately, despite the refurbishment it must have undergone in the intervening years, the style in this section of the museum continued with exactly the same old-school stuffiness and dearth of English as in the rest of the museum.
himself plays only a marginal role, the focus is rather on repression, surveillance, show trials, political prisons, torture and executions. All grim elements of this darkest chapter of Albania
’s modern history, no doubt, but presented in a disappointingly non-engaging manner.
Exhibits include photos of victims, of trials, documents (in Albanian, obviously, and lacking English translations), personal belongings of victims, including artefacts made by prisoners while incarcerated, listening devices, and a glass display case with chains, shackles, truncheons and other instruments of restraint and torture. One small subsection also covers the eventual overthrow of communism
in the early 1990s.
A large panel on a wall declares “Terrori Komunist në Shqipëri”, which I believe translates as ‘communist terror of Albania’. The same topic, however, is conveyed in much better form at the BunkArt 2
(to a degree also at the original BunkArt 1
) and the House of Leaves
museums in Tirana
So in the end I left the permanent exhibition a bit disappointed, although not as much as after my first visit in 2011, when the entire post-WWII part of Albania’s history was missing completely.
There’s also a museum shop, which sells decorative objects, items of clothing, postcards and lots of books and brochures, mostly in Albanian, but also a few foreign-language titles. I purchased one about the industrialization of Albania under Hoxha and his crazy “bunkerization
” programme. This also gave me inspiration for further explorations (e.g. Kombinat
So on balance, my second visit to this museum wasn’t a complete waste of time, it brought some useful insights, but overall I was still rather underwhelmed by the whole experience.
on the northern side of Skanderbeg Square, right in the centre of Tirana