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Albania: National Museum Seeks New Identity

  • Fabian Schmidt

Albania's National Museum has been trying to update its presentation of Albanian history, purging it of the old communist ideology. One new exhibit will focus on the royal family. But as analyst Fabian Schmidt reports, the museum's makeover is far from complete.

Tirana, 14 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Albania's National Museum has asked the family of the late King Ahmet Zogu to send back some of the king's possessions for display in the museum. Museum Director Mojkom Zeqo says he hopes that by displaying memorabilia of the king he will be able to present Albania's modern history in a more balanced fashion than in the past.

The communists presented Zogu exclusively as a dictator and collaborator with the Italians. There is no comprehensive exhibition about the Zogist era in the museum -- although at least the one-sided, communist-era exhibit has been removed.

The royal family is controversial in Albania. Zogu's queen, Geraldina, and their son -- the claimant to the throne, Leka Zogu -- are living in South Africa. Leka is an arms dealer who is wanted in Albania for participating in an alleged coup attempt after the 1997 general elections. At that time, he approached the offices of the Central Election Commission with a crowd of supporters to protest against alleged election fraud. He was armed with guns and hand grenades, and some of the crowd engaged police in a shoot-out.

The museum's Zeqo says of King Zogu that, "regardless of politics, he is part of Albania's history, so we hope that his family will understand our request and will send back possessions of his that they still have."

But by simply displaying possessions of the king, Zeqo will not substantially address the difficulties of presenting Albania's diverse and contradictory history. Indeed, displaying Zogu's possessions will scarcely budge the museum's communist-era ideological baggage.

Opened by the communists in 1981, the National Museum presented Albania's history as an unbroken tradition of the Albanian people's struggle against the outside world. This struggle, according to late dictator Enver Hoxha's understanding of history, began about 500 BC with the Illyrians, the supposed ancestors of the Albanian people.

In an oversimplification, the communists claimed that the Illyrians and later the Albanians throughout their history settled in the areas that are now Albania and the Yugoslav province of Kosovo and defended themselves against the Greeks, Romans, Goths, Slavs, Crusaders, Byzantium, the Turks, Italians, Germans, and everybody else who passed through that territory during those 2,500 years.

That ideology was designed to justify Albania's singular policy of international isolation after Hoxha's break with Nikita Khrushchev's USSR in the 1960s and the position that communist Albania had to be able defend itself against both NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

After the fall of communism, the National Museum staff removed those parts of the exhibition dealing with history after World War I. They introduced a section about communist-era persecution and about the democratic movement. The new exhibit includes a reconstruction of one of the notorious roofless prison cells from Burrel and a listing of the communists' victims in the style of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

But the museum's officials failed to revise the exhibitions dealing with ancient, medieval, and Ottoman periods to rid them of Hoxha's pervasive ideology of "national paranoia." Indeed, changes in these sections were merely cosmetic.

For example, maps showing settlements of Illyrian tribes and their defense against neighboring Greek and Roman intruders were once accompanied by a quotation from Enver Hoxha, stressing the continuity between those times and today. After the end of communism, the museum staff removed the letters, but visitors can still read the quotation by studying the remaining traces of the glue on the surface where the letters once stood.

The old ideology and self-image of isolation is, in fact, still omnipresent, despite the superficial efforts to purge it. In one particularly glaring example, no effort has been made to show the important role of individual Albanians in the Ottoman administration and society. Instead, the Ottoman era remains one of conquest on the one hand, and the liberation struggle of national heroes like Skanderbeg on the other.

The Ottoman period, moreover, is presented as one of darkness and oppression, without any reference to the myriad cultural currents that crossed Albania over those centuries and traces of which can still be found today. There is thus no reference to the religious bodies like the Bektashis, which have their roots elsewhere in the former Ottoman empire and have played an important role in Albanian history.

But the broader public awareness of the need to review Albania's history does not yet go that far back. For the time being, the question of how to deal with the more recent heritage of King Zogu has become a priority.