New National Museum exhibition showcases fascinating audio and video material from communist era

20-11-2009

Za Svobodu! – called Be Free! in English – is the title of an exhibition the Czech National Museum opened on Tuesday’s anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution. It is located in the institution’s new building, the former home of Czechoslovakia’s Federal Assembly, and is co-curated by Lucie Swierczeková.

“We created this exhibition in order to show the four-decade period in Czechoslovakia between after the war and 1989 – to show how propaganda was omnipresent here, and to show how free information did manage to get into the country. We’d like to bring people today closer to the atmosphere of that time.”

Be Free! is divided into two halves. The first focuses on the 1950s and ‘60s, featuring for instance chilling video footage of prosecutor Josef Urválek opening the show trial of Communist politician Rudolf Slánský. The second part turns the spotlight on the last two decades of totalitarian rule in Czechoslovakia. Swierczeková describes some of the items on display.

“We have a courtroom dock in a section dedicated to the show trials of the 1950s, a dock where defendants stood. We have original and replica balloons by means of which Radio Free Europe flyers were dropped into the country. We have a clock that was in the studio of RFE when it was bombed. And we have the original designs for the logo of Civic Forum, which were done by the graphic designer Pavel Šťastný – they’re in the free space, the final section of the exhibition.”

Among a number of videos running in Be Free! is one of a 1976 press conference featuring StB secret police officer Pavel Minařík. A former presenter on Czechoslovak Radio, Minařík was a spy for seven years at Radio Free Europe in Munich and was later used by the communist regime in an attempt to discredit the station. He was also accused of planting the bomb referred to by Lucie Swierczeková, though he was cleared by a Prague court some years later.

The former Federal Assembly buildingThe former Federal Assembly building Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is one of the partners of the Be Free! show. The station moved from Munich to Prague in the 1990s, and for several years was based in the former Federal Assembly building that now houses the exhibition. Prokop Tomek, another of its curators, outlines the significance of the venue.

“This place is remembered as the home of the federal parliament of the Czechoslovak socialist republic. It was a place of propaganda and lies, because the parliament had absolutely no impact on affairs in the country. It was a formal, puppet institution.”

Lucie Swierczeková: “This building was a bit of a theatre. The parliament was here and then the radio station. Our exhibition is a bit theatrical too…It shows, partly using videos, how this place spread demagoguery in various directions. Then RFE was here, so we’ve got everything covered I think.”

Among the audio attractions at Be Free! is a tape of Radio Free Europe journalist Pavel Pecháček broadcasting news of events during the early days of the Velvet Revolution directly from Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Prokop Tomek describes some of the show’s other valuable recordings.

“In the 1950s section we have some recordings from the early days of Radio Free Europe. But what I think is extremely interesting are recordings of phone calls to RFE, or actually to the agency Free Press Agency, which collected information from Czechoslovakia in the 1980s for RFE. We have recordings of people like Václav Havel and Petr Uhl, who were relaying information about what was happening in dissident circles, about persecution, about demonstrations, and so on.”

Those recordings, never heard publicly before, can be listened to via old-style phones in the same kind of phone booths from which Václav Havel and others spoke to the Free Press Agency in Munich. Near those booths you will find a re-created centre for the production of illegal underground literature.

“We have what’s called a Samizdat Workshop. There you’ll find stencil duplicators, typewriters…equipment which was smuggled into the country, for instance for the Charter 77 Foundation. It was used to make samizdat, meaning self-made books and magazines. But in the 1980s samizdat also involved audio and video tapes. So you can see how as time went by citizens managed to spread free information themselves. They weren’t dependent on official information or information smuggled in by exiles.”

Finally, once you’ve seen all that, you might want to go for a coffee. Prokop Tomek continues.

“The exhibition culminates in a kind of improvised café where you can read some printed samizdat materials and exile literature…It’s a kind of free space that you get to after a section dedicated to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution. It’s a space that shows where we’ve come from, and what kind of world we’re living in today.”

Za Svobodu! runs until June next year.

20-11-2009