Since May 23rd 2017, the National Museum of Secret Surveillance "House of Leaves" has been open to the public as a memorial site of the communist dictatorship with the mission: the commemoration of psychological violence, of violation of human rights and control of citizens during the communist regime through the former State Security.
One among a number of historic locations brought back to public consciousness, the House of Leaves is already an iconic creature formed by a half-forgotten past and a wide-open future.
The House of Leaves transformation project, which was codified under the name "Gjethi" (The Leaf) in the State Security documents, was initiated by the Ministry of Culture in 2014 and supported by a multidisciplinary team of historians, associations of victims, institutions, engineers and craftsmen from different countries. The National Museum of Secret Surveillance "House of Leaves" depends on the Ministry of Culture of Albania and is a not for profit institution. The public debates accompanying its opening and that still persist have to do with the difficult communist legacy.
Until recently, this unobtrusive house in the middle of Tirana, Albania, served as the headquarters of the Sigurimi, the secret service agency, operating throughout the long dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Its location was crucial in the geopolitics of the city, for it had the “normal” appearance of a private villa, yet it was a sophisticated technical branch of the government whose aim was to have total control of the population.
It was a fundamental decision to take, either hide its wounds, pretending they never existed, or expose them as the tattoos of history. The transformation of this “House” into a site of memory required delicate interventions. The derelict condition of the house is itself an integral part of its character, a kind of historic tattoo, a deeply etched condition no one can quite comprehend today. The team immediately felt the urge to open every space to the public and to allow the house to speak.
The most telling aspect of the House from the current point of view is its multi-layered condition. Whether from the sidewalk or from its interior, the building reveals barriers and divisions, demarcations and thresholds of different vintage and purpose, all of which transform it into a strangely hollow and subtly shrouded object. By the simple act of opening the museum and its grounds to the public, the half-forgotten, half-feared conditions of the past are peeled away, leaving one to reckon with a disconcerting present.
The House of Leaves was and remains a labyrinth of rooms, with all the traces of its transformation from a Maternity Clinic of the ‘30-s to a top-secret place of surveillance, a place where took place the telephonic and electronic interceptions and the control of the postal correspondence; it is full of breaks, scars and unexpected places.
This was the very beginning of the Museum; just to exhibit papers, drawings, or hundreds of pieces of technical equipment was not enough, as everyone wanted to know what had happened there. The team spent two years studying the equipment, its provenance, the time of acquisition and use. They relied on documents from the Archives, patiently matching mute objects with written documents. They dug into the photo and film archives, so as to be able to tell the story of the victims to whom this museum is now dedicated. The museum has the courage to show in its exhibition the files of the collaborators of the Secret Services during the communist regime and the faces of the main persecutors in a country where transitional justice has not occurred, where the persecuted people are still claiming their compensation and where none of the prosecutors has been condemned. Statistics, data, graphics and texts are printed on the walls, on the curtains and on many other surfaces in order to give a voice to the house letting the voices of the people be heard.
Through a rich and authentic collection of espionage devices hidden in it, through numerous archive documents, film evidences, and statistics or studies, the museum shows the important, repressive, frightening and controlling role of the Sigurimi (State Security), which influenced the 45-year long rule of the communist regime in Albania.
The museum actually puts more emphasis on the consequences of tapping than on the curiosity of the tapping method. In addition to the sophisticated equipment of interception and to the exposure of collaborators' files, it highlights the loss of life, imprisonment, deportation, social and professional degradation. The museum uses statistics, data, graphics, and texts on the walls, curtains, and many other areas to give a voice to the house, but at the same time leaving people's voices heard, oral histories, the stories of the innocent victims to whom it is dedicated
The museum is and will continue to be focused on the younger generation. Explaining the differences between democracy and dictatorship and sensitizing the young generation in this respect is one of the major challenges to the Museum and other institutions in Albania, in the process of revisiting the past. We believe that the better we understand dictatorship, the better we can shape democracy.
The programs organized not only contribute to the development of the collective memory of new generations but also help in the rehabilitation of former politically persecuted people in their engagement in social-cultural activities.
The National Museum of Secret Surveillance "House of Leaves", like all memorial museums and memory sites, has the potential to improve the processes of transitional justice, relying on all parties working together to a greater benefit: moral justice and preventing the repetition of violence. The museum, using all the museum tools and presenting different perspectives, gives a valuable contribution to the current discourse on the past, the recognition of the facts, the restoration of the dignity of the victims, and the encouragement of open debates between past injustices by providing a place for reflection. By focusing its activity mainly on the younger generation, the museum aims to promote an active and consciously engaged citizenship, freedom and inspiration as the best way against the abuse of human rights, to stop the abuse before it starts. This can be a very important direction in a transitional society.
The National Museum of Secret Surveillance “House of Leaves” was awarded with the 2020 Council of Europe Museum Prize for ‘Contribution for the promotion of the cultural heritage as a vector of common European values’. It is a small museum with few resources in openly dealing with the wounds of the past.
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