Atop Vítkov, new energy and purpose

The Prague Post

Revamped memorial offers panoramic views of the city and lessons in local history

The enormous equestrian statue on the hill straddling Karlín and Žižkov is hard to miss. Getting there is another matter, as it’s not the easiest place to access.

However, visitors who make it to the top are rewarded with fabulous views, a close-up look at the statue of Hussite leader Jan Žižka and a massive marble structure. This building, the National Memorial on Vítkov, has a long and variegated history.

Originally built in the early 1930s as the National Liberation Memorial, it was meant to honor the fallen Czech legionnaires of World War I who helped establish Czechoslovakia. The memorial was revamped in both look and purpose in 1948, when the communists rose to power and decided to use it to promote their ideology – and bury their leaders.

After 1989, the remains were all removed, save for the tomb of the unknown soldier, and the memorial fell into disuse. In 2001, it came under the management of the National Museum, prompting a reconstruction and renewal of purpose.

“Because the memorial was built in the 1930s to commemorate Czech statehood in 1918, we wanted to come back to this idea – the crossroads of Czechoslovakia,” says curator Marek Junek.

A media preview of the remodeled facility was held last week. It officially opens Oct. 28 (Czechoslovak National Day) with a new permanent exhibition, “Crossroads of Czech and Czechoslovak Statehood,” which commemorates the major milestones in the country’s history.

The building is a soaring mass of marble. Cubist touches include geometric forms in the glass and architectural highlights on the doors and metal gates. The exhibition is mostly in an open-walled cube that starts visitors in 1918, with the end of World War I and the founding of Czechoslovakia. Next, you move to 1938 and the Munich Agreement, followed by the beginning of communism in 1948. Other “crossroads” include Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 and, in 1989, the Velvet Revolution. Each era is portrayed through photos, news clippings and personal items from historic figures, along with screenings of period film footage.

“Every crossroad has subjects that commemorate people important to our history,” Junek says. “We can see personal things – for example, the boots Jan Palach wore when he died. They’re important to our history, and I’m glad we can show them.”

Particularly notable historical figures are featured in a separate space, a dark room formerly filled with the ashes of high-ranking members of the Communist Party. Now, lit squares of glass flash photos and brief bios of people such as Tomáš Masaryk, Václav Havel, Václav Klaus and others.

Back in the main room, around the periphery, tall display cases with monitors offer interactive history lessons. The idea, Junek says, is to give visitors some insight into the decisions people at different crossroad periods had to make. For example, in 1918, you could choose to be in the Austrian Army or join the Czech legions in France, Italy or Russia. In 1938, you had to decide whether to remain Czech or become a German subject.

“Choose and get your fate,” Junek says. “Maybe you die. If so, you can go back to the beginning, play again, and maybe you’ll survive.”

Another room, once the mausoleum of Klement Gottwald, is now used for temporary exhibits. Currently on display is a selection from the Prague Castle Photo Archives, 1918-33. Up next, Junek says, will be an exhibit on the 1960s being planned in conjunction with the sibling Czech Museum of Music, which is planning an exhibition on the Beatles.

Other new features open to the public include a café and viewing platform. The café is a light and modern affair, with wraparound windows that afford an excellent view from any seat. In the summer, a large terrace will offer fresh air and vistas to the east of the memorial. Taking the elevator up to the viewing platform gives you the same view of the city that Žižka himself enjoys, not to mention an appreciation for the truly gigantic size of the statue.

According to Junek, museum officials spent two years deliberating what to do with the memorial. He’s pleased with the result.

“We tried to connect the art and architecture to the exhibition,” he says. “Every political regime left their mark on it, and this memorial is a great symbol of our history.”