My father was a big radio dx fan. Equipped with a grey wartime valve radio, and a huge ariel in the back garden, he would wake during the early hours to listen to different stations across the world. After writing to let them know that he had found them, some stations would reply with a simple postcard. Others were far more generous. In the 70s, communist countries would send out a whole heap of propaganda freebies to radio fans in the west.
For years, we had a whole series of calendars decorated with pictures of swarthy, grandly bearded revolutionary heroes dotted around the house courtesy of Cuban Radio. I blame my lifelong fascination with Cuba on those grainy black and white pictures of Che Guevara and his comrades.
With such childhood memories, one of my must see Havana museums was the Museo de la Revolucion. I had to find out a little more about those distant folk heroes from my childhood.
The Museo de la Revolucion
The Museo de la Revolucion is towards the centre of town in the former palace of the president. Castro, like his predecessors, used the palace when he first assumed power. He moved into new digs in the mid 60s. Don’t make the mistake of one of our party, and assume that the museum is at the Plaza de la Revolucion. The Plaza, with its grand open spaces and huge images of Che, is further out of town.
Once you are near the museum, you won’t miss the place. Although it is sadly crumbling, the building is a white wedding cake affair, with an interior designed by Tiffany’s of New York. Slap bang outside the front of the museum stands an abandoned tank used by Fidel during the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco. This mix of bizarre and the haphazard set the general tone for the layout of the museum.
The area around the Museo de la Revolucion is a particularly tumble down region of Havana. There are a considerable number of half-collapsed buildings to gawp at. I was almost as fascinated with the outside view from the open windows of the upper floors of the museum as I was with the exhibits.
Entrance to the Museo de la Revolucion is four convertible pesos ($4.50). I felt I almost got a “two for one” bargain with the entrance price, for as well as the museum exhibits, we also had the opportunity to wander round the almost deserted presidential rooms.
The State Rooms
Downstairs are a series of abandoned and gently rotting state ballrooms and offices. As the museum was so quiet when we visited, it felt rather eerie as we wandered around, although I loved looking at these abandoned and empty rooms. I could really appreciate the dramatic sense of light from the huge grand floor to ceiling windows (and the ceilings must have been about 20 feet high). The rooms were set off with their age spotted and warped mirrors, gaudy crystal chandeliers, and delicately painted ceilings. The yellow marble dining room particularly stood out as the marble walls gave out a sick-making, slight yellow glow. I’m sure eating here every day would have put me off my food.
In the UK, these historic rooms would have demanded better care and attention, but for Cuba they simply form a symbol of the decadent and corrupt former regime. It seems as though they had been deliberately left to slowly rot.
The only room that was fully furnished was the original president’s office, where the president of the day would spend most of his working life. The room was an ornate but very male dominated vision of leather inlaid writing desks and bound books. After so many years hiding in the mountains, I can only imagine how Fidel must have felt as he finally managed to enter the room and look around.
Viva la revolution!
The main part of the museum starts upstairs. While the exhibits are old fashioned, pedantically detailed, and stuffy, the Museo de la Revolucion comprehensively tells the tale of the revolution. Rather than simply focusing on the struggle of Fidel and his comrades, the exhibits stretch further back in time to the early struggle for independence against the Spanish (and then American) occupation of the 1800s and early 1900s. I suppose the government is keen to ensure that the people remember that this independence was long fought for. Of course, some still feel independence is still a little way off in Cuba.
The museum tells the story well, by use of display cases containing original exhibits and written explanation in Spanish and English. More modern museum techniques, such as sound recordings and interactive displays, have passed the museum by. Despite the old-fashioned feel, by giving snippets of story about some of the young men who paid for Cuban independence with their lives, I felt engaged with the exhibition.
It seems as though almost every scrap of evidence about the struggle is here; from bloodstained bullet holed shirts worn by revolutionaries, a mangled pair of wire-framed spectacles lost in the street fighting, to the shoes Fidel wore when he arrived in Cuba. Presented with such reverently produced information, I always feel that the communists simply replaced one kind of religion with another.
To give the staterooms and the display full justice, and if you seriously want to learn about Cuban independence from a Cuban perspective, I would spend at least 2 hours in the museum. The level of detail in the museum, together with the old-fashioned method of display, means that the casual observer would soon get bored. We certainly found that we lingered longer in the exhibition than most of the other (few) visitors.
One part I especially found memorable were a series of photographs showing all the Spanish and American backed former presidents and their adjoining captions. The museum curator liked the use of the words "traitor", "collaborator", "weak", and "spineless" rather a lot! Some of these guys lasted as president for 8 hours or less during these turbulent times.
One of my major criticisms of the museum is that the exhibits don’t appear to have been updated since about 1990. The last part of the museum display boasts about some of the successes of the Castro regime (for example, in education and health care, and rather more surprising, given the state of Havana, in housing). In 1990, the Soviet Union’s financial support of Cuba ended. I would have been very interested to see how they would have described the severe economic recession immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and how they have made progress since.
Another interesting aspect of the museum is with the negative spin placed upon America. The museum devotes a board to describe how the CIA introduced dengue fever to the island, along with sugar rot and pig disease. It seems that Cuba (in common with many nations) likes to score a little political capital by blaming all its ills on its enemies.
The museum also contains some rather ill equipped (no toilet seats) and I have to say, dirty, toilets, and an unexciting and small shopping area.
Of course, one would hardly expect the Museo de la Revolucion to offer an impartial account of the years fighting for Cuban independence. Then it’s a rare British museum that tells the story of the world war from a German perspective!
That said, although the museum offers a fanatical amount of detail in describing the struggle, they don’t actually use too much hero worship to tell the tale. The role of Fidel, in particular, seems quite understated. He is a modest dictator.
For me, a large part of the attraction to Cuba lies with its complex history and revolution. The Museo de la Revolucion allows the visitor to get a better understanding of the long years of fighting, and gives an interesting overview of the conflict from a Cuban perspective.
First published at Epinions.com under my identity of cr01 - deleted and relocated to IgoUgo Dec 06