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The infamous monitoring techniques of the Communist Era and its severity were perhaps best captured, for the very first time, by the 2006 German film “The Lives of Others”. A film which highlighted to the entire world about what went on behind the scenes in a typical communist-ruled capital. At the time of the film’s release, these truths of the regime were still being kept under wraps in Albania. Although the Albanian State Security (Sigurimi) was notorious among the population, Albanian art and culture had not or perhaps could not, confirm the “rumours” engulfing it. The day came in 2017 when Albania opened the House of Leaves Museum, a space with an uncanny resemblance to a movie set, but in-fact an exhibition dedicated to revealing the harsh truths to the public.
The House of Leaves museum is located in the building of the same name in the centre of Tirana. Built in 1931, this legendary villa started out innocently enough by housing the first private obstetrics clinic in Albania. The “leaves” and their now-notorious purpose would come later. The name of this house is not a metaphor, and nor is it a coincidence. The house was carefully hidden from the public by a dense layer of trees and leaves, a proven camouflage technique normally seen in warfare. But for the conspiring Communist leaders, it was deemed effective enough to keep the secrets of the house obstructed from public gaze. Located in the center of Tirana, the house has a total of 31 inter-connected rooms which hold more history than you could possibly imagine or process in just one visit. The house was used by the Gestapo during the occupation of World War II. Afterwards, with the establishment of the Communist government, the house became the headquarters of the infamous Sigurimi, the Albanian secret service. In the early days of Communism, the house carried out the sinister tasks of torture and death penalties but in later years was solely used for communications monitoring. After the ‘90s, the building was abandoned for decades, thus keeping the Albanian population’s waning curiosity safely at bay.
The museum is separated into nine sections and for the first time publicly reveals the intricate and advanced ways of the state’s control over Albanian life under Communism. Exhibitions in the museum vary, some are dedicated to various microphones and technology. In other sections of the museum the statements, work, and dossiers prepared by informants of the state are displayed. The sheer volume of tools, monitoring equipment, and tapping devices reveals the quite astounding amount of investment by the state, which is unbelievable considering the economic state of Albania at the time! The exhibitions portray a communist perception of the enemy, both external and internal, of which a great deal of state vigilance was concentrated. The living room on exhibition shows a more than typical Albanian interior of the 1970’s, boasting a generic identity, the result of decades of isolation and state control. The exhibition “Panopticon and Panacusticon” is something akin to a scientific lab of photos, recordings, and secret footage, all adding to an eerie audio-visual experience for the visitor.
A myriad of feelings crosses the mind and conscious of any visitor as you go through this museum’s chambers. The realisation of this house’s menacing purpose may have you feeling uncomfortable to say the least, but the museum keeps you transfixed as you try to imagine that this was a reality for Albanians in the not-too-distant past.