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Alexandra Lord: Behind the Beautiful Facades of Prague

Alexandra Lord is one of the five
American Fulbrighters who were able to start their program this winter, despite the worldwide pandemic. As a historian of medicine at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., Alexandra is curious about how cities can encourage visitors to engage with the more painful aspects of history. In Prague, hosted by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Alexandra discovers what the famous capital hides "Behind the Beautiful Facades."  

On March 12, 2020, I opened my computer to discover two emails. The first, from my employer, the National Museum of American History (the Smithsonian), informed me that our museum would now move to teleworking. The second congratulated me upon receiving a Fulbright Fellowship to the Czech Republic for the spring of 2021.

Because spring of 2021 seemed so far away at the time, I gave little thought to how the pandemic might impact my time in Prague. In retrospect I am rather surprised that I felt that way. As a historian of medicine, I know that pandemics have never been easily or quickly brought to a close. Yet, like most people, I fell into the trap of believing that COVID-19 would soon be behind us.

But as the situation worsened in both the US and the Czech Republic, I wondered if I would be able to travel to Prague. Much to my relief, the Fulbright Commission notified me in the late fall that conditions had improved enough to allow me to come to Prague in January.

Before leaving for the airport, I carefully packed N95 masks, plastic face shields and put all of our documents in a folder. The face shields turned out to be unnecessary. But the document folder, which I had thought was just a back-up, turned out to be essential! At each point in our journey, gate attendants and border control officials studied these documents at great length before allowing us to proceed.

As we came out of Passport Control in the usual jet-lag fog, we discovered, much to our relief, that the airport had a grocery store. We stocked up, buying groceries to last us through a multi-day quarantine. Just a few days later, we tested negative for COVID-19.

Now my Fellowship could begin in earnest.

I came to Prague to study how museums, historic sites, and tour companies portray difficult histories. As the head of a curatorial division at the National Museum of American History, I face a critical question: how can the National Museum of American History attract vacationing tourists while also providing an understanding of the difficult aspects of American history?

Like Washington DC, Prague attracts millions of tourists each year, many of whom are eager to experience—-and enjoy—-history. Famous for their historic architecture, both Washington and Prague exist in carefully preserved historic landscapes. Visitors explore them through both structured and informal tours to museums, sites, and monuments. Yet behind the beautiful facades of both cities lie complicated and often painful histories.

Currently, Prague is empty of tourists and its historic buildings have shuttered their doors. With its deserted streets, the city feels eerily quiet.

On some days, it feels odd to study heritage tourism in a place that has no tourists and where many places have been closed. But on other days, the lack of tourists has led me to discover innumerable historic plaques and markers. Many of these are embedded in sidewalks or tucked into the corners of buildings. In a crowded city, I suspect I would miss seeing many of these sites and memorials.

Foto 2: Prague Bubny Train Station, winter 2021. (Dingy facade of a train station with sign "Praha Bubny" and a car in front of the building.)
I am especially drawn to sites such as the Praha-Bubny Train Station. It was from here that tens of thousands of Jews were deported from Prague during World War II. The station has a very powerful memorial---a set of vertical railroad tracks that extends far above the ground, receding into emptiness. But the train station and its surroundings have not been restored. Partially and unrestored sites such as Praha-Bubny provide a powerful illustration of how societies wrestle with painful pasts, acknowledging events yet at the same time hiding them through neglect.

Encouraging tourists to see sites that present this type of history presents multiple challenges. Tourists do not always read labels (in fact, many of my museum colleagues insist that they never read labels!) and it is easy to walk by a site such as an old train station and fail to recognize it as a place of historic importance. This is especially so in a place like Prague or Washington where one is surrounded by world-famous historic architecture.

In fact, I have found myself falling into the same trap. For days, I searched for---and constantly walked by---a specific monument. It was easy to overlook, located as it is in a streetscape of colorful nineteenth-century buildings.

Foto 3: A plaque to commemorate a married couple who was involved in the Operation Anthropoid and later died in Mauthausen concentration camp, winter 2021. (The plaque says: "This building was a home for two selfless members of the resistance MUDr. Zofie Jesenska and MUDr. Jiri Jesensky. Collaborators of the military Operation Anthropoid and other airdrops were assassinated by Nazis on October 24, 1942, in Mauthausen. Presented by the Office of Prague 2 District at the occassion of the 75th anniversary of Anthropoid.")  
Before coming here, I knew that there would be no easy answers to the question of how places like Prague and Washington can encourage visitors to engage with the more painful aspects of Czech and American history. But beginning in February, I embarked on a series of conversations with the historians and curators who manage and work at these sites. Our discussions have pushed me to better understand the parallel issues which face public historians in places like Prague and Washington.

More importantly, these conversations have provided me with a provocative starting point for a discussion which I hope will continue long after I leave Prague.

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