Vitkov Hill, with its famous memorial and nine-metre tall equestrian statue of Hussite general Jan Zizka, is one of Prague's most instantly recognisable sites, an enormous mass of marble and granite overlooking the city. But it is also one of Prague's more enigmatic destinations, a memorial to statehood imbibed with unexpected layers of meaning following a number of dark twists in Czech history, the most damning being the Nazi occupation in 1939 and later, 1948's communist putsch.
Michal Lukes is the director of the National Museum, which owns the memorial, and is overseeing a major transformation of the site now underway. After two years of renovation Vitkov will be reopened housing a new museum and permanent exhibition on Czechoslovakia's history. Recently Michal Lukes discussed Vitkov's significance:
"The history of the Vitkov Memorial is a complex one, dating back to the 19th century. At that time Vitkov Hill was first considered a possible location for a memorial, with symbolism dating back to the time of the Hussites. After the founding of Czechoslovakia, the memorial's foundation stone was laid in 1928: the memorial was meant to celebrate Czechoslovak statehood but also to honour the country's legionnaires who fought abroad. Even TG Masaryk was supposed to have been buried there, but of course that never happened. By 1938, when the memorial was completed, it would suffer an unexpected fate."
Following the Nazi occupation, the site of the memorial was used by the German Werhmacht, as a storage base for blankets, tinned goods, and other materials. While the ashes of Czech legionnaires were laid there briefly after the war, they didn't remain long and were soon removed after the communists took power in 1948. Once again, the National Museum's Michal Lukes:
"After February 1948 the ashes were most dishonourably removed in the equivalent of shoe boxes and taken to the nearby military museum. Then, it was decided the memorial would be transformed into a kind of "labourer's pantheon". Eventually it became a mausoleum for Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia's first communist president. That is unfortunately what the site is best remembered for, even today. Of course, as you know, Gottwald's body was very poorly mummified, so he was cremated in the 1960s."
"Many visitors mistakenly think the memorial was completed in the 1950s and they want to see Gottwald's body. That's one reason why the planned exhibition will also deal with the site's own broad history, not just the history of Czechoslovakia."
Of course, Gottwald's ashes and the ashes of other communist presidents have long since been removed from the building.
After the fall of communism, the role of the memorial changed again: during this time it was rented commercially to camera crews either for ads or feature films. Even famous avant garde artist Stelarc - whose work fuses man and machine - performed there in the 1990s, within a crab-like structure. That is a show still recalled by arts enthusiasts who saw it. But other ideas for the site during roughly the same period were somewhat less flattering and not really appropriate. Michal Lukes again:
"This was a kind of period of 'neo-capitalism', when the memorial's interiors were even considered for some kind of dinosaur park or something like that. Nobody really knew what to do with it! But in 2001 it came under ownership of the National Museum. The museum didn't want it at first, considering it something of a 'cursed' site, but that has changed and for years now we have worked intensely to familiarise the public with the building as well as to put together a proposal on the memorial's future."
The new future of the site is just a few years away: renovation began in May of this year and will continue until 2009, when the new museum dedicated to the "crossroads" of Czechoslovak history will open. The planned exhibition will feature a number of unique items one would probably otherwise have little chance to see, including Milada Horakova's final letter before she was executed by the communists on trumped up charges of treason. Historian Marek Junek once more:
"There is Milada Horakova's final letter written in 1950, there are also the first plans for the Czech or Czechoslovak flag dating to 1920, we also have the first law adopted after the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918. Or the pen with which TG Masaryk signed the announcement in Philadelphia in October 1918, a pen held also by American President Woodrow Wilson. "
Renovation at the memorial and new museum will also include the creation of a new theatre space for live performances and a rooftop café, although, it's important to stress, part of the site will continue to serve as a memorial as was originally intended. The grave of the unknown soldier, for example, will of course remain. But the statue of Zizka itself will be massively restored: to some peoples' surprise, and perhaps regret, the rider and steed will disappear (albeit temporarily) from the Prague skyline over the next few years. Karel Ksandr is the National Museum's deputy director, who says dismantling the massive statue is a 'must':
"The statue is in very poor shape. The problem is that its inner construction is very badly damaged, due to specifics in the original design. There are two problematic areas: first the horse's legs which contain support structures saw a lot of condensation and freezing of water over the years, cracking the sculpture's surface. The other is that the statue itself is made up of 39 separate bronze plates, joined by steel screws from 1950 which are now heavily rusted. The statue will be completely taken apart - perhaps repaired on location - and then returned to its proper spot on October 28th, 2009."
October 28th - the state holiday celebrating the founding of former Czechoslovakia will also see the opening of the new museum in 2009, which the National Museum hopes will bring new meaning to Vitkov Hill, to be visited by both foreign and local museum-goers alike.