Havana Museum of Revolution
For me, the best thing about the Museum was that it was housed in the former Presidential Palace. The building itself is beautiful. The exhibition, on the other hand, was pretty bad.
The PeopLe: from presidents to revolutionaries
I came here in January 2019 and here is my take, in the usual structure.
There was no focus on the former presidents of Cuba. That was to be expected, as I could not imagine the Communist Party of Cuba would bring any attention to the bourgeoisie that they defeated. The Palace was home to the presidents from Mario García Menocal to Fulgencio Batista.
However, there was a display of objects preserved from the war against Batista from 1953 to 1959, to tell the story of a dictatorship (backed by the US regime) that practised torture and murder against its opponents. From shackles and tweezers used to pull out the nails of the detainees, to gas torches used to burn their backs, the collection is very graphic. A student revolutionary group tried to put an end to this regime, and in 1957 led an attack on the Palace, with the objective of killing the President Fulgencio Batista. The attack, directed by Carlos Gutiérrez Menoyo and Faure Chomón, failed. The failed attack provoked a very strong reprisal by the Batista police. The rebel movement led by Fidel Castro and other opposition groups a few years later was just a continued reaction to the unbearable conditions that the Cuban people had to suffer under the Batista government. What the museum does not tell us is that the victorious revolutionaries re-introduced the same oppressive regime, including concentration camps.
So the protagonists of the museum are the revolutionaries. However, even then, there was more focus on Che Guevara than on the Castro brothers. I found only one artistic bronze sculpture of three revolutionaries, who I presume are Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. The other sculpture of Fidel and Che, standing on some rocks, is a wax figurine. I presume it represents a scene from the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Pretty kitschy, if you ask me.
Other than that, hundreds of black and white photos, in rows of cabinets and notice boards. I felt as if I was back at primary school. I can't imagine how that would excite the young generation of Cuba, which is surely the idea. Nor I can imagine how they intend to communicate to foreigners the benefits of this revolution.
The FOCUS: The palace itself
In the face of bad curatorship, for me the focus was the Palace itself.
At its inauguration in 1920, the Presidential Palace was one of the tallest buildings in Cuba. The ground floor housed offices and administrative facilities, including a telephone exchange, a power plant, and a stable. The presidential residence was on the second floor, and his guards on the top floor.
I found the palace very elegant. The world-famous Tiffany of New York decorated the interior, with the Salón de los Espejos (Hall of Mirrors) designed to resemble the room at the Palace of Versailles, with Tiffany chandeliers, a huge ceiling fresco and gilded mirrors. It was used as a greeting space for foreign dignitaries. At the time of our visit it was under restoration but we were able to peep at it. The balcony looked out over the ocean and the square seen from the balcony seemed large and open. Other rooms upstairs were also elegant, such as Salón Dorado, decorated in Louis VI style and used for banquets in the past and the Despacho Presidencial, the president's office where Fidel Castro was sworn in in 1959.
The central staircase is guarded in the entrance lobby by a bust of José Martí, with visible bullet holes in the wall made during an unsuccessful attack on the palace in March 1957. Martí was considered a revolutionary philosopher and poet. In all honesty, I did not know about him until our visit to Cuba. Practically every corner of Cuba has his bust somewhere in a park or a street named after him. He died in military action in the Cuban War of Independence against Spain (1895–98). After his death, one of his poems Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses) was adapted as the famous Cuban song Guantanamera.
Between 1964 and 1965, the palace was adapted to the current Palace of the Revolution. In 1965, the revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro ordered the relocation of the seat of government to the palace.
The Mystery: Why so boring?
The Mystery for me is why the Cuban government does not have it as a priority to present their revolution in a more exciting way, to try and demonstrate its benefits. In April 2019 they had just launched their new constitution, in which they maintain they will keep one political party and one political system: communism. This is in the era when all other communist countries in Europe have abandoned communism and abandoned Cuba, and stopped supplying them. In that context, I see it as their priority to demonstrate the reason for keeping communism, to both the local people and the rest of the world.
Yet their display of the revolution is very basic and boring. The information is detailed but with no timeline and no order to what you are looking at. Imagine 30 exhibition halls, full of photos, weapons and flags. There is no attempt to display anything in a modern or interactive way, to impress us. All I can recommend is that you start at the top of the Palace and work down so you can follow the correct historical chronology.
Don't miss: The tank and rockets
In front of the building is a fragment of the former city wall and a tank used by Castro during the 1961 Bay of Pigs battle.
Behind the Museum there is the Pavillón Granma, with a replica of the yacht that carried Fidel Castro and 81 other revolutionaries from Tuxpán, Mexico, to Cuba in December 1956. There are some old vehicles here, such as planes and rockets The Pavillón Granma can only be accessed through the museum. Don't try to get a peep from the streets. We tried that but the guards ushered us away.
How to get there:
The museum is within easy walking distance of Parque Central and a number of bus terminuses.
The entry ticket was 8CUCs and we had to put our bags into a storage room. Locals pay less, in Cuban pesos. The Museum is open from 9.30-4pm.
MIX and Match
Just walk about old Havana, plenty to see.