I just paid $17 to look at a bunch of ho-hum dildos in Prague. Serves me right. Like a gazillion other tourists, I got suckered in by the “Sex Machines Museum” here just beyond the Old Town Square. Well, I thought, who can resist that? I’d been to Prague before and seen the Top Ten Sights already. Amazingly, I thought an obvious gimmick like this “museum” would actually be unique. Amazingly, too, I thought I was being some kind of renegade by visiting it. Let other, less sophisticated tourists go to the 600-year-old astrological clock and listen to Dvorak being performed in a Gothic church. Me, I’m going to check out a 19th century “Voyeristic Chamber Pot” and a collection of Czech butt plugs.
Yeah, well. The chamber pot – a frou-frou bowl with a hand mirror — proved to be just downright silly. And the butt plugs? New, and downright silly, too, displayed like a bunch of cocktail napkins at a society luncheon.
Much of the small museum is dedicated to modern devices – waterproof vibrators, hand-blown (no pun intended) glass phalluses, restraining S&M furniture that looks unnervingly like the weight-lifting machines at my gym. Yawn. Go to any online sex-toy catalogue and you can pretty much see the same stuff for free – without having to fly to the Czech Republic first.
What I’d wanted, I guess, was history. Each generation, it’s been said, thinks it has invented sex. So show me the past. Show me something different. Teach me something about bygone eroticism, expand my understanding about human proclivities. If nothing else, turn me on a little. Shock me. Dilate my imagination.
But no. There’s only a smattering of cultural artifacts here, and some of them aren’t even labeled with dates or provinces. There are a couple of chastity belts. Some torturous-looking electronic “anti-masturbation” machines from 1915. A few hand-cranked vibrators – pre-batteries – that look like egg beaters. Hmm. I suppose that’s what they were…
The most interesting object was a rough-hewn wooden machine that could best be described as a “dick-cycle” or a “pedal-peenie” – a cross between a cobbler’s bench, a bicycle, and a vibrator. Apparently, the phallus entered riders as they pedaled. (Hmm: I’m thinking of my gym again…incentives?). What amused me most was the sign: Used to assuage ‘fervent feelings’ at a German women’s prison. Oooh. Anyone want to elaborate on that one? There’s a series of images for you. And sounds.
Speaking of images, the museum proudly plays what it calls “jewels of pornographic cinematography” — two Spanish porn films circa 1920. They’re silent, black and white, jiggly, and slow: lots of women in petticoats coming in and out of a parlor fanning themselves. When the action finally happens, it mostly focuses in on the women’s truly huge, dimpled, gelatinous buttocks. You can tell immediately what the filmmaker’s fetishes were. But what interested me was that one of the films was titled “The Confessor of the Friar’s Blessing.” Yep. The male star was dressed as a friar. The premise was that female sinners would come to him, and he’d make them do penance by pulling down their bloomers and so forth. Granted, I haven’t seen a lot of porn – but I’ve certainly never seen any starring clergymen. Curiously though, from what I could tell, this didn’t seem to be intended as the shocking part of the film.
Okay Then: Chocolate.
With the Sex Machine Museum so unfulfilling, I had no choice, really, but to go on to the “Choco-Story Museum” around the corner where “Our cocoa fairy invites you to discover the extraordinary story of chocolate.” Only nine bucks? Great. Sign me up.
Never mind that it’s a museum dedicated to Belgian chocolates in the Czech Republic. I always feel a moral compulsion to visit chocolate museums whenever I find them in the world, and the “Muzeum cokolady,” manages to do as decent a job as any. There are story boards tracing the history of chocolate from the Aztecs to Europe, the introduction of sugar to the chocolate, and the introduction of genocide to the indigenous South Americans.
The production of chocolate from bean to bar is documented clearly. But best is a series of panels declaring chocolate a “health food” that “lowers cholesterol.” This is so much more satisfying, really, than the run-of-the-mill cock rings on display around the corner.
To be fair, the staff at the chocolate museum seemed beyond bored. The woman giving the chocolate making demo managed to condense an entire forty-minute process into five. She simply poured chocolate into a mold, announced “Chocolate cold for 15 minute,” and stuck it in a freezer. Then she pulled out another prefabricated tray — and tah-dah. “Chocolate ready.” That was it. Take your free sample and go home.
But what did I expect? I went to these tourist traps because waxing rhapsodic about the splendors of Prague is as clichéd as the phrase “waxing rhapsodic” itself. It’s almost as bad as writing about Paris or extolling the beauty of a sunset. I mean, really. It’s been so done.
And Now, For the Commies…
What is worth noting, however, is that Prague, even more than Paris, stands as a monument to What the Rest of Europe Could Have Looked Like If the Nazis and the Communists Hadn’t Fucked It All Up By Starting Wars and Demolishing Everything. (I’m letting the Allies off the hook here because hey, we didn’t start the WW’s). Unlike the French capital, Prague had to duck two bullets: the massive aerial bombardments of WWII and the hideous, ego-driven architectural decision-making of the Communist dictators. As a result, Prague is perhaps the greatest Art Nouveau jewel-box in the world. It’s just street after street of late 19th and early 20th century gorgeousness.
A reminder of this is currently on display in the plaza beside the National Theatre. After the chocolates and dildos, my next stop was there: a photography exhibit on Bucharest sponsored by the Romanian government.
Of course: talk about contrasts. I found the exhibit heartbreaking. Documenting the changes in Bucharest from the mid 1800’s to the present is like watching a beauty makeover in reverse. Early photographs show a city as lovely as Prague, full of parks, spires, domes, wedding cake buildings dripping with angels. Then – boom – come the wars. The 1940 earthquake. And then the Communists. Any little bit of beauty that’s managed to survive, they bulldoze. And what they build instead is concrete grotesqueness: an architectural embodiment of hopelessness and oppression and arrogance and really, really bad taste.
Communism. If you yourself didn’t grow up with it, it’s easy to forget about it in Prague: There’s so much new life and old beauty here. But particularly now, when some of my fellow Americans are insisting that President Obama is no different from, say, Stalin or Ceausescu (or Hitler), a reality check is in order.
And a Reality check, please…
Prague is a good place to do it. My friend Beth and I take a “Walking Tour of Communism.” Oddly, we’re the only ones on it. Our guide is Josef, a vigorous, debonair 77-year-old opera singer who’s lived through it all in Prague: the Nazi invasion. The Communist takeover in 1948. The Prague Spring. The student uprisings. The Velvet Revolution. He takes us from one historic landmark to the next, but most interestingly, he tells us his own experiences. Finding Soviet tanks in his garden. Everyone in his neighborhood removing street signs to confuse the troops. Having his passport confiscated after he’d spoken critically of the government. The old women who used to sit in the lobby writing down everyone who came and went.
His own past suffering is palpable, but his humor is effusive.
“And it wasn’t all bad,” he said diplomatically. “What was good was, when I got sick, I went right to the hospital. They gave me excellent health care, an operation – and at the end, no bills. And I am happy because today, we still have this. I need operations on my eyes, and still no bills, even though we have democracy now, and I am free to make my own decisions about my life.”
Lest anyone still think that a public option for health care is the equivalent of totalitarianism, allow me to propose a visit to Prague’s Museum of Communism – where I ended my tour.
Aptly, this museum is hidden away in a back alley off Wenceslas Square. And – here’s your irony supplement for the day – it’s wedged between a casino and a McDonald’s. Really. As if that doesn’t say it all.
For people who never experienced first-hand the delights of, say, the Aral Sea, East Germany in 1967, or a Soviet gulag, the Museum does a fine job of conjuring up the misery, ugliness, and delusions wrought by Communism. There are sections on Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, of course, plus anti-American propaganda; “social realist” art extolling factory workers as heroes; and full scale recreations of a dreary schoolroom under Communism; an empty, Eastern Bloc butcher shop with nothing but a few canned goods for sale; and a secret police interrogation room. There’s an exhibit of government surveillance equipment, too, including wiretapping machines from the 1950’s. Funnily enough, they look exactly like the anti-masturbation devices back at the Sex Machines Museum…
Displays are also dedicated to the ways in which entire populations were manipulated to inform on their friends and family; the imposed groupthink and conformity; and the environmental atrocities committed by the government. According to a plaque, immediately after the fall of Communism, the average life-expectancy of Czech men increased by five years.
It’s a small, sobering place. Seeking to avoid the very type of propaganda it condemns, the museum contains, impressively, a section called “Life Goes On.” Here are pictures of Czech citizens enjoying themselves despite their government: going to the beach, spending a day in the park, etc. The display seems meant to confirm what Josef told us: “To be fair, Communism wasn’t all bad. No system is all bad or all good.” Having endured the oppression of absolutist thinking, the Czechs refuse to be absolutist about it.
The museum illuminates a whole other, dark dimension of history.
It’s powerful – and also cautionary.
The phrases “Communism” and “big government” are bandied about so recklessly in America these days. Yet we Americans have so little idea of what they really mean or entail. We label an attempt to give everyone access to health insurance “Communism” – yet there was no similar clamor and rhetoric when, say, the American government declared it had a right to secretly wiretap its citizens…or journalists were jailed a few years ago for not disclosing their sources…or suspects were detained at Guantanamo Bay without due process…or environmental protections were stripped…
If we’re worried about becoming a Communist country like the Czech Republic and the Soviet Union used to be, trust me: This museum shows us that we’re focusing on the wrong things.
Maybe I’m getting older, but in the end, it hasn’t been the sex toys or the chocolate displays in Prague that have satisfied me, but the Museum of Communism. Here is history. Here is a past we can learn from. Here is a museum offering some insight about human proclivities. It’s shocking in places, and it dilates the imagination. Certainly, it has left me wanting more –for everyone.