New National Museum: Commodity Exchange now Museum

New National Museum is architecturally a remarkable building, built in the 1930s and remodeled in the 1960s in Brutalist style. It is adjacent to the National Museum (Narodni Muzeum) on Wenceslas Square in Prague. The contrast between these two buildings could not be greater: one neo-Renaissance the other modernist.
The New National Museum organizes rotating exhibitions and lectures on various topics. Part of the building functions as a museum shop, where you can buy souvenirs, postcards and science and art books. There is also a café with a children’s corner. Before the building became part of Narodni Muzeum its function was commodity exchange, Communist Parliament and the seat of Radio Free Europe.

new national museum

New National Museum: an Eye Catcher

The New National Museum is an eye catcher. Whether you like it or not is a personal question. It is a striking glass structure built in socialist realist-style, Joseph Stalin’s favourite art style. The historic building of the National Museum on Wenceslas Square is a stark, architectural contrast to the new building: Neo-Renaissance versus Brutalism. The historic building underwent major reconstruction and reopened on 28 October 2018 , to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Czechoslovak Republic. In November 2019, both buildings were connected by an underground passage featuring a permanent multimedia exhibition, entitled ‘Moments of History: The Time Corridor’.

New National Museum: from Commodity Exchange to Museum

In the 1930s, the building was home to the Prague commodity exchange: a symbol of capitalism. Fifteen years later, the Communist regime abolished the commodity exchange and the building was the seat of the Communist Parliament. In 1995, six years after the Velvet Revolution, Radio Free Europe moved into the building. Since 2009, it has been part of the National Museum, Narodni Muzeum, and hosts rotating exhibitions.

new national museum

The Flame: a Tribute to Jan Palach

Jan Palach was a Czech student and political activist who set himself on fire in 16 January 1969 and died on the 19th. His act was a protest against the end of the Prague Spring resulting from the 1968 communist invasion and a motivation for others to resist the occupation.

When in 1968, the architect Karel Prager remodeled the building of the then Communist parliament building, he designed a steel pylon resembling a flame spitting fire high into the air. A granite sculpture named The Flame was supposed to embellish the pylon. However, the Communist Party opposed the plan. Instead a stone slab with the Czechoslovak coat of arms was attached to the pylon.

During restoration works of the Pylon in 2018, documents were discovered in the Archives of the National Museum and sketches for the sculpture came to light. The management of the National Museum decided to execute the original plan but with some adaptations. In the original design the Flame was a stone sculpture. As anchoring a stone sculpture posed some problems, it was decided to have a bronze sculpture instead. The new work of art has been on the pylon next to the New National Museum since 17 November 2020.

new national museum

Seat of Radio Free Europe

Radio Free Europe, RFE, was founded in Berlin in 1950 by the National Committee for a Free Europe, part of the CIA. The purpose of this radio station was to provide listeners behind the iron curtain with objective news. RFE still promotes the values of democracy based on factual information. They pay much attention to minority rights. Since RFE has been banned in some countries, their sources remain anonymous, to avoid journalists being arrested.

When the RFE had its offices and recording studios in what is now the New National Museum, it was under constant police surveillance because attacks could not be ruled out. That’s why in 2009, RFE moved to its new headquarters in the suburb of Vinohrady, less vulnerable for attacks but next to Don Giovanni, a hotel catering for foreign tour groups.

Radio Free Europe and the Communist Regime

If there was one sound that enraged the communist leaders of Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s, it was Radio Free Europe’s signature tune. This radio station operated from Munich and Eastern bloc countries listened to its broadcasts. After the invasion of 1968, many Czechoslovaks who had fled the country contributed programmes for their fellow countryman to listen to. Naturally, the communist leaders in Czechoslovakia did everything they could to discredit the programmes.

The Undercover Agent at Radio Free Europe

Czechoslovakia’s campaign against the station culminated in 1976. The Czechoslovak Journalists’ Union in Prague organized a high-profile press conference attended by no fewer than 137 journalists from 16 different countries. The man presented as the hero of the day was the Czechoslovak secret agent, Captain Pavel Minarik. He worked as an undercover agent at Radio Free Europe in Munich and also planned a terrorist attack on the station. In his two-hour speech he labeled Radio Free Europe a hotbed of American espionage.

He then pointed out numerous of his former colleagues as being CIA agents, although the evidence was extremely thin. It was painful for Radio Free Europe that an informant had gone unnoticed for a long time. Things did not go well for Minarik. After the fall of Communism, he lost his job in the Ministry of the Interior and, like many informants, began a second career as a businessman but was found guilty of insurance fraud and sentenced to four years in prison in 2009.

Beautiful or Hideous?

Karel Prager (1923-2001), a leading architect of modernist style, designed the building in 1935. Not everyone approved of the design as many considered the Brutalist style too stark a contrast with the Neo-Renaissance Narodni Muzeum. When in 1966, the Communist Parliament moved into the building, horizontal concrete beams resting on pylons were added. Some thought this was an improvement, others not.

How to get there

Address: New National Museum, Vinohradska 1, Vinohrady
Public transport: metro station: Muzeum
Opening hours: 7 days a week from 10am to 6pm.

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