Looking at Albania through the Lens of the National Museum

Tirana      My visit to Albania was winding down.  Only a few meetings left, including a wrap-up and next steps discussion with my colleague and fellow.  An email needed to be drafted to follow up with the half-dozen or so people I had met who indicated a real interest in learning more about community organizing and whether or not they would be interested in an ongoing ACORN project.  Always on my travel list are the botanical garden, which was a hard “no” in the winter in this mountainous country, and the national museum, because it describes how a country wants to present itself.  In this case the museum was open and faced the central square in the capital of Tirana, so I was game, even if it was a backwards way of understanding the country by seeing the museum last, when I probably should have made a point of seeing it first.

The Albanian national museum was huge with spacious exhibits across three or more floors and expansive galleries.  It was also remarkably modern and well stated, having been renovated in recent years.

Going from floor to floor one, I found myself constantly battling several overriding impressions.  One was that for thousands of years the country’s identity was less Albanian, than it was an amalgamation of the countries and cultures that had subsumed or conquered the land and its people.  The other was that the arc of this small country’s history was war, subjugation, and resistance, division and struggle.

Positioned between Greece and Macedonia, across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, and with Serbia to the north, whether in story or costume, beginning 2000 years ago, the country’s architecture, sculpture, and presentation was Greek.  At least it was Greek, until conquered by the Romans, and then part of the eastern division of the Roman Empire directed from Constantinople.  Then it was overtaken by barbarians including Huns, Slavs, and Visigoths who were largely just passing through until five hundred years under the Ottoman Empire moving from Catholic and Orthodox to majority Muslim with a language most closely resembling Turkish.  Then off and on independent until overtaken by a Fascist assault from Italy, then World War II, and communism until 1991.  Map after map in various displays detailed the dates of attacks on various cities in one campaign and war after another.  Many graduating from an Albanian history class must ask themselves where the “there” is, when it comes to defining Albania.

To the degree history is always written by the victors, there are still contradictions and unanswered spaces.  The fight against Fascism by partisans received major attention in the museum, but even as a visitor looking at the pictures of some of the leaders who organized the Labor Party and ruled as communists for decades, that story is only told through the lens of executions and prison camps without any other leavening or even explanation:  heroes in WWII, goats fifty years later.

Though the country is more than 60% Islamic, there is an entire room dedicated to 18th century Catholic iconography, and nothing anywhere to highlight, much less explain, the majority of the population’s conversion to Islam in the same time periods and honor that tradition.

There are simply gaps in the timeline.  The museum’s detailed history pretty much stops forty years ago, other than a room about Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul’s visit.  The Albanian national museum tells many stories, both the ones it wants the public to know, and the ones it is still not sure how to tell.


Please enjoy “For Real” from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Thanks to KABF.


Emails, Internet, and Lost History

storageMadison    Huma Abedin, the confidant and deputy chief of staff for Hillary Clinton, now working on her Presidential campaign, in her deposition released recently in commenting on the server controversy said, “Mrs. Clinton…wanted to protect her personal information, ‘just like anybody who has personal email would want to keep their personal email private.” It’s an interesting quote, not because of the controversy, but because in fact it so easily expresses and assumes a near unanimous consensus that exists in much of modern society that holds that there is a dividing line between personal and professional correspondence. In Clinton’s case, the argument of course has to do with matters of state, while for the rest of us everything is often totally blurred.

I thought of this as I continued rummaging through the ACORN archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society. There would be few files these days called “Correspondence,” given the dominance of email. In the files, I read letters to me from Ralph Nader, Paul Wellstone, and Bill Clinton among others that I had long forgotten existed. And, trust me on this my files – our files – were none too perfect, but such correspondence would largely be lost in the mess and mayhem of unfathomable, untraceable email these days, as Abedin notes about Hillary Clinton wouldn’t they?

Working with the Wisconsin archivists they came to our union hall in Baton Rouge some months ago and in three days sorted through more than one-hundred boxes stored there in order to ship back 38 of them to the archives. Dealing with paper is no treat. Looking at the ACORN archives, nothing has been sorted and available really since 2008. Of more than 300 linear feet or boxes of material only three were of photographs and half of those were more random than anything else, yet we all have thousands of photos on our computers in some willy-nilly fashion. I looked at various internal communications tools we used, Vamonos for leaders, the ACORNizer for organizers, the Motley Cow reports from the research department. I saw a note about our purchasing computers in 1984 and then of course by 1990 email ubiquitous, so over the last 20 or 25 years so many of these kinds of communication would be electronic. How can those be accessed? Who is retaining such records? And, what about the way we all communicate using websites, Facebook, and other tools?

All of our footprints are in sand, but modern communication potentially puts much of it literally in the clouds. Is this the end of history when there are few and increasingly eliminated records available for review except from the highest and mightiest?

What about the rest of us? Are we destined to live in a Trump-type world where we invent ourselves every day and there are no facts or solid ground where we stand?