Havana's Museum of the Revolution
Cuban President Mario García Menocal liked fine things. So despite the economic and political upheaval facing the Cuban people in the early 20th century, he spared no expense in decorating his extravagant palace. Intended to be the home of Provincial Government of Havana when construction was begun, it was clear when it was finished in 1918 that it was fit to be the Presidential Palace. President Menocal inaugurated it in 1920.
According to the book “A History of the Cuban Revolution”, President Menocal used $3,750,000 in public funds to hire Carlos Maruri, a Cuban architect and Paul Belau, a Belgian architect, to design and build the eclectic white granite building overlooking the entrance to the Havana Harbor and the old Morro Castle. He then paid another $1,366,515 to Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the founder of Tiffany’s & Company of New York, to decorate it. In fact, decorating the Presidential Palace was one of Louis Tiffany’s last major complete interior design projects.
Even though most of the metalwork, rugs and stained lead glass lamps fabricated at Tiffany Studios have been since removed, the famous mirrors and Tiffany glass chandeliers are still evident in the Hall of Mirrors.
The Neo-Classical building remained the Presidential Palace until 1959 spanning the terms of office of seven presidents from Mario Garcia Menocal to Fulgencio Batista. Today we know it as the Museum of the Revolution (Spanish Museo de la Revolución). It houses an extensive collection of antiquated but informative displays of memorabilia and exhibits covering Cuban history from the 15th century to modern history with emphasis on the revolutionary period beginning in 1868 with the first war of liberation from Spain. It is generally recognized as one of the most important of Cuba’s 315 or so museums.
The turmoil chronicled in the museum is immediately evident as visitors climb the marble staircase leading to the upper floors. The spectacular doomed center of the building opens four stories to the ground floor. A close examination of the walls will show bullet holes from the failed March 13, 1957 attempt by student revolutionaries to assassinate dictator Fulgencio Batista, the president ultimately forced out of office in 1959 during the revolution led by Fidel Castro. In the more than 30 rooms of the museum, some 9,000 objects from different stages of the struggle for independence are on display.
Although many of the displays lack sophistication and originality, two of the rooms are true stand outs. The Presidential Office (Despacho Presidencial) where Cuba’s most important leaders met to set the course for the country is decorated with the original furniture and ornaments from the 1940s. The museum’s Hall of Mirrors (Salón de los Espejos) is an imitation of the French Palace of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors built in the 17th century by King Louis XIV and renowned as the most beautiful room in the world. With spectacular frescoes on the high ceiling, graceful arches, ornate bas-reliefs and crystal Tiffany chandeliers, the former reception hall for the palace is still elegant despite its lack of period furniture.
Faded photographs and newspaper articles, posters, medical supplies, items of clothing, letters between revolutionary leaders, and other artifacts capture the decades of struggle of the Cuban people for independence. Many of the photos are intended to highlight socialist programs put in place by Fidel Castro such as nationalization of housing, oil, healthcare and others. In a nod to propaganda is a large obviously more current mural portraying Batista, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as pompous characters.
A life-sized guerilla warfare display shows Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. The two wax figures dressed in military uniforms are heroes of the revolution during the national liberation war. Che was an Argentine-born physician who became second only to Fidel Castro after the revolution.
Weapons, clothing, medical supplies, and other gear used in the fight for independence are also on display. These include a radio transmitter plant similar to one used by Fidel Castro for revolutionary activities as well as one used by Che Guevara during another campaign in Las Villas province.
While most of the busts of heroes on display in the museum are carved from white marble, including one of American President Abraham Lincoln, the one of Jose Marti on the marble steps is curiously chiseled from black stone. In 1892 Mr. Marti, a lawyer, philosopher and writer, dedicated himself to planning, fund-raising and organizing what was later called Cuba’s second War of Independence. In Cuba he is called the Father of the Cuban Revolution.
On the grounds of the museum is the Granma Memorial which includes the eternal flame to the heroes of the revolution. The centerpiece of the memorial is the glass enclosed 59-foot (18 m) diesel-powered cabin cruiser named Granma. Originally designed to accommodate a maximum of 25 people, it was used by Fidel and Raúl Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and more than 80 other revolutionaries in 1956 to sail to Havana from their exile in Mexico. Their return launched the revolution that lead to the ouster of Batista, the corrupt, violent, twice elected United States-aligned Cuban President.
The pavilion, added several decades after the Palace was completed, also displays delivery trucks, jeeps, tanks and other equipment used in the assault on the Palace. Also on display is the turbine of the American U2 spy plane shot down during the 1962 Bay of Pigs Cuban Missile Crisis.
At the time of my visit the museum’s exhibits were quite detailed but not very sophisticated. I didn’t feel that they adequately represented the true struggle for independence. Many of the displays include only Spanish captions thus posing a challenge for the many non-Spanish speaking/reading visitors. However, with some determination any visitor can get a good sense of Cuban history and learn much about the spirit of the Cuban people. If possible, use the services of a guide to assist with interpreting the displays.
The Museum of the Revolution is located in Old Town Havana at Calle Refugio No. 1 between Calles Zulueta and Monserrate. Visiting hours are 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM. Admission is 6 CUC. Visitors must leave their cameras at the ticke counter or pay an additional 1 CUC for the privilege of taking the camera into the museum. For just over US1.00, it’s worth it to record your visit. Also, if you don’t have exact admission fee, be sure to check your change as the clerk is notorious for cheating visitors. At this time, public toilet facilities are rudimentary at best.