Quirky exhibits star alongside historic items in centenary Czechoslovakian exhibition

The start of the exhibition with the statue of the first president.

By Perry Johnson

An exhibition commemorating one hundred years of history since the formation of the Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1918 is currently being hosted by Charles University.

The exhibition entitled “The University and the Republic: 100 Years – 100 Items – 100 Stories” displays a diverse range of 100 objects each representing a significant historical achievement or advancement for every year since the republic’s foundation.

The start of the exhibition with the statue of the first president

The curator of the 100 Years exhibition, Jakub Jareš, gained his inspiration for the show from one held by the British Museum called ‘A History of the World in 100 objects’. His aim is to offer equal weight to the individual years of the last century, acknowledging but not simply focusing solely on the country’s turbulence during this time.

Veronika Trusová, a student on the Interpreting English and French MA course within the Faculty of Arts at Charles University, highlighted the exhibition’s success at achieving this aim. She said: “I think what’s great about this exhibition is how sort of specific and tangible it is because I like the idea that you have one particular object for every year which doesn’t have to be of huge historical importance but it helps you to remember to visualise what was going on in a way.

Jan Palach’s belongings

“It is a good thing to know that Jan Palach burned himself for the freedom of the Czech nation but actually seeing his handwriting or his schoolbooks, that’s a whole different thing. I’m very fond of him and I’m very passionate about his story.”

Amidst objects such as this bag of Jan Palach, the student from the Faculty of Arts who set himself alight in 1969 to protest against the Soviet occupation, come more light-hearted items.

A statue of the ‘ropák’ – a monster created by filmmaker Jan Svěrák – sits opposite, contrasting and highlighting the nation’s rich history not dictated nor defined by its political and social unrest.

                                                        Jan Svěrák’s ‘ropák’

At its heart, the exhibition focuses heavily on the many contributions Charles University, its students and its faculties have made towards the advancement of the country and the world.

Several objects in the show are instruments of medical engineering, symbolising the many advancements that the republic has made in the field, globally. These include surgical eyeglasses used for and representing the first ever successful kidney transplant as performed by a medical team at the Faculty of Medicine in 1961, as well as a vaccination pistol from 1979 used in humanitarian efforts to eradicate smallpox in villages in Somalia. These particular items allow a more focused insight into Czechoslovakian history into things that are not as well known but which have impacted on the lives of millions of people drastically nonetheless. In 2017, for example 469 patients received new kidneys in the Czech Republic alone, thanks in no small part to the pioneering work at Charles University.

What is more remarkable is that some of these developments came during the Soviet rule over Czechoslovakia and, by including them inbetween objects highlighting social unrest, the curator subtly emphasises the resolve of the Czech people through such periods.

Perhaps the item that highlights this the most, however, is the one listed for the year 1955 – a small metal box that once contained the handwritten lecture notes Adolf Bečvář created as a political prisoner at Leopoldov. The box displayed was hidden in the walls of the prison but retrieved decades later in 1992 and the notes inside, published by Charles University in a book entitled ‘Philosophy behind Bars’. As such this object can be seen as the perfect representation not only for the strong sense of will the Czech people had to resist their oppression at the time but also how far they overcame it.

Objects defining more personal and individual stories such as this drive the exhibition and make the history involved much more compact, insightful and tangible. As Veronika Trusová highlighted: “What I also appreciate are stories on a smaller scale because for me history was always more interesting when it came to personal stories, individual lives and so on and sometimes when we look at those important years on a big scale we can’t actually grasp the whole concept.

“On the one hand we are very proud of our country but I also feel like not many people are very well informed about its history for various reasons.”

As a foreign student knowing relatively little about the Republic’s history, the exhibition was a great way to enrich my understanding of the country but also to appreciate it for the many advancements it has contributed to that have affected life throughout Europe and beyond.

The final object, representing the current year 2018, has just been added, based on suggestions from people who have visited the exhibition. A broken compass sits alone in a small case at the very end and represents uncertainty about the direction the country is heading in in the future.

Veronika shed a little light on this: “It speaks very clearly of the political mood we have going on in the Czech Republic and in other European countries. It seemed like the exhibit really got to the point of what’s going on around us.”

The exhibition is free and opens daily between 10am and 6pm running until September 1st. For anyone hoping to gain a better understanding of the city, the university and their many historical struggles and successes, this exhibition delivers with a strong concept, streamlined design and varied exhibits.

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