This bunker at the Ministry of the Interior right in the heart of Tirana
’s government district was one of the last construction projects of its kind in then bunker-obsessed
Albania. It was begun in 1981 and completed in 1986, so a year after Enver Hoxha
’s death, and many years after the larger bunker on the city’s edge, which is now run as “Bunk’Art 1
”, had been built.
In 2016, the same NGO that runs the original Bunk’Art site
opened this city centre branch to the public, and again it proved a great success (both sites now rank as the top two places on the platform Tripadvisor). The concept is similar, a combination of historical exhibition with artistic installations.
Strictly speaking, the bunker is not directly “under” the Ministry building (an edifice built by the Italians in the 1930s) but under a square next to it, yet the original entrance was from within the Ministry building. The entrance and exit of today’s museum were specifically added during the conversion.
The underground structure was topped with an eight feet (2.5m) thick layer of reinforced concrete. Whether that would have been enough to protect against the nuclear warheads of the 1980s is doubtful, though. It may have had its chance as a fallout shelter and could have protected against chemical weapons (its other intended purpose) but would most likely not have survived a direct hit by a nuclear bomb.
Obviously the construction was secret and apparently the code name for the project was “Objekti Shtylla” (which translates as ‘object pillar’) and was overseen by a special dedicated construction organization that specialized in secret bunkers. This was, in a way, the final culmination of Albania
’s country-wide programme of “bunkerization
”. Yet, like the original bunker that is now Bunk’Art 1, this government bunker is a far cry from the simple pillboxes that dot the country in their hundreds of thousands. This was a fully self-contained unit and had a private suite for the Minister of the Interior, complete with a bedroom – but apparently that was never used, not even in any exercise.
What there is to see:
The entrance to the underground facility above ground is through a mock pillbox bunker
– which I presume is not an original one, but a replica. Next to it stands a half-scale mock watchtower with a searchlight, barbed wire and a sign with the name Bunk’Art 2 on it. So it’s pretty much impossible to miss.
Inside the dome of the pillbox “bunker” is filled with many dozens of black-and-white portrait photos, presumably of victims of the Sigurimi. Then you go down a flight of stairs to get to the ticket counter (and museum shop). Apparently there are also audio guides available, but I didn’t use one, so can’t report on their qualities.
With the ticket’s QR code you scan yourself through the electronic entrance barrier (hold on to your ticket as you need it again at the exit!) and begin your visit with the first thematic section of the museum.
The corridors are quite narrow and the ceilings low, so people who suffer badly from claustrophobia should consider carefully whether they want to visit this place. I found it OK, but sometimes I had to wait for other visitors to move on before viewing exhibits myself (this was in April 2022, when Covid-related restrictions had largely been lifted in Albania and hardly any other visitors were still wearing masks, hence I tried to keep my distance from them).
All labels and text panels are bilingual, in Albanian and English. The translations seem a bit amateurish, as the texts are often flawed and the English grammar and vocabulary somewhat faulty, mostly not so much as to impair understanding too much, though I encountered a few stretches where I was really left scratching my head in puzzlement. Generally, though, you get the gist, but the English parts could have benefited from a more professional translation approach.
Thematically, the exhibition begins long before the Sigurimi came into being, namely at independence of Albania in 1912 and the years of the kingdom (1925-1939). So it starts with the “gendarmerie” and police before the communist era. I was quite surprised to find so much coverage of pre-Sigurimi topics, which felt of much less relevance for the museum at large, but never mind.
This is followed by a short section about the police at the time of the occupations (by Italy
, then Germany
) during WWII
. After that the exhibition finally gets to the long era of communist
dictatorship from 1944 to 1991.
Aspects covered here include the border police. As in other communist countries, citizens were not allowed to leave the country and attempting to flee was one of the worst “crimes” in the eyes of the regime. Hence the border was tightly controlled and fortified. Among the exhibits here are a dummy border security dog in mid bark and a mannequin wearing a strange yellow-patterned cotton coat. A sign explains that this is an authentic artefact and such coats were used to train the dogs (to do what, is not made clear, though).
Another room is dedicated to the role of the police in “keeping order”, and among the exhibits is a mannequin in full riot-police outfit. More shields, helmets and batons are also on display along the main corridor. Also on the corridor walls you see ancient (I assume authentic) apparatus for communications, such as what looks like a mini-switchboard and telephones.
The early history of the Sigurimi secret surveillance and espionage agency is elaborated on, including the ironic fact that the first head of the Sigurimi, the especially brutal Koçi Xoxe became victim of the regime himself, when he was tried as a traitor and executed. His successor was one Mehmet Shehu, who would become Prime Minister and the “right hand” of Enver Hoxha, only to fall out with his master and losing his life under dubious circumstances in 1981 (officially declared “suicide” – see under Bunk’Art 1
In one separate room long lists hang from the ceiling that specify all the official victims of executions for political reasons (5500 names are given in total). There were also unofficial deaths, and the bodies of the victims were usually not returned to relatives but buried in unmarked spots. To this day such clandestine burial places are being discovered.
Another room is about political prisoners and labour camps – see under Spaç
! Again long lists of prisoners’ names hang from the ceiling and there is a video screen playing testimonies of former prisoners (with English subtitles).
The system of informers, or “collaborators”, is detailed too, with some personal files on display. This seemed to be quite similar to equivalent methods employed by the East German Stasi
(where they were called “IMs – see Stasi Museum
). Another similarity is the way in which both the Stasi and the Sigurimi tried to destroy documents and other evidence of their doings when the fall of communism came.
One section focuses on the use of torture in interrogations by the Sigurimi. A large panel lists an excruciatingly long lists of the various methods employed – testament to how imaginative humans can be when it comes to devising ever more ways of administering cruelty.
At the end of the main corridor is one of the artistic installations. In this case in the form of coloured lights illuminating what was once a set of decontamination rooms with airtight steel doors.
An especially interesting section is about the ways of secret surveillance through hidden “bugs” and cameras. One room has several items of surveillance on display, including a broomstick with a hidden microphone and transmitter built into the handle. In the centre of the room stands a wooden table and you are invited to try and “find the bugs” in the table (I did not manage that) or the “objects” on it, even though the table was empty. A dummy in a jacket, however, visibly has a microphone hidden behind it.
There’s also a room on photography used for surveillance, and there’s a dummy with lenses in front of the eyes and the whole body wrapped in photo film – another artistic element. One glass box has hundreds and hundreds of film rolls (this was the pre-digital age, remember). Again it’s all visually quite striking.
A separate room contains a reconstruction of how the Sigurimi spied on private homes, through yet more hidden microphones with which audio recordings were made, and cameras with special spy lenses that could take pictures through tiny holes in the wall. You see all the technology on the one side of a wall and the indication of a living room next to it. The camera hole on that side of the wall is indeed barely discernible, unless you know exactly where to look for it.
Another reconstruction is that of a Sigurimi office complete with a typewriter and telephone on a desk, a bookcase full of works by Enver Hoxha
, and a portrait of the man on the wall. On another wall hangs an Albanian flag with the communist five-pointed star on it just above the black double eagle, as it was in use between 1946 and 1991.
There’s also an interrogation room, in which the lighting switches between none to bright white, similar to an irregular strobe light (which wouldn’t be good for epileptics to view).
Possibly the highlight of the museum is the original suite for the Minister of the Interior with its wood-panelled anteroom, the main meeting room, and the Minister’s bedroom. All these look very similar to the equivalent rooms in the Bunk’Art 1 site
. And on the wall of the meeting room hang portraits of all the Interior Ministers of the communist period.
There is also a larger room filled with rows of chairs and a speaker’s lectern at the front, which I presume is the former assembly room, now used for lectures or such events. When I was there it was not in use.
At the rear of the complex is an officers’ room with a two-tiered bunk bed and next to it what was labelled “the cell”, a narrow space along the bare wall separated from the corridor by metal bars, and indeed on the floor of this space is a dummy prisoner mannequin.
Next door is another art installation, in this case a large robot-like sculpture assembled from various items such as a cage for the torso, a TV monitor for the head, a gas mask for a nose, telephones for shoulder pads, and metal arms that hold a pickaxe on the left and a rifle in the right hand (this is an allusion to a Sigurimi slogan from the communist days).
Along one wall are quotes by various more or less famous people to the tune of George Santayana’s famous line that “those who are unable to remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (as it is translated in this museum), e.g. “Losing the past means losing the future” (Wang Shu). All could be used for justifying the practice of dark tourism
, in fact, so I welcomed this.
This more or less finishes the exhibition and you have to make your way back up the corridor to the exit. Just behind the exit turnstile is a large diesel generator bathed in colourful light, and behind it stairs lead back to the open air at street level. The exit is at the other end of the square, not where you entered. This exit is covered by a simple concrete clam-shell-like arch, but not by another pillbox bunker imitation.
All in all
, I found this exhibition more engaging than the one at the House of Leaves
, which thematically overlaps a lot with this Bunk’Art 2 site. The latter has its flaws in the presentation, and especially in the English, but these are balanced out by many a visually appealing reconstruction and a wealth of original artefacts. Size-wise it’s not as impressive as the original Bunk’Art 1 site
, but it’s definitely a valuable addition, and much more accessible that the original branch on the edge of the city.
right in the centre of Tirana
, on Abdi Toptani Street, bang in the heart of the government district just south of Skanderbeg Square and the City Hall.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: very easy to get to; not expensive.
Details: The very central location makes it possible to get to this site on foot from just about anywhere within central Tirana. It’s within spitting distance south of Skanderbeg Square and just half a mile (800m) north of the Blloku area.
Opening times: daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., from Thursday to Sunday even to 8 p.m. (some sources still say to 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively, but I believe these closing times were indeed recently extended).
: the regular fee is 500 lek, but a combination ticket with Bunk’Art 1
is 800 lek, so a saving of 20% compared with the price for two individual tickets.
Officially recommended is an hour and a half. If you want to read all the many texts you might need much longer than that, though. I was out faster because I photographed the text panels during my visit to read later at home (an advantage of photography
not being restricted here, quite unlike the very strict House of Leaves
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Thematically the most closely related other dark attraction, and also physically the nearest, is the House of Leaves
museum inside the former HQ of the Sigurimi secret surveillance agency, one block away to the west, right opposite the Orthodox Cathedral. Also close by is the National Art Gallery
, just a few dozen yards to the south, though when I was there in April 2022 that was closed for refurbishment (or conversion). To the north is Skanderbeg Square, at whose northern end is the National History Museum
A combination that is actually promoted by the Bunk’Art 2 site is a visit to their original branch, now called Bunk’Art 1
on the edge of the city. You can purchase combination tickets for both that give you a 20% discount
See also under Tirana
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Thanks to the central location, almost everything Tirana
has to offer touristically (which isn’t much in non-dark terms, to be honest), is within walking distance from here. Skanderbeg Square, the Tirana Castle complex and the new grand mosque are all just minutes away.
- BunkArt2 01 - mock watchtower
- BunkArt2 02 - mock bunker over the entrance
- BunkArt2 03 - inside the mock bunker
- BunkArt2 04 - start of the exhibition
- BunkArt2 05 - border control
- BunkArt2 06 - police state
- BunkArt2 07 - underground corridor
- BunkArt2 08 - mini-switchboard
- BunkArt2 09 - police shield, helmet and baton
- BunkArt2 10 - green
- BunkArt2 11 - blue
- BunkArt2 12 - way back out
- BunkArt2 13 - lists of names of victims
- BunkArt2 14 - bugging room
- BunkArt2 15 - find the bug
- BunkArt2 16 - there is one
- BunkArt2 17 - bug in a broom stick
- BunkArt2 18 - surveillance gear
- BunkArt2 19 - hidden surveillance camera, microphone and tape recorder
- BunkArt2 20 - surveillance station
- BunkArt2 21 - Sigurimi office reconstruction
- BunkArt2 22 - plenty of Hoxha books
- BunkArt2 23 - meeting room
- BunkArt2 24 - telly and Interior Ministers
- BunkArt2 25 - sleep room
- BunkArt2 26 - period reading material
- BunkArt2 27 - interrogation room
- BunkArt2 28 - guard room
- BunkArt2 29 - cell
- BunkArt2 30 - dummy cell inmate
- BunkArt2 31 - art installation
- BunkArt2 32 - end of the exhibition
- BunkArt2 33 - generator
- BunkArt2 34 - exit