Thursday, 21 February 2013

Tito's Batons - collections, gifts and dictators.

A couple of years ago on one of my trips to Belgrade, Serbia, my friend Mladen took me to visit the Tito museum. It was just as well I was accompanied as it entailed a somewhat complicated bus journey, but it was well worth it as it was one of the strangest museum experiences I have ever had. The 25th May museum as it is known (Tito's birthday) is situated next to his mausoleum, but while the mauoleum (known as The House of Flowers) is the reason many visitors flock to this museum, for me the really fascinating thing about this museum is all the objects Tito collected that people gave to him, most notably his collection of batons. It is a collection as eccentric as any you might find in an individual's house, yet the scale of this collection is quite astonishing. 

Made every year as part of his birthday celebrations the batons travelled from all over Yugoslavia to be delivered to Belgrade, as part of a mass relay race. I have even heard tales of them arriving by daring feats such as absailing and helicopters! There was an official baton each year, but what I love are the thousands (literally - there are 22,000 batons in this collection and it is rumoured that he was given more during his lifetime!) made by individuals or small groups, which are often deeply surreal. I love how an official collection of a world leader can contain so many things that would normally seem more at home in a homemade collection in an individual's house or a school art display. There is a real quirky individualism in them, which I find fascinated in the context of a communist regime. Below are some wonderful examples I took photos of.

As well as the batons the 25th May Museum has an amazing selection of gifts given to Tito, including many by official organisations. Whilst one's preconception of an official gift to a leader would make one think of mainstream safe choices (though the British government's slightly surreal gift of place mats to the Queen recently might dispel that...), these gifts to Tito are almost like mini collections in themselves - surreal cabinets of curiosities, each like something lost from a mythical museum or eccentric's collection. And the potential for stories behind them too fascinates me - why did the Nuclear Institute give him a taxidermy snake and spider? Why do official organisations choose the things they do to represent them in official gifts? I think you'll find the selection below interesting in terms of this question!

The last one was from the Orthopedic Society - bit creepy... But this did get me thinking about collections in terms of gifts and dictators and how the weirdest collections can often come out of something, such as these gifts, that wasn't originally conceived of as a collection, and how these collections are then used in terms of how we perceive the leader they were given to. One of my most surreal experiences on this subject was on my first trip to Georgia, when in the town of Gori with a friend we went to the Stalin museum. This has to be the most consciously edited museum of someone's life I have ever visited. A highly curated life in fact, maybe the subject for a future post in terms of fame, infamy and public perception and memory. But to briefly make my point here, in the Stalin museum if you did not know your history, you would come out thinking that Stalin was a surprisingly okay looking in his youth revolutionary poet, who world leaders gave lots of presents, and then he died. No mention of the millions of deaths! And these presents are displayed as if somehow them being together like this is a collective proof that other leaders must have not thought that badly of him. Propaganda and rewriting of memory through accumulation of gifts and the inadvertent creation of a collection. Something to think about...

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