Prague Wax Museum

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Outside the sun shines brightly and life goes by on the busy lower end of Wenceslas Square. Inside Stalin, Lenin, Brezhnev and Chruschev wave to the masses from a platform. Franz Kafka looks on, a whimsical smile on his face, the good soldier Sweik drinks his last pint and Albert Einstein swings high on a garden swing, oblivious to the company around him. In the cool dark interior of the Prague Wax Museum figures of the distant past rub shoulders with those of the present: famous scientists, artists and politicians. The hated together with the loved. The long dead alongside the living. The men and women who made history. The Prague Wax Museum has been their home for five years now. Its owner and director Mr. Zdenek Kocik recalls the effort it took to set up the first wax museum in Eastern Europe:

"It was a big challenge to open this museum because we were unable to get any help. We contacted five leading wax museums in Europe, hoping they would advise us on technology or let us buy some of their figures to help us at the outset. But nobody wanted to share know-how and the prices were astronomical so it became apparent that the first museum of this kind in Eastern Europe would have to be built from scratch. As a result everything you see here is Czech, the work of Czech artists: the wax technolgy, the hair which is inserted one by one, and so on. We used make up artists from the Barrandov film studios and they are exceptionally good."

So -two years after Czech artists went to work the first wax museum in Eastern Europe opened its doors to the public at the bottom end of Prague's Wenceslas Square. This was in March of 1997 and those Czechs who had not yet availed themselves of their right to travel freely -and had thus not had a chance to admire Madame Tussauds or wax museums elsewhere in Europe - had their first glimpse of wax figures. The museum's owner and director Zdenek Kocik had the privilage of choosing which figures would be made and where they would stand. The very first to see the light of day was Emperor Charles IV, founder of Charles Bridge and Charles University, Emperor Rudolf II, Jan Amos Comenius and other figures of Czech history. Then world famous personalities arrived on the scene and living legends. The Wax Museum became somewhat crowded and it was clear that some of its inhabitants needed new quarters. A year later the museum boasted 120 figures and the Czech history section was moved to Karlstejn Casle, the castle that Charles IV built in his day.

The Wax Museum currently has three permanent exhibitions. One in Prague, one at Karlstejn Castle and one in Cesky Krumlov, south Bohemia which focuses on the history of this particular area. The Prague exhibition is soon to move to a new location - /to Melantrich Street/ and its owner is preparing a whole group of newcomers for the housewarming.

"This assembly is fantastic and I truly believe that people will be very pleased. We have the Dalaj Lama, Mick Jagger, Gianni Versace, Ivana Trump, Bill Gates and some current Czech artists. Living legends are very popular because naturally many people come to see how they compare with the real person. The scrutiny is much sharper and we do our best to stand up to it."

Among the modern day Czechs on display are President Vaclav Klaus, Prague Spring hero Alexander Dubcek, singers Karel Gott, Helena Vondrackova and Daniel Hulka, to name just a few. So, how do they react when they see themselves in wax ?

"Well, those who are still living and come to see themselves are pleased. Of course there's a little vanity in everyone and it tickles their ego to be here and to be in such good company. Next to Salvator Dali, Elton John and Tina Turner how can you not feel important? One of my privilages as owner and director is that I get to pick who gets made and where they should stand. But aside pleasing myself I try to keep everyone happy. For instance the dictators are together in a seperate group, as are the men of letters, the musicians and the sportspeople. Some companies are mixed but we havn't had any complaints so far."

Well, they certainly look real enough to kick up a fuss if they are not happy. But to go back to the beginning. What does it take to produce one of these life size figures ?

"Those who are living did come in for a few sittings -for instance Helena Vondrackova, Karel Gott or Daniel Hulka. Otherwise we worked with photographs, films and even etchings and portraits in the case of our historic figures. But luckily there's almost always plenty to go on. First our sculptors go to work and produce a head from which a form is made and filled with wax to produce the best possible wax mask. When we have the perfect head, make up and hair artists go to work to bring it to life and finally the wax figure is given a body and appropriate clothes. All this requires great expertise, patience and precision so one figure takes about 4 months to make, with a whole team of experts working on it."

At present the Wax Museum boasts 260 figures in all and a growing number of visitors.

"We have around 350 to 400 thousand visitors a year, and our museum is rated among the best in Europe. It is certainly the only one of its kind in Eastern Europe and foreign visitors especially appreciate our assembly of dictators which they cannot see anywhere else in the world. Stalin, Lenin, Brezhnev, Fidel Castro, Mao Tse Tung and others. They also come to see how our wax figures of famous people compare to those they've seen elsewhere, such as Princess Diana, Mother Tereza, President Clinton, Pablo Picasso or Luis Armstrong. Another very popular section with foreign vistors is the sports section. Kids rush over to Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek, the Dominator, who are both wearing copies of their real sports gear courtesy of NHL. Tennis superstar Martina Navratilova is also here and she actually visited the museum to admire her wax- self some time ago. So I have not just fulfilled my own dream when I created all this - I have made a lot of other people happy in the process and that's great incentive for the future. "

The Prague Wax Museum also offers what it calls a multi media programme -a caleidoscopic film of Prague architecture through the ages -called Magical Prague. The film was especially made for caleidoscopic viewing and is one of the museum's big attractions. So, when you are in Prague -do drop in - and, in the meantime, check out what's in store for you on the wax museum's web site at: http://www.waxmuseumprague.cz