I always like to visit some sort of national history museum when I’m in a different country so I can learn more about the place, and Hungary was no exception, particularly because I don’t really know much about its history (my knowledge of most of Eastern European history (or Central European? Never quite sure what the boundaries are because they seem based more on culture than geography) is patchy at best, to be honest). And the Hungarian National Museum was housed in a very impressive building, as you can probably see (if you ignore all the construction work), so I was keen to explore.
Admission is 1600 HUF for the permanent exhibitions (about £4.50), and there is an extra charge for the temporary exhibition, which we decided not to see on this occasion even though it did look quite interesting (it was about the journey of a “fallen girl” in mid-20th century Hungarian society), because I was worried not everything would be in English, and also, frankly, my feet hurt, and I could only take so much museuming that day. We also had to pay extra, once again, for a photo pass (it was 500 or 600 HUF) and Marcus had to put his backpack in the cloakroom immediately after arriving, but at least that was free (and near the toilets, which you know is always a concern of mine).
We started with the lapidarium (having only familiarised ourselves with the term the previous day at the Parliament building, which you’ll see in a later post. Not because it’s a Hungarian word (it was obviously Latin), it just wasn’t really a term we’d seen used before). And boy, was it sure lapidary. It was a bunch of Roman ruins, which normally I am not really into, and this was no exception, though I did enjoy pointing out how most of the beardy guys carved in stone looked a bit like Marcus.
We then headed up to the first floor to explore Hungarian history, starting with the Middle Ages. As you can see, the journey up the stairs was spectacular, so I was a little disappointed that the exhibits didn’t quite live up to that level of grandeur. There were English translations on most things, but some of the signs were so old that half the letters had fallen off, which was obviously not ideal, and some of the translations were a bit…patchy anyway, so it was hard to tell exactly what they were trying to communicate in some of the rooms. Also, the presentation was very dry, with no interactivity at all, and considering I was already quite tired and reaching the end of my tether (we’d already been to the Semmelweiss Museum and Buda Castle that day, and stopped at the Central Market, so I was justifiably tired, especially because I also wear not very comfortable shoes), I just couldn’t summon up much of an interest.
I will give them credit where credit’s due and say they had some great paintings of people with amazing eyebrows (no wonder the clerk at our hotel asked if I was Hungarian!) and a really interesting banner showing the execution of three men who participated in a rebellion (the fourth had a ransom paid for his life, and I think may have possibly later ruled Hungary, though the museum didn’t explain whether it was the same person, or a descendant with the same name). There was also a painting of Suleiman the Magnificent just casually slung in here that I swear is really famous, and the label didn’t say it was a facsimile, so I assume it was the original?
The second section upstairs was the history of Hungary from 1703 (after the Ottomans were expelled) until 1990, which is presumably the last time the museum was updated (or just the end of communism, but I could totally believe that most of the displays were almost 30 years old). This was more interesting to me because I understand more about this time period – and I’m always happy to look at dirndl-style national costumes or old communist art (probably shouldn’t have posed with the statue of Stalin, considering what a monster the man was (though he was disturbingly hot when he was young), but I couldn’t help myself. I have some kind of sick compulsion to be photographed with statues).
My favourite part was actually the Liszt room, not because I’m a particular fan of Liszt (even though he does look like a vampire, and is even featured in my Vampire Tarot deck (not just because of his looks – I think he composed something vaguely vampiric)), but because it was air-conditioned and had a real comfy bench on which I was quite prepared to settle down and listen to recordings of some of his compositions, until a couple walked in and started ostentatiously trying to read the sign behind my head, so I had to get up.
When we headed back downstairs, it became obvious that we’d gone around the museum in the wrong direction, because we spotted a prehistory gallery down there. It’s a shame I’m not more interested in prehistory, because this gallery had been updated relatively recently, and had some interactive things and a much more appealing appearance than upstairs. By this point, I was pretty much done though, so we rushed through pretty quickly (I tried to use the bow and arrow interactive to see what kind of animal my strength would kill (bit grim I know) but I couldn’t figure out how to pull back the bow and the guy working there said something to me in Hungarian, and I was worried he was telling me I was going to break it, so I just left).
We somehow missed seeing the Coronation Mantle, which is apparently a pretty big deal, but I honestly didn’t see another gallery we could have gone into, so I’m not sure where it was (this would be a recurring problem at Hungarian museums). I think the building is stunning, and the collection has a lot of potential, it just hasn’t been fully utilised. The amazing (and free!) Swedish History Museum has become my gold standard for this sort of thing, and the Hungarian National Museum fell well short of this ideal. With more interactivity, and some updated signage (at least the updated signage!) I think it could be a pretty great experience, because clearly Hungary has an interesting past (I mean c’mon, Ottoman occupation? Transylvania? Communism? This stuff is interesting!), but the way it’s presented is not engaging. 2.5/5.