Relative to most of my trips, I didn’t actually visit all that many museums on this Budapest jaunt – in large part because we arrived on a Sunday evening when everything was shut, and were there over a Monday which is the museum closing day in Budapest, which only left us only Tuesday, and Wednesday morning for museums – but that doesn’t mean we weren’t busy. On the contrary, my feet were still aching days later from all the walking we did (and from uncomfortable shoes, because I always pick form over function). So this post will cover the rest of the things we did, with of course plenty of photos (courtesy of Marcus).
Here’s a tale of two attractions. There’s not really anything to not like about Vajdahunyad Castle (just look at it!), but the Hungarian Agriculture Museum is a different story (in other words, “it was the best of times, it was the…blurst of times?! You stupid monkey!”). Actually, blurst (or worst) is a bit of an exaggeration (I’m just trying to carry on with the Dahl’s Chickens/Simpsons theme), but it wasn’t great.
Vadjahunyad Castle has a pretty interesting history. It was originally built in 1896 for a Millennium Exhibition in Budapest (I’ve no idea why they were having a Millennium celebration then, but whatever) and proved super popular, but was constructed from temporary materials that eventually began to fall apart, so in 1899 the original architect (Ignac Alpar) was called upon to rebuild a castle that would last, and indeed, it’s still there today, in the middle of a big park. It was designed to showcase a number of different architectural styles, hence its somewhat eclectic appearance, and is totally free to visit, though you are apparently unable to go inside most of it (I’m not sure whether there actually is much inside, other than the museum). There are a number of amazing statues scattered around the castle, but the main reason I wanted to go was the bust of Bela Lugosi, which is hidden around the back.
This was all just as amazing as I was hoping, and I had a grand time wandering around and having my picture taken with everything, even though sometimes I had to dodge other tourists to do so (Bela was all mine though – he was hidden away at the back of the castle, and I don’t think most people even knew who he was). So of course, I had to check out the Agricultural Museum, which has been based in the castle as long as the castle was here (they moved it out during reconstruction, but put it back in again after reconstruction was finished), especially because it is billed as Europe’s largest agricultural museum, and I tend to be a sucker for superlatives.
Admission was 1200 HUF (about £3.50) which wasn’t too bad, but no one really gave us any information when we came in, and much like the Hungarian National Museum, it was in a massive, beautiful and confusing building, so it wasn’t immediately apparent where we were supposed to start (even the map by the stairs wasn’t super helpful). I spotted some mannequins off to our left as we entered, and because there were about a hundred schoolchildren having lunch outside the museum who I imagined would be re-entering at some point in the not too distant future and I wanted to make sure we could photograph the mannequins uninterrupted, we headed there first (on the plus side, this was the only museum we visited in Budapest that didn’t charge us extra to take photos).
I believe it was the “History of Hungarian Agriculture” gallery, and there was indeed a lot of history covered in the signage, with English translations provided, but just like at the Hungarian National Museum, it was not engagingly presented, and was just too damn much to read. So I did skip quite a lot of it, but some of what I did read was interesting, like the information about types of crops they grew (there was a nice display of wheat. Apparently Hungary grew some award-winning wheat) and the domestication of farm animals (though come to think of it, I guess that was actually part of the exhibit entitled “Domesticating the Animals”), particularly the display case full of weird bare-necked chickens that were popular in Hungary. The mannequins were somewhat disappointing though, since they didn’t even have proper faces (I like a mannequin with some character).
After this, we tentatively headed upstairs (it wasn’t entirely clear whether we were meant to, but the guard saw us hesitating and made a “go on” gesture) and saw an exhibition about horses, which was fine. I’m not interested in horse racing, but I liked all the fake horses you could pose with (I didn’t risk sitting on the saddle, because it said there was a 30kg weight limit, but I totally wanted to).
There was another exhibition upstairs, which apparently held all the treasures of the collection, so of course I wanted to see that, but it turns out there was a separate admission fee (I’m not sure what it is, because no one mentioned it to us at the front desk, and I didn’t see any signs) so we couldn’t. I did use the nearby toilet though, free of charge, because the guard couldn’t stop me doing that (I honestly don’t think he even cared, but at the time I had the attitude of “well screw you, I’ll use this nearby fancy-looking toilet then.” It actually wasn’t that fancy, but it was clean, and free public toilets in Budapest seem to be pretty much nonexistent, so use them when you see them).
We then headed back downstairs, and checked out another small gallery on animals (maybe that was “Domesticating the Animals?”) and then looked around for the rest of the museum, but all we saw was another small gallery at the back, which by this point was full of all the schoolchildren that had been outside and had a teacher standing guard outside the door, so we felt weird about entering. Since we couldn’t see where any other parts of the museum would be, other than in the back gallery, we just left, but it felt rather small for the largest agricultural museum in Europe, since it seemed like the agricultural section at the delightful Technical Museum of Slovenia was larger than this museum. Well, we later popped our heads into the museum shop (which had a separate entrance) and got a view through the back window of a bunch of cases of taxidermied birds in what was evidently a gallery we’d completely missed, so obviously the museum did carry on for quite a while! I’m not even sure what exhibits we didn’t see, because the website says there are nine at the museum, and even if there was more than the “History of Hungarian Agriculture” in the one gallery, I reckon we still missed at least four exhibits, including the whole amazing sounding Gothic wing!
I’m pretty disappointed we didn’t get to see the whole museum and experience the full joys of the largest agricultural museum in Europe, but I doubt if they would have let us back in, and by the time we discovered the missing museum sections, we needed to head back to the city centre to grab some lunch before our flight home. But definitely do a better job of poking around if you’re in there than we did, because it is clearly hiding a number of secret galleries somewhere! I can only give it 2.5/5 based on what we saw, but maybe better things await the persistent. The castle is awesome though – at least go check out the courtyard, even if you skip the museum!
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.