Museum: a slow genre

Museum: a slow genre

Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Project Room
15 December 2015 – 25 January 2016

A museum is a place where objects, pictures, texts and ideas are ‘included’ in a space and present themselves in apparent immobility. Reception requires patience, openness and curiosity, time and slowing down – because a museum is a slow genre

When modern museums were founded in the 18th and 19th centuries, pace and rhythm were different. Time went by differently. A work of art and interpretation meant something different. The transformation of acceleration and the use of space not only changed the street but also the museum. Slowness is an old-fashioned tempo from the aspect of the visual and the media’s colonisation of contemporary culture: as if a genre has resisted modernity and change. Yet the rediscovery and culture of slowness is a critical idea in terms of 21st-century understanding. 

What does this mean when translated to the language of museums? Does it mean a museum- historical process whereby an archive creates its authoritarian timelessness? Or a methodological field in which the still-picture-like methods of presentation compose a still life around objects, spaces and people? Or an educational situation in which the museum experience is based on thinking? At the crossroads of interactive digital technologies, the culture of new media and sharing slowing down is a virtue based on knowledge and courage. Where museum work suffers due precisely to their absence, it is the most daring undertaking. Let the slow museum be trendy!

Because there is a space that requires absorption and slow attention.
Because there is an age when slowing down is a virtue.
Because there is knowledge which requires slowing down.

How do these ideas appear in the pages of a journal? Where the interior softens into a still life. Where taking a photograph may call for several hours or several days. Where not only turning content into pictures formally but human relations, contexts and chance events experienced during work also play a part. Where a ruin, a fragment, the visibility of hidden details and unfolding the meaningful environment in the imagery is a methodological minimum. Where photography becomes fieldwork and images leave behind their illustrating role.

The photographs about objects, spaces and people in MúzeumCafé, which has been published since 2007, are parts of an archive which can be interpreted as the archive of learning how to facilitate seeing and understanding, as the composed architecture of objects, images, furniture, human beings and text, and as a document of an age, whose pattern can be collated with the museum story.

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Curator: Zsófia Frazon

Photographs: Csaba Villányi, © MúzeumCafé
Art director: Zalán Péter Salát
Exhibition design: Zalán Péter Salát 
Graphic design: L. Dániel Németh, Zalán Péter Salát 
Retouching: Sándor Rácz

Text: Zsófia Frazon
Text editing: Katalin Sebes
Proofreading: Árpád Szendrői 
English Translation: Katalin Rácz, Bob Dent

Laboratory work, framing: LUMAS Budapest
Enlargement: Fuji crystal II – glossy (C-print)
Frame, glass: gallery frame, 20 mm white maple; Brittany frame, 54 mm; 2 mm matt acrylic glass
Paper: SomersetPhoto® 300 g/m²
Font: Parmigiano Sans – Typotheque
Exhibition implementation: Róbert Magyar – Capa Központ

Coordination: Zoltán Lévay – MúzeumCafé, Judit Gellér – Capa Központ

Special thanks to the entire editorial team of MúzeumCafé and its contributors.

Palm house

The photograph of the railway station in Rožňava recalls the world of museum interiors: it is like a still life and is expressive. Beyond the image you discover a fascinating story in which the invisible care of the local community appears in the same way as the most important issues and spaces of Hungarian museum policy.

“The story of the Andrássy palm trees adorning the railway station in Rožňava is also the story of the 20th century. It speaks about our relationship to listed buildings, beauty and history. The large-scale renovation of the Andrássy Mansion in Betliar for museum purposes began in the 1980s and it was then that the 19th-century palm house, which stood a short distance from the mansion, was demolished. With that, the exotic plants of the pre-World War I English landscape garden, designed by Heinrich Nebbien, became homeless. The fragrant orchids in the glass palm house found refuge at the florist’s in Jablonov nad Turňou, among the red carnations well-known from socialist monuments. Yet they did not cope with the company of their pretty new neighbours – they died. The palms, which originate from the time of Géza Andrássy (1856–1938) and were placed in the garden in front of the mansion in the summers were moved to the airy, light Rožňava railway station during the renovation. Most of the count’s palm trees wasted away – except for one, which the unaware conductor sometimes waters.” (Július Barczi, art historian, director of the Betliar Andrássy Museum; private communication)

The history of the Betliar fortified mansion, built in the 15th century, is connected with the story of the Andrássy family in the second half of the 16th century. The self-taught German landscape gardener Heinrich Nebbien, who transformed the mansion garden into an English landscape park, appeared on the scene when the building was modernised in the 18th and 19th centuries. He is the same Heinrich Nebbien who won 200 gold forints in 1813 for his design submitted for the competition announced by the Budapest Beautification Committee for transforming the City Park into a people’s garden. At that time Nebbien had already worked on the transformation of the Tóalmás, Dolná Krupá and Martonvásár mansion parks, and wherever he went he expended energy on establishing an English landscape park environment. This was also the case with the Betliar mansion park, from where the palm trees were transported to the Rožňava Railway Station and are today protected and cared for by invisible hands; and that is how it was in Budapest’s City Park, whose trees are in focus amidst the most important strategic issues of the museum cause in today’s Hungary.


The palm trees of the Betliar Andrássy Mansion (today Slovak National Museum – Betliar Andrássy Museum) at the Rožňava Railway Station, 2015

Open your eyes!

“When the subway reaches Grand Army Plaza, open your eyes again. Get off the train and walk upstairs. Then I want you to go to the Brooklyn Museum. It is located on Eastern Parkway, no more than a five-minute walk from the subway exit. [...] Just concentrate on finding the museum. When you do, walk up the steps, enter the lobby, and pay the admission fee to the person in the uniform sitting behind the desk. [...] Remember not to speak when you pay the guard. All these things must happen in silence. Find your way to the floor where they keep the permanent collection of American paintings and enter the gallery. Do your best not to look at anything too closely. In the second or third room, you’ll find Blakelock’s painting Moonlight on one of the walls, and at that point you’ll stop. Look at the painting. Look at the painting for no less than an hour, ignoring everything else in the room. Concentrate. Look at it from various distances – from ten feet away, from two feet away, from one inch away. Study it for its overall composition, study it for its details. Don’t take any notes. See if you can memorize all the elements of the picture, learning the precise location of the human figures, the natural objects, the colors on each and every spot of the canvas. Close your eyes and test yourself. Open them again. See if you can’t begin to enter the landscape before you. See if you can’t begin to enter the mind of the artist who painted the landscape before you. Imagine you are Blakelock, painting the picture yourself. After an hour of this, take a short break. Wander around the gallery if you like and look at some of the other pictures. Then return to the Blakelock. Spend another fifteen minutes in front of it, giving yourself up to it as though there was nothing else but this painting in the entire world. Then leave. Retrace your steps through the museum, go outside, and walk to the subway.” (Paul Auster Moon Palace, extract, 1990)


KIÁLLÍTÁS / EXHIBITION / AUSSTELLUNG – graffiti, Szentendre, 2011


Entrance to the exhibition rooms of the National Széchényi Library, 2013

foto: Dezső TamásMedzilaborce, Andy Warhol muzeumfoto: Dezső TamásMedzilaborce, Andy Warhol muzeum

Exhibition room in the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art, Medzilaborce, 2008

A profane look

“Large canvases and scaffolding have been covering the walls of some rooms in the Museum of Fine Arts for a few years now. Through the gaps in the canvas the public can only very rarely see the unceasing work with which the plaster casters populate the floors and walls of large halls in the museum with the copies of art history’s famous statues and reliefs. The corridors between the rooms are opened and closed again, the plaster is added to, repaired and taken away – the reticence and irresponsible power of some mysterious mechanism is sensed from this work, some supremacy arousing devotion, which keeps away and warns off the intrusive curiosity of profane looks.” (Aladár Bálint art historian, Nyugat, 1913)

A hall in the building of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Romanesque Hall; where covering and invisibility are part of the history of the place. The hall aimed to present the plaster copy collection in the museum in its most possible entirety, yet in the end entirety has never become part of it: in the beginning it was characterised by an aestheticizing arrangement, then by a division to nations and periods, and finally a storeroom-like order following the devastation of the Second World War. Its locked-up space was marked by scaffolding and the architecture of metal shelving units. Until now. After its clearing, we imagine restorers working on the scaffolding.

A vestibule in the building of the Hungarian National Gallery. A slice of the space of the Hungarian People’s Republic’s most prominent investment, the renovation of the Buda Castle Palace. The great Hungarian story of the scene and concealment. In the same way as the attribute referring to the Monarchy was deleted from the name of the Royal Palace, the underrated traces of turn-of-the-century Hungary’s trades and craftsmen’s works were banished. The foyer of Building ‘A’, where the Museum of the Hungarian Labour Movement opened on 1 April 1975, received a new exterior and a new function: a space covered in red marble and also suitable for some spectacular marching, which became a great challenge for the Ludwig Museum later, and has remained so for the Hungarian National Gallery up to now.

A vestibule in the building of the former Socialist Party centre where Hungary’s largest concealed fresco is found: Workers’ State by Aurél Bernáth and his pupils. The State Security Authority moved into the Modernist office building in 1950, then it was followed by the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party in 1961. The large fresco, measuring 96 square metres, was made for János Kádár’s 60th birthday in the vestibule of the strictly controlled Party headquarters between 1968 and 1972. Socialist realism, Modernism of the 1940s, imperial architecture and Bauhaus are simultaneously present in the building and they are supplemented by Breath’s surprisingly sophisticated and somewhat concealed criticism of the system: unemployment within the factory gates, pretend work, Tabor Derry and Imre Nagy next to Kadar and Aczél.The concealed meanings hiding in the forgotten halls are indispensible sources for critical museum history and institutional self-archaeology. War, political power, the design and transformation of space point out the tension between prominent spaces and the closed nature of power, and the senseless exclusion of one ideology after another. Facing up implied in uncovering is already part of critical institutional history.


The Romanesque Hall in the Museum of Fine Arts, 2015

Magyar Nemzeti GalériaKovásznai György (1934-1983) életmű-kiállításaMagyar Nemzeti GalériaKovásznai György (1934-1983) életmű-kiállítása

The central vestibule in Building ‘A’ of the Hungarian National Gallery, 2011


The secco Workers’ State by Aurél Bernáth and pupils in the vestibule of the ‘White House’, Jászai Mari Square, 2015

Gold backing

The history of modern museums is of the same age as the story of exhibitions, but this is not the same as that of the history of museum storage. While in museums of the 18th and 19th centuries exhibitions and collections essentially meant the same and the spectacle was based on total presentation, the 19th and 20th centuries were characterised by functional separation, in parallel with the extension of collections: it was divided into visible and invisible sections. But what does invisibility represent in a museum?

A collection is the gold backing for a museum, therefore its value is not exclusively based on visibility, rather on exploration and knowledge. An exhibition is the festive moment of objects in a collection. The state of repose, real safety and the long term characterise a storeroom with appropriate conditions. A museum does not keep its collection in storage because it conceals knowledge from visitors, but because it responsibly considers heritage. Yet the exhibition-centred attitude often juxtaposes exhibited and stored objects. The approach “a collection as the gold backing” overwrites this contrast.

The different branches of museology (art, social, natural and literary) regard the relationship between collecting, research and presentation differently. It is something in the process of formation, not only in time and space but also with the changes in methodological thinking. Special attention has been recently paid to the condition of storerooms and the preservation of artefacts, just as digitizing and making analogue objects more accessible have become more professional.Museum institutions in Hungary hold 33 million artefacts. It is a huge number. The accommodation of collections can be up-to-date, secure, carefully deliberated, responsibly managed, focussing on the optimum placement of artworks. However, there are crowded storerooms with bad facilities or even distressing cases which should be thoroughly reviewed. Regarding a storeroom as an optimum location in connection with collections results in a change of attitude. The emergence of open storerooms and study stores as a new museum phenomenon has perceptibly shifted the discourse, even though it has extended it with new questions. Why does a museum establish a storeroom which can be visited? How are passing on information, research, experimenting, the experience of entirety and holistic thinking reflected in storeroom architecture? Is the strong visual effect of a storeroom a reference to the early modern period of museums? Does open storage shape thinking about permanent exhibitions? Does making the gold backing visible mean actual transfer of knowledge, or is it simply showing order? And by order do we mean the same thing?


The county museum storage base of the Savaria Museum in Szombathely, 2013


The storeroom of the Hungarian Jewish Archives in the course of arrangement, 2015


Section of the Collection of Ritual Objects in the Museum of Ethnography, 2011


Collection of 1848-1849 relics held in the Palace of Culture, Arad, 2015


Museum of the History of Pharmacies, Mauksch Hintz House, Cluj-Napoca, 2015


Open storeroom of the contemporary art collection in the Brukenthal Museum, Sibiu, 2014


The first record was entered in the ancient inventory of the Department of Zoology in the Hungarian Natural History Museum (at the time Hungarian National Museum) in 1821. The volume follows the acquisition of vertebrates, but reading it today also shows how the urban middle class in the 19th century regarded the growth of the nation’s museum. In 1824 the following items were included in the Department of Zoology: “Leg of a serpent eagle with arrow from the magistrates of the town of Nagykőrös, who had it shot in the Pót-haraszt forest [today Csévharaszt]; rib of a whale from Count Ferencz Königsegg; hen’s egg of a curious shape from Imperial and Royal First Lieutenant Thomka; birds’ eggs, stomach pellets [of sheep from butchers]; human bladder stone of extraordinary size [donated by Dr. Dávid Wachtel]; a fathom-length narwhal tusk [generally thought as the horn of a unicorn].” (Comments in brackets and the quotation by Tamás Vásárhelyi, biologist, Hungarian Natural History Museum; MC10)

Collecting items of natural history had its golden age in the 19th century. Travellers and explorers journeying to exotic regions could catch and bring back whatever interested them. The prey had plenty of space in the newly erected museum buildings and expansion was not hindered by laws on animal and environment protection. Besides acquiring prey, the intention to explore was proved by the fact that scientists applied the principle of “a few samples from many species” and strove to respect nature’s own laws. However, the acquisition of hunting prey and the collection of trophies reflect an entirely different system of connections: success, glory and the number of killed animals matter. The main feature of trophy collection is repetition: “many beautiful dead animals”.

The Hungarian National History Museum has at least one specimen of each Hungarian breed. The aspiration for entirety is a research minimum. It is a fair question looking at it from today whether a social museum involved in the culture of everyday objects could achieve research based on entirety. Or whether the 19th-century natural scientific collecting based on evolutionary thinking can be extended to other branches. Is the aspiration for entirety a valid paradigm for museums beyond the natural scientific discourse? And finally: is there any idea concerning what visitors think about the presentation of taxidermic specimens in museums?The revenge of polar hare and goat addressed visitors in the social critical voice of contemporary art a few years ago in the Ludwig Museum. The naturalist image composed in the space of art was not based on imitating reality but aspired to work out a metaphorical language in which the grotesque, ironical and didactic presentation of caricature, provocation and the alienation from nature all featured. Criticism is clear in the interpretation of a contemporary museum reserve, which seemed funny at first sight: while looking at it from the aspect of the 19th-century model of natural sciences, the museum processing of animals (preparation, preservation) is still understandable, yet from the aspect of 21st-century animal and nature protection, exhibiting newly acquired, lifeless prey is already doubtful morally and from a scientific-ethical respect. But what can be done with this heritage?

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The taxidermy workshop of the Hungarian Natural Science Museum, 2015


Trophies and the diorama in the permanent exhibition of hunting in the Gothic Hall of the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture, 2015


Revenge of the Polar Hare – section of the exhibition Contemporary Finnish Art in the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009

Survive the 20th century

Objects which get only slowly into the field of vision of museum processing, then wander among different museums and professional branches of museums, are excellent subjects for research, with the experience of investigation and reception providing the joy of discovery. It is important to be able to show that there is an adventure beyond an object of art being nice and strong considering its age.

The medieval high altar of Kisszeben was acquired by the Museum of Applied Arts in 1896, from where it was handed over in 1909 to the newly founded Museum of Fine Arts, then in 1973 to the collection of the Hungarian National Gallery. As a museum work of art it has gradually regained its original Gothic form and design over a long time. It has survived wars, moves, exploration and restoration, and the inclusion of an inner, invisible steel frame, but its original finials are still awaiting repair. It is expected to commence another journey with the planned move of the Gallery. The 120-year-old museum history of the 15th century altar can be collated with the museum and social history of the 20th century in the same way as with the century-old professional history of restoration, reconstruction, completion and shaping into a visual effect. And where is the end?The bookcase of the Franciscan Library in Gyöngyös is also a witness to the ecclesiastic Middles Ages, yet its history is connected to constancy and immobility rather than change and wandering. It is difficult to imagine that the 18th-century bookcase still standing in the library, which was founded in 1465, is intact and is for storing books according to its original function. It is nothing special at first sight. Yet the shine makes the essence visible: the glass of the cabinet bookcase is still the original, undulant glass pane produced in the Parád glassworks. It is an absolute miracle that it survived the 20th century undamaged. 


The Kisszeben altar in the permanent exhibition of the Hungarian National Gallery, 2014


The medieval bookcase of the Franciscan library in Gyöngyös, 2014

Locked in the time

When a museum includes an object, of whatever period, in its collection it locks it in a time capsule at the very moment of its adoption. Time does not stop but slows down in the capsule: it becomes museum time in which change, progress and transience gain new meaning. Although we often toy with the idea that a museum collection is a metaphor for timelessness and immutability, the realm of ‘eternity’ as opposed to decay, this remains a utopia in the reality of everyday life. It is an idea whereby slowing down is no longer a radical enough strategy – yet ‘stopped time’ is an illusion. The reality of transience and fragmentation stands in opposition to the appearance of timelessness, permanence and continuity in a museum. We have to ask whether this is only surface tension or represents a deeper dissonance. Does it inspire or make work more difficult?

Presentation of its own past, history and identity in a museum is best described with a double twist where the nature of identity construction (identity does not just ‘exist’ but is created) is supplemented with the nature of construction in the displaying machinery of an exhibition. Political and poetical dimensions are projected on one another.

The German Nationality Museum in Tata is a product of the Kádár era. Established in 1972, it is an ethnic museum with a collection from all over Hungary. Its cultural-political register is very visible, moreover from a perspective that characterised the 1960s when everything that was of a ‘minority’ was also ‘ethnic’; as if the museum world of national minority existence were pure ethnography. As if being a ‘minority’ and a ‘national subgroup’ were in symbiosis with the notion of ‘people’. But with this picture where do the cultures of the urban middle class, the aristocracy and the workers find themselves? And can an exhibition based on the cultural-political thinking of the Kádár era staged in the 1990s have a role today? What historical time does an exhibition have which presents ‘ethnic’ groups in costumes with the help of decorated objects? The new exhibition replacing 1100 Years of Coexistence: Germans in Hungary from the Conquest to the Present, which was partially dismantled in 2014, does not recoil from raising such and similar questions.The story of the steeple of the Calvinist church in Nyírkáta has been locked in a time capsule with a different inscription. The church’s 18th-century shingled steeple was replaced with a 13-metre-high tin-plated one in 1865. It adorned the church until 2002, when it was taken down and replaced by a new one. The old, large structure was moved to the Sóstó Open-air Village Museum on paper, but it reached it only 12 years later, in 2014. The building part – although a peculiar fragment without the tower – is a full size, ‘authentic, ‘village’ object, which is not alien to open-air museology. However it becomes a museum story with difficulty without the attached edifice. It is merely a reference in parentheses. But what does the reference refer to? The period of the Millennium? The interplay of ecclesiastic and village life? The outstanding position and role of the church? A masterpiece of the guild’s tin work? Can an object if it is only a fragment escape from its confinement? And does it thus create its own museum time?


Section of the permanent exhibition 1100 Years of Coexistence: Germans in Hungary from the Conquest to the Present (1997), closed in 2014, German Minority Museum, Tata, 2011


Steeple of the Nyírkáta Calvinist church in the Sóstó Open-air Village Museum, 2015

Doll’s house in a museum

“His earliest dolls, the little characters he had made, when younger, to populate the houses he’d designed, were painstakingly whittled out of soft whitewoods, clothes and all, and afterwards painted, the clothing in vivid colours and faces full of tiny but significant details: here a woman’s cheek swollen to hint at toothache, there a fan crow’s feet at the corners of some jolly fellow’s eyes. […] He thought of them as people. When he was bringing them into being, they were as real to him as anyone else he knew.” (Salman Rushdie, writer, Fury, 2001) The interior of a room in a museum is fully created by the designer using a space bordered by three walls. The museum form preceded by the 19th-century world expos, was primarily used to present a personal living space, yet subjectivity and intimacy were still not part of the place, since space was interesting to present a type, atmosphere or a characteristic feature, rather than to show its authentic individuality. Therefore it can be regarded as an indirect rather than direct  reference. Due to the size of the objects the scale is real, still its idealizing visual world often evokes the effect of a doll’s house. The arrangement and presentation of concrete places and situations and uniquely authentic objects have involved a methodological shift. The philosophy of the interior – due to its arrangement into a scene – is closer to illustration than to interpretation: it is one of the museum’s means of providing authentic experience, arousing illusion and emotional reactions. Its curious internal tension and relative constancy are the result of that.


The room interior in Ocna de Sus (Romania) stood intact without its residents for years and becomes again visible after dismantling and being transported as a museum interior, 2015


Museum interior arranged in a motionless scene in the Museum of Radio and Television History, Budapest, 2011


Doll’s House Interior in the ‘Once upon a time’ Toy Museum, Székesfehérvár, 2014

Mansions galore

“Spend years or even a decade in one mansion or palace and you get to know every bit of the building, especially if you participate in research projects and in resolving other professional issues, not to speak of the anxiety of restoration. This has been my experience in Eszterháza (formerly Fertőd), where during the ‘interrogation’ of the palace I felt that the question marks multiplied in proportion to the amount of knowledge gained. So much so that by now I’m almost obsessed by the fact that the connections of this palace, more precisely the entire landscape arrangement cannot be documented simply with the traditional methods of art history, not even if we are familiar with the age, its style and the thinking of 18th-century aristocrats. It seems something more is involved here, something quite unique. But what?” (Kálmán Varga historian, historic buildings conservationist; MC37)

A historian’s approach well describes the research, sometimes lasting decades, which relates to the buildings and culture and requires external sources, and which present for researchers ‘mansion puzzles’. In central and east European, post-communist countries the history of no single mansion is continuous. There are many gaps, much concealment, deletion, covering and forgetting in the heritage and remembrance whose bridging over needs foresight.

What can be regarded as a mansion or a palace? A building? The history of a building? The location? The change? Which slice from the whole story is interesting? How is an alluring theme chosen which provides an individual voice to the project concerning a listed building and museology? Can the results of museum and collection research, the place of artefacts, the emphasis of authentic spaces and the relation of individual stories be part of a mansion renovation? How are creating the atmosphere, the reconstruction and the strategy of experience consumption related to those? Can beauty, grandeur, glory and wealth be fused with reflection and criticism? Mansion renovation is a favoured element of the competitive heritage industry and due to the size of the investment it operates as a function of political decision and as such with a different type of logic than that of science. This is true both for its horizon of expectations as well as for professional issues. Can the strategies, which apparently evade one another, of creating an identity, symbolic occupation of space, prestige investment, tourism for visual effect, working on a trauma, interpretation and authenticity be reconciled? Are we able to see through the ‘still life’ and integrate modern approaches to the space of a mansion or a castle – especially when there isn’t enough authentic material at our disposal to tell a story? With the ‘interrogation’ of mansions and simultaneously with increasing knowledge, the question marks and unresolved issues are increasing. Finding the appropriate ‘mansion emphases’ is the starting point for the discourse.

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Renovation of the Esterházy Palace in Fertőd, 2010


Forchtenstein Castle, 2013


Nádasdy Ferenc Museum, Sárvár, 2013


The House of Arts in the Dubniczay Mansion, Veszprém, 2015


Count Károly Esterházy Museum, Pápa, 2014

This is a museum

Although it is often said how important and significant it is to design and construct new museum buildings, examples which are the same age as our own rarely appear. Although in the post-Aczél era, there are two important statements concerning museums – the history museum in Salgótarján opened in 1980 and the art gallery in Szombathely was built five years later. “It is almost unique that such new buildings, the then Nógrádi Sándor Museum in Salgótarján and the Szombathely Art Gallery, which suitably matched the needs of their collections, could be constructed and were not only provided with an up-to-date background for presentation, collecting and processing. They also shaped the urban space, its use and the customs of cultural consumption. At the same time, their well-defined museum function and their location in the urban structure successfully inspired architects and once again refreshed modern Hungarian architecture, which was becoming shallow in the 1970s and 1980s.” (Marianna Berényi, journalist; MC45) But 30-40 years on what happens with the museums which were created in the former spirit of modernity and which matched the habits of consumption of the era, and whose funding relied on the economic strength of their towns? The trio of modernity, consumption and economy – a complete transformation of modernity, consumption and economy. The museum building in Salgótarján is one of the first Hungarian examples of functional structural architecture (listed since 2005) and the gallery in Szombathely has preserved its modern elegance, even in the vicinity of museum buildings. From the vestibule visitors reach the gallery’s permanent exhibition through one of the era’s nicest staircases. But is it still possible to provide up-to-date answers to the problems of space of 30-40 years ago? Is there a social consensus concerning these spaces, which is a vital condition for their function? If the mission of an institution, its social and urban role can be eroded in 30-40 years, what should we think about the long-term relationship between museum and time? Can the lessons of the recent past be collated with the critical history of museums founded in the 19th century? Can the effects of social, economic and cultural changes be thought over in the case of a museum building planned in the future?


Section of the permanent exhibition in the Szombathely Art Gallery, 2014


The exhibition space in the Szombathely Art Gallery, 2015


Stairs leading from the vestibule with the original armchairs, Szombathely Art Gallery, 2015


Staircase of the Dornyay Béla (former Nógrádi Sándor) Museum, Salgótarján, 2015


Part of the permanent exhibition Nógrád in the Modern Age. Historical Exhibition in Seven Pictures in the Dornyay Béla (former Nógrádi Sándor) Museum, Salgótarján, 2015

Industrial landscape

Connecting art and society, as well as urban spaces and museum logic is not unknown. Nevertheless, it is not a general institutional attitude. Perhaps its most interesting form occurs when art is “contemporary”, the social and cultural scene is “international” and the aim is “complex”.

“In 2009 the initiative included all the components that made the Paintbrush Factory a prominent cultural location on an international level: the concept, awareness of global urban trends, the founders’ network and the reputation of the artists. It is no longer easy to say whether the group of people already existed or came about during that time. They have become regular visitors of the Paintbrush Factory and have established a new civil way of life, using the town and its spaces.” (Anna Keszeg, literary historian, culture researcher, University of Debrecen; MC47)

A museum which is specialised in collecting and presenting contemporary art is a young institution, even on the international scene. Periodization, drawing the line to mark the beginning of the ‘present’ offers a series of philosophical and methodological questions to a contemporary collection. What seems certain is that if an institution stops collecting contemporary works it becomes historical. And it is not enough to apply the concepts of art history for its operation: the immediate institutional space, the urbanistic features and trends, as well as the habits of cultural consumption, all shape the space. Yet it takes perceptibly less energy to resolve unspoken, unsettled and unreconciled historic traumas which are concealed in the collection. Conflicts and traumas naturally constitute a part of contemporary art institutions, not as an inherited and suppressed, but an actively initiated and critical discourse.The curator’s programme, which is realised by the place and the space where the works become presented, are important parts of the canonization of contemporary art. Following mansions and castles, vacant industrial spaces win the day with regard to endowing a new function to formerly used spaces. Contemporary art finds a homely residence in the spaces of factories, castles, churches, palaces or even cinemas, department stores, theatres, offices and private homes. The white cube, the ideal museum for contemporary art – the quasi invisible and neutral white space surrounding the works and the discourse – presents a far less significant challenge for the artworks and the artists today than staging them in a space filled with meaning and dialogue.


Exhibition space in the contemporary art gallery ‘Paintbrush Factory’ (Galeria Plan B) converted from the hall of the former Paintbrush factory in Cluj-Napoca, 2015


Exhibition space in the Paks Art Gallery converted from the former Paks canning factory, 2014

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Section of the permanent exhibition of new contemporary art Shifts in the Hungarian National Gallery, 2014

Is it tsuris?

“A museum is a time machine. We must maintain not only the long gone past but also the recent past and the history of the collection. An exhibition in a museum is an important source of history, since it reveals our ancestors’ way of thinking. Presenting the history of their own institutions has become crucial for every museum in recent decades. [...] not only the objects but the methodology of presentation must follow the Jewish tradition in a Jewish museum. That makes this museum different from all others.” (Zsuzsanna Toronyi historian, archivist, director of the Hungarian Jewish Museum MC47) Is that a problem?

In Jewish culture reading, study and prayer are activities that define everyday life, mentality and culture. Schools and prayer houses are communal meeting places which create the medium of remembering and reminding, dialogue and commentary, with the help of reading, study and prayer. The museum world of European Jewish culture is created in this network-like, cultural and intellectual, social and institutional field, where the particular past, the differences within the culture, the diaspora existence, assimilation, universalism and individualism, and working through the survived traumas become a modern museum idea. Empty spaces that have lost their function in the absence of a community, which used to be intended for study and prayer, naturally become places of narration. Is that a problem?The precedents of local custom in using a museum may conserve an exhibition for a long time. A permanent exhibition that has constantly been open for 30 years, an exhibited work that has grown stiff by its constancy, not only constitute a part of museum history but also that of the local community’s expectations. It is a social and scientific challenge to shift an institution from its long-lasting immobility, to touch a work and transfer its event-like feature to the history of a museum. Is that a problem?


The second section of the exhibition in the Şimleu Silvaniei  Holocaust Museum in the former municipal Jewish school, 2015


Section of the Hungarian Jewish Museum’s permanent exhibition opened in 1984, 2015


Exhibition interior in the Kisvárda Rétközi Museum in the former prayer house, 2014

The missing label

“I first encountered the cyclorama in the beginning of the 40s as a huge engraving made by Gusztáv Morelli in 1895 which, spread out in my grandfather’s room, I, lying flat, gazed at. At the time I did not yet know that my maternal great-grandfather and my grandfather personally knew several members of the Feszty family. My grandmother’s family lived in Csapó Street in Komárom; they were next door to the Jókais’ garden. As the organist of the Calvinist Great Church, my great-grandfather was widely known in the locality at a time when the residents of the small town still met at Sunday service and greeted each other in advance according to the other’s rank. The Feszty boys attended the town’s Benedictine grammar school, similarly to my grandfather and his sons.”

The recently deceased archaeologist and museologist Ottó Trogmayer started his very detailed museum and art historical report about the Feszty cyclorama with this personal memory (MC17). The professional and political decisions, the responsibility, the international experience gained in order to professionally restore the painting, the physical conditions, the contemporary press publicity, the prestige struggles of the political and professional players, and the international results of cyclorama research are all included in his writing. The text is not a study but a detailed and dense description. It can be regarded as a label text which is not next to the artwork. Without it the random nature and ideological perplexity of the “national memorial park” in Ópusztaszer strongly overwrites the making of the cyclorama, its trials half a century later and its restoration lasting forty years.

And a similar label is also absent from the Labour Movement Pantheon in the national cemetery in Fiumei Road, which fills in the gap and interpretatively points out the proximity between the borders of a memorial place and a museum, the meanings of symbols depending on, or just separating from, political discourse and the topographic nature of memory: “The present condition of the National Cemetery shows what an apparently irredeemable identity crises we are living through, how absurdly far we have got from what our ancestors repeatedly planned. The lack of a national narrative, the absence of consensus can be precisely seen in the cemetery, which as such is nothing other than the most peculiar and most interesting of contemporary social history museums. The uniform exclusion of formerly prominent Hungarians who rest in the Labour Movement Pantheon from the new paradigm of national memory – it is easy to state something like this but difficult to make it an acceptable spatial sight, namely it is worth visiting the Kerepesi Cemetery because it precisely teaches what we can understand and realise only via material culture and symbolic museum objects.” (Péter György aesthetician, MC13)A missing label leaves behind a void. Its absence hides the comprehensive, interpretational medium, which could be the memorial place’s own. It conceals the opportunity for the memorial place to work with the historical and exhibitional issues of museum collections. The text painfully missing from beside the object and the space of the sight makes the work accessible merely as a political statement – both in Ópusztaszer and in Fiumei Road.

Az új folyosó és korlátFeszty körkép, ÓpusztaszerAz új folyosó és korlátFeszty körkép, Ópusztaszer

The Feszty cyclorama exhibited at Ópusztaszer, 2010

Munkásmozgalmi mauzóleumKerepesifoto: Dezső TamásMunkásmozgalmi mauzóleumKerepesifoto: Dezső Tamás

National Cemetery in Fiumei Road, Budapest, 2009

The turned up carpet edge

“Before this exhibition I have never experienced such creeps. I have a lot of pictures which have been started, but I cannot decide whether to finish those already begun or rather start new ones which have not been spoilt yet. And meanwhile time flies, and with much hesitation I end up with the deadline being at the gates. I would very much like to be over with it whatever the result is going to be so that I can safely rest, albeit perhaps not on my laurels. Getting old is not devised well when you loose your not fully developed mark of genius.” 

The letter was written by the painter István Szőnyi in August 1960, ten days before his death, to his daughter who lived in Rome. He was preparing for an exhibition working in his studio, which had been furnished hardly a few months before, but he was already ill. His villa in Zebegény was already a museum eight years after his death. Besides his objects of personal use, some of his paintings from the National Gallery are displayed, yet it is as if the artist had just popped out. On his way back he is sure to step on the corner of the carpet to flatten it, as he used to. But why is it that we need a personal feeling hidden in every nook and cranny of a memorial house? The proximity of homeliness, authenticity and the feel of an open-air-museum exhibit? The feeling of “as if”?

An important feature of memorial houses wedged in the history of the 20th century is that, beside their works and ideas, an artist’s or politician’s life preserves the objective memory of such scales of value embedded in the world of the inter-war period, everyday life following the world war or the closed-open system of communism. They speak about decades which are so much discussed, but so little known about. But what can be done when objects do not support the possibility of narrating a life or a place? If relics and witnessing objects are not part of the heritage? How can a personal feeling and experience be constructed without them?

The Imre Nagy Memorial House in Budapest links to the homeliness discourse of memorial houses by completely abandoning the aura of authentic objects: the strength of ‘furnishing’ is provided by translating the handwriting and personal thoughts into space. “On the one hand, I have been forced to choose a different approach, since the executed prime minister was also sentenced to full confiscation of property in 1958; therefore the furniture, objects of personal use which surrounded him in this house did not remain here. But mostly because it is no longer an apartment but a museum serving the purpose of acquiring knowledge.” (László Rajk architect, designer; conversation MC9)A memorial house is an immensely exciting museum genre: it fuses the idea of a private archive and the experience of artistic pleasure, thus providing the feeling of authenticity and experience simultaneously. Once a place goes beyond the cult of relics and the pathos due to the spirit of the place, alienation and interpretation in addition to homeliness will also find themselves in the private space.


Studio in the István Szőnyi Memorial Museum, Zebegény, 2014


Éber Memorial House, Baja, 2014


Pál Molnár C. Museum, Budapest, 2014


Imre Nagy Memorial House, Budapest, 2015

Do it!

What does a collection of relics in the glass cabinet of old wall units tell today’s viewer? How does a story about a hundred-year-old factory, development, consumption and the sweet life tasting chocolate in Szerencs progress? Whatever the story may be, it belongs to the past: the Confectionary Museum of the sugar factory, which closed in 2008, has remained open for a few years, yet by today it has become a still life stiffened into permanence, a part of an archive. The museum world of 20th-century industrial history has lost a cabinet of miracles.

The Ózd Municipal Museum reads the past of the factory through the story of the workers’ lifestyle, hence the representation is not based on the ruins of a “golden age of olden times” but on forging different connections and on different language registers. The rooms in the museum present the Ózd Plant in 1896 by Ágoston Spannraft, which was displayed at the Millennium Exhibition, together with maquettes of 19th-century workers’ dwellings and the first public baths in Ózd. The collection of the former technical director’s office furniture frames these individual objects into a museum interior. Distant and close images, utopia and reality, counterpoint each other. And in the courtyard of the plant an engaging series of photographs made in 1977 continues the story. The pictures show images stiffened into still pictures of the sign language developed by the workers as they ‘talked’ to each other in the noisy hot rolling mill. “HE IS DOING IT. DO IT! A sign referring to accomplishing, making something. One fist above the other. The top fist hits the one below rapidly several times.”The series of signs based on movement and showing, and their translation into a still, can be also read as a metaphor of museum dialogue where distant worlds speaking different languages meet in a noisy space, but every question can be stipulated and made visible with appropriate attention and a well-chosen way of speaking. Do it!


Section of the dismantled permanent exhibition of the Confectionary Museum, Szerencs, 2013


Section of the exhibition of the history of workers’ lifestyle in the Municipal Museum, Ózd, 2014


Images of a photographic series from 1977, Ózd factory courtyard, 2014