History of the Museum
The founding of the Museum
On 25 November 1802, Count Ferenc Széchényi decided to ‘donate, deliver, and assign’ his rich collections ‘for the use and benefit of my dear homeland and people, irrevocably and forever’. This generous gift was sanctioned by the monarch. Although in the deed of foundation the new institution featured under a number of different names (National Library, Public Museum, National Museum), according to the notions of the time it was the National Library of Hungary that Count Széchényi established, albeit from the outset with a possibility for development framed in Law XXIV of 1807, which expressed gratitude for the noble gesture. This law states that Széchenyi ‘made over, with all rights, his extensive and choice library, along with his rare coins collected with great care and at great expense, his armorial bearings of prominent families, and likewise his maps, pictures, and manuscripts, for use by the Hungarian nation, and by so doing has, with commendable zeal, laid the foundations for a national museum to be established later’.
The donation contained 11,884 printed books, 1156 manuscripts, 142 volumes of maps and engravings, and 2019 gold coins, as well as armorial bearings, other antiquities, and a few paintings. To begin with, the material was placed in the library of the Pauline cloister in Pest; afterwards, from 1807, it was housed in the one-time university building on the far side of the Church of the Paulines, which subsequently became the University Church. One year later, after preparatory work by the library custodian Jakab Ferdinand Miller lasting several years, the Diet of Hungary, at the proposal of Palatine Joseph, provided for the establishment of a Hungarian National Museum in Law VIII of 1808, and also for the creation of a financial basis for it, by way of donations to be made by the counties of Hungary. In 1812, Jakab Ferdinand Miller became the first director of the Museum. It was at this time that different departments were created: the Library, the Natural History Department, and, later, the Antiquities Department. In 1813, the Hungarian state purchased from the Batthyány family the plot on which the present-day Museum building stands; subsequently, the increasingly rich material was moved into the town palace then occupying the site. Ferenc Széchényi continued to support the collections; his merits in this regard are mentioned in Law XXXV of 1827 also. The holdings of the different departments grew through purchases as well as donations, e.g. the purchasing of the rich collections belonging to the well-known scholar and art collector Miklós Jankovich.
The new building
Along with expansion of the Museum’s holdings, the construction of a worthy home for the institution likewise became a national cause. Eventually, the funds necessary for a new, purpose-built edifice were provided by Law XXXVII of 1837. The design was entrusted to Mihály Pollack, a significant figure in Classicist architecture in Hungary. Construction of the new building began in 1837 and ended in ten years later. The sculptural decoration on the tympanum on the facade was made by the Munich sculptor Rafael Monti.
In the middle of the tympanum is the female figure of Pannonia enthroned; in each of her hands there is a laurel wreath. The wreath in her right hand she is offering to a personification of science and art; the one in her left hand she is offering to a personification of history and fame. In the right-hand corner is a figure symbolising the River Danube, and in the left-hand corner a figure symbolising the River Drava. Since 1875, the walls and ceiling of the Museum’s main staircase have featured allegorical frescoes by Károly Lotz and Mór Than.
The 1848–49 Revolution and War of Independence
The Museum played a significant role in the history of the 1848–49 Revolution and War of Independence. On 15 March 1848, the square in front of the Museum was an important venue in the revolutionary events; and although Sándor Petőfi did not in fact declaim his National Song there, he did give a speech. This square was the scene of many open-air meetings in 1848–49. The Upper House of the 1848 Hungarian Parliament, which was representative of the Hungarian people, sat in the Museum’s Ceremonial Hall. (Later on, in 1861 and in the period 1865–66, the Lower House met there, followed by the Upper House during the years from 1867 until 1902, up to the construction of the present-day Parliament building.) Since 1848, the National Museum building has been not simply the home of the country’s most important national collection, but also a symbol of national liberty. This symbolism is expressed by the circumstance that each year on 15 March, one of Hungary’s national holidays, the principal state commemoration on that day is held in front of the Museum.
The history of the Museum up to the present
During the second half of the 19th century, outstanding scholars such as Ágoston Kubinyi, Flóris Rómer, József Hampel, and Ferenc Pulszky worked at the Museum. Developing dynamically, the collections soon outgrew the walls of the building. Moreover, trends in international museology, too, pointed in the direction of specialisation and the setting up of specialist museums. In line with this, two independent institutions were soon established in Budapest: the Museum of Applied Arts in 1872 (using part of the National Museum’s collection) and the Museum of Fine Arts in 1896 (using part of its picture gallery). In 1926–27, the Museum building underwent a full renovation. It was then that new spaces were created in the roof area to plans by Jenő Lechner; in this way, problems of storage were solved for a while. The next major reconstruction took place between 1996 and 2006, when, among other achievements, workrooms and a new exhibition space (the Lapidarium for Roman-era stonework) were created underneath the two inner courtyards.
The Museums Law of 1949 created a separate Museum of Ethnography and a separate Museum of Natural Sciences, and established the Széchényi Library as a separate institution. During the 1960s, a number of building complexes in the countryside of outstanding importance historically were brought under the National Museum’s control as affiliated institutions, thus emphasising their national significance. The complexes in question are the King Matthias Museum in Visegrád, the Rákóczi Múzeum in Sárospatak, the Kossuth Museum in Monok, and – since 1985 – the Castle Museum in Esztergom.
In 2012, the Hungarian National Museum acquired additional affiliates when member institutions operating within the network of county museums were joined to it: the István Széchenyi Memorial Exhibition (Nagycenk), the Ádám Vay Museum Collection (Vaja), the István Báthori Museum (Nyírbátor), the Palóc Museum (Balassagyarmat), the Villa Romana Baláca – Roman-Era Villa Farm with Ruins (Nemesvámos), the Vésztő-Mágor Historical Site, Csolt Monastery – Medieval Ruins (Vésztő), and the Bálint Balassa Museum (Esztergom). Of these, the István Széchenyi Memorial Exhibition at Nagycenk (designated a museum exhibition site of public importance) was, on the National Museum’s initiative, classified as a thematic museum. In autumn 2014, as the István Széchenyi Memorial Exhibition already, it was transferred by the authorities to the Eszterháza Cultural, Research, and Festival Centre. It proved possible to organise a new permanent exhibition at Nagycenk in scarcely more than a year and half, the period during which it belonged to the National Museum.
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