Hungarian National Museum
The Hungarian National Museum has its origins in the early 19th century, when the National Parliament passed legislation to turn a recently founded National Library into a museum proper. Donations and state funding came together and the new home of the museum was purpose-built at its present location between 1837 and 1846 in a grand neoclassical style, a speciality of its architect, Mihály Pollack.
the natural history and ethnographic parts were separated from the museum and moved to new locations (ethnography more than once – see under Budapest
); so from then on this National Museum has really been the National History Museum of Hungary
. It includes a lot of archaeological artefacts from earliest times and antiquity, plus sections covering modern history. It is the latter in particular that make the museum relevant as a dark-tourism attraction (see concept of dark tourism
The following text hence concentrates only on those 20th century sections, but this section offers a brief glimpse at the other parts of the museum.
What there is to see:
The neoclassical museum building
looks more like a faux ancient Greek temple, but inside the whole range of history from before antiquity to almost the present day is covered. It is of course the 20th century parts that are of particular interest from a dark-tourism perspective. If you want to head straight there after purchasing your ticket (and photo permit – see below
!), ignore the directions to the beginning of the exhibition that you’ll be given, and instead head straight upstairs to the rear half of the first floor.
The coverage of the modern age begins with a room about the tail end of
the Belle Époque
soon to be shattered by WW1
. The coverage of the Great War
in this museum is rather thin and superficial, as is that of the brief communist
phase in the early interwar years
(for more on that visit the 1914-1922 exhibition
in Buda instead!). The coverage of the period up to WWII
isn’t all that revealing either.
Things get a bit better (museum-wise!) with the onset of WWII
, the Nazi German occupation
and the role of Hungary
’s own home-bred Nazi
organization, the Arrow Cross
(cf. House of Terror
). A dummy Arrow Cross soldier as well as various Arrow Cross insignia are featured in the exhibits. But their role in the rounding up and murder of Jews in 1944 isn’t exactly elaborated on.
Generally, the museum mostly lets the exhibits speak for themselves. That is: there isn’t much in terms of longer explanatory texts, though displays are also here and there augmented by interactive screens. All texts and labels are all bilingual in Hungarian and English. The translation quality is generally alright, though there are a few strange glitches and stylistically awkward bits. It certainly helps if you come prepared with at least a basic grounding in Hungarian modern history, as the exhibition isn’t overly educational, more just documentary.
More elaborate is the section of the return of communism
, beginning with the liberation of Hungary
by the Red Army
at the end of WWII
and the subsequent installation of a Soviet
-loyal communist regime.
On display are various period propaganda
posters, a Stalin
statue and a grandiosely designed radio receiver specially made for Stalin’s 70th birthday, as a sign explains.
Much more mundane everyday life items are on display too. The Soviet
-style campaigns of industrialization
and enforced collectivization
of agriculture are covered as well.
The aspects of repression and surveillance by the secret security police AVH (for ‘Államvédelmi Hatóság’, Hungarian for “State Protection Authority”) is a topic here too, as are the forced-labour camps to which many thousands of Hungarians were banished in the wave of purges in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In my view, the best section here is that about the 1956 uprising and revolution
under reinstated prime minister Imre Nagy
, and the subsequent brutal crushing
of the revolt by the Soviets
. There are several remarkable artefacts to see, including a specimen of the Hungarian flag with a hole in the middle where the communist symbol was cut out. Such flags became THE symbol of the uprising (cf. 1956 Memorial
Lying on a bench in a mock prison cell is Imre Nagy’s original dressing gown that he wore in prison after he was deposed and arrested by the Soviets and put on a mock show trial (and sentenced to death). A separate display cabinet has a few personal belongings of Nagy’s, including a pair of his characteristic spectacles.
The museum exhibition continues with coverage of life under communism post-1956, with lots of yet more propaganda posters (in Hungarian, so their exact meaning remains obscure to non-Hungarian-speaking international visitors), communist-era symbols as well as model fighter planes and space vehicles from the Soviet times. There’s a reconstructed living room of the era, as well as displays of household appliances from the time.
Eventually we come to the next revolution
, beginning in the late 1980s, including the first cutting open of the Iron Curtain
. It was through this opening that GDR
citizens then fled to the West during the so-called Pan-European Picnics, which triggered a chain reaction not just in the collapse of the GDR regime but signalling the beginning of the downfall of
all the communist regimes
in the Eastern Bloc
and the subsequent end of the Cold War
. A certified piece of cut barbed wire from the Iron Curtain
that used to separate Hungary from Austria
is on display.
Also on display are various street signs featuring names that were suddenly no longer wanted, such as Marx
, Engels and Lenin
, but also Hungary’s early Bolshevik “martyr” Béla Kun (who briefly led a Hungarian communist regime after WW1 and was later purged and executed near Moscow
in 1938). A toppled sign of the communist party completes the displays about the end of this era.
Covered too is the rehabilitation of Imre Nagy
, his reburial and a commemorative ceremony on 23 October 1990 at the plot 301
memorial site in the New Municipal Cemetery
Finally, the dissolution
of the Warsaw Pact
is covered with the display of the relevant signed document in a glass display cabinet (and one of the pens used for this is in there too). This also ends the museum’s modern history coverage. So there’s nothing about more recent developments such as Hungary
and the EU, or the rise of Viktor Orbán and the refugee crisis of 2015.
All in all, the museum’s modern history coverage is a bit brief and lacks depth – there’s a dearth of interpretative/explanatory text material – but on the other hand there are several remarkable artefacts and mock-ups that on balance make a visit worth the while. Just don’t expect to really learn much through the museum itself. Instead better do your homework and acquaint yourself with the basics of 20th century Hungarian history before you visit this museum.
Right in the city centre of the Pest side of Budapest
, on Múzeum körút between Kálvin tér and Astoria.
Access and costs: easy to get to, not the very cheapest, but OK.
Details: Getting to the museum is easy, either take the metro (lines 3 and 4), tram lines 47, 48, 49 or bus lines 9, 15, or 115 to Kálvin tér, from where it is a short walk up Múzeum krt. The huge neoclassical museum building is impossible to overlook.
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday, normally from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but open late to 10 p.m. on Fridays. Closed Mondays.
Admission: 2900 HUF (some concessions apply)
A photography permit costs an extra 1000 HUF – if you do want to take pictures, remember to ask for this permit when you buy your ticket, as they won’t alert you to it. And if you don’t have a permit, the numerous museum wardens in the exhibitions will pounce on you to stop you taking photos!
Time required: not long if you just want to see the 20th century parts – I spent ca. half an hour in those. But if you also want to see the rest of the museum properly you’ll need significantly longer.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Strictly speaking, the rest of the museum falls outside the time bracket relevant for dark tourism (see concept of dark tourism
), though you could argue that some of the archaeological displays, with their ancient broken skulls, whole skeletons in graves or that strange elongated (“deliberately malformed”) woman’s skull, do have a certain dark aura to them.
For more proper dark-tourism attractions in the city see under Budapest
Combinations with non-dark destinations: If you’re also open for looking at old history and archaeology, then this museum has plenty more to offer, from prehistory, Roman times, the early Magyars, Ottoman times, etc., etc., all exemplified by a wealth of artefacts like pots, jewellery, clothing, weapons, tools, and whatnot. Personally, I tend to find such “old stuff” a bit tedious, though I admit various items I spotted as I skim-visited these older history parts did have their aesthetic appeal.
At one point a museum warden ushered me into a side section I had intended to skip altogether, but on her insistence went into after all. That way I got to see an exhibit that I admit does have some momentous significance: the grand piano specially made for Ludwig van Beethoven, and later used by Hungary’s musical great Ferenc Liszt (aka Franz Liszt outside Hungary).
For tourist attractions outside the National Museum see under Budapest
- Hungarian National Museum 01 - Neo-Classicist pile
- Hungarian National Museum 02 - grand staircase
- Hungarian National Museum 03 - the onset of the modern age
- Hungarian National Museum 04 - WW1 and a first stint at communism
- Hungarian National Museum 05 - German occupation
- Hungarian National Museum 06 - home-grown Nazis
- Hungarian National Museum 07 - Arrow Cross insignia
- Hungarian National Museum 08 - persecution and rescue of Jews
- Hungarian National Museum 09 - the Red Army comes
- Hungarian National Museum 10 - Stalin
- Hungarian National Museum 11 - pompous radio made for Stalin
- Hungarian National Museum 12 - communist life gets rolling
- Hungarian National Museum 13 - secret security police
- Hungarian National Museum 14 - forced-labour camp
- Hungarian National Museum 15 - the uprising of 1956
- Hungarian National Museum 16 - symbol of the uprising
- Hungarian National Museum 17 - allegedly a Stalin statue hand
- Hungarian National Museum 18 - the crushing of the 1956 uprising
- Hungarian National Museum 19 - personal belongings of Imre Nagy
- Hungarian National Museum 20 - life under communism post-1956
- Hungarian National Museum 21 - communist symbols
- Hungarian National Museum 22 - Soviet-led glories in aviation and space exploration
- Hungarian National Museum 23 - consumer appliances of the communist era
- Hungarian National Museum 24 - young pioneer
- Hungarian National Museum 25 - revolution again
- Hungarian National Museum 26 - names no longer wanted
- Hungarian National Museum 27 - the Iron Curtain is opened
- Hungarian National Museum 28 - the Warsaw Pact dissolved
- Hungarian National Museum 29 - ancient gold
- Hungarian National Museum 30 - ancient skull
- Hungarian National Museum 31 - ancient grave
- Hungarian National Museum 32 - deliberately deformed skull
- Hungarian National Museum 33 - ancient silver hand
- Hungarian National Museum 34 - grand piano of Beethoven and Liszt