Museum of Ethnography
Green Building at the City Park Gateway
With the 2022 opening of its new building, the Budapest Museum of Ethnography, already a strong presence among European science museums, finds itself on the cutting edge of ethnographic institutions world-wide.
The museum’s collection comprises just short of 225 thousand ethnographic artefacts, along with an exceptional body of photographs, manuscripts, folk music recordings, and films. In addition to its invaluable holdings in Hungarian folk culture, the museum also boasts an extra-European collection that is not only unparalleled in Hungary, but also significant at the international level. The institution furthermore impacts the work of other museums in the Carpathian Basin through the role it plays in cultural strategy and collection conservation and digitisation.
The date of the museum’s founding—5 March 1872—is symbolic: it was on this day that János Xántus (1825-1894) was named keeper of the Ethnographic Department of the Hungarian National Museum. A former officer of the Hungarian Revolution and War for Liberation of 1848-1849, Xántus, who had originally studied law, gained a reputation as a natural history collector during his years in exile in the United States. His appointment to the position of museum director owed much to both the success of his East Asian expedition of 1868 and 1869, and the large-scale ethnographic exhibition organised from the material he collected.
Still, it was the broad-based professional activities of János Jankó (1868-1902), creator of the ‘ethnographic village’ for the 1896 Millennial Exhibition in Budapest’s City Park, that truly raised the status of the collection to that of a true museum. By the turn of the century, it would be counted among the leading ethnographic museums of Europe, though formal independence from the National Museum came only much later, in 1947. Since its inception, the Museum of Ethnography has specialised—beyond the collection of physical artefacts—in the preservation of intellectual cultural heritage and materials applicable to ethnographic research. Former museum employees who have gained fame for their work include composers László Lajtha and Béla Bartók, whose collected audio recordings are now housed among the nearly half million phonograph cylinders, films, photographs, and manuscripts of the museum’s Ethnology Archives.
During the second half of the 20th century, in continuation of its more active pursuits of the century prior, the museum worked to expand both its Hungarian, and international collections. Starting around the turn of the century, moreover, the institution stepped forward as one of the most important hubs for both museum research, and innovation in ethnographic museum representation. In addition to educating the public on Hungarian peasant life and the cultures of distant continents, later areas of focus have included the documentation of contemporary social phenomena, the digitisation and publication of existing holdings, and exploration and critical analysis of collection history. Of the institution’s quarter-million artefacts and prodigious archive material, at present, more than 173 thousand items are available for browsing in the museum’s database at neprajz.hu.
Along the Way
Despite the Museum of Ethnography’s status as an institution of rank and prestige, the past 150 years of its history have been largely determined by a continuous struggle to maintain its facilities and keep its collections safe. Founded in 1872 as part of the Hungarian National Museum, the institution received its first independent home in 1892 in the form of the neo-Renaissance Várkert Bazár building near Budapest’s Castle District. A year later, however, inadequate conditions forced it to move to an apartment building in Csillag utca. It was in this location that, in 1898, its first permanent exhibition was born. Though in 1906, the museum was once more moved to the Millennial Exhibition’s then-empty Hall of Industry, in 1924, storm damage to its collection prompted yet another relocation, this time to an empty secondary school building on Könyves Kálmán út in Budapest’s Tisztviselőtelep neighbourhood (Népliget). In 1929, the museum again opened its doors, its extraordinarily diverse and colourful collections on Hungarian folk and world cultures displayed across thirty of the school’s rooms. Decades later, in 1975, the museum moved into the palatial Hall of Justice opposite the building of the Hungarian Parliament.
Although the last of these was home to numerous successful exhibitions and programs, the museum’s burgeoning collections and more popular exhibitions made it clear that adequate facilities were needed if the institution was to live up to its mission. It was for this reason that, in 2015, the Hungarian government, under Decree No. 1866/2015 (XII.2), resolved to construct a new museum building on Ötvenhatosok tere near Budapest’s City Park as part of its Liget Budapest Project and to relocate the museum’s collections to a new Ethnographic Collections Centre in Szabolcs utca.
Europe’s Most Modern Ethnographic Museum
The Museum of Ethnography’s new home has been constructed in City Park, one of the oldest green spaces in the city, based on designs by Napur Architect Ltd. The building’s two wings rise from the thick arboreal greenery in an arc one kilometre in diameter to embrace the park’s 1956 Revolution memorial. A verdant counterpart to Hősök tere, this ‘sacred crossing’ salutes the square’s unnamed heroes, while at the same time—by virtue of its function—gathering up and holding in its arms the museum’s universal cultural collections. The intent of its designers was that the building mark a memorable point on the Pest side of the city, a place from which to survey the Buda hills and gain a new perspective on Hősök tere and the lush City Park flora. The roof of its eastern wing even offers a view of the cupola of the Parliament building. Forming something of an artificial valley, its green rooftop is a place to relax, contemplate, and find peace.
The seven-thousand-square-metre system of sunken space for the museum’s temporary and permanent exhibitions includes a special stairway that arches its way along the length of the building, flanked by the colourful spectacle of the institution’s Ceramics Space.
A Decorative Wrapping for Kaleidoscopic Culture
The building’s crowning glory is its glass facade, screened from without by an encircling metal grating set with nearly a half million pixels. Forming contemporary reinterpretations of select ethnographic motifs from the museum’s collections—twenty of them Hungarian and twenty international, including Venezuelan, Congolese, Cameroonian, Mongolian, Chinese, and Melanesian—the pixels were arranged on the grating’s more than two thousand laser-cut panels using a special robot. This decorative ‘fabric of Hungarian and universal culture’ not only enfolds and dresses the building, but also encapsulates the intellectuality that has defined the museum’s work and collections over the 150 years of its history and continues to exert its influence on the culture today.