There’s No Museum Without Honesty and Authenticity

Interview

Anita Vitéz
2021-09-28 00:00

Public memory isn’t necessarily analytic, but history as a discipline must identify and reassess the inevitable inaccuracies and contingencies in human opinions and historical memory.

 

 

“Any history or archaeology museum stands at the crossroads of historical memory and analytic historical scholarship. Its mission is to communicate this dichotomy: it should reinforce public memory, but also use scientific tools to carefully and empathically shed light upon errors”, said resigning director-general of the Hungarian National Museum, Benedek Varga. We talked about the successes the past years have brought, the challenges in the world of museums, and also touched upon curatorial habits.

 

“The Hungarian National Museum received the Museum of the Year award in 2021. Were you expecting it?”

 

“I wasn’t. We hadn’t applied, we were nominated.”

 

“Why?”

 

“We are a large museum and this is how we think it right. We do send applications for the Exhibition of the Year award, that’s a different matter. When we heard that we had been nominated, we were naturally happy, accepted it, and played an active role in compiling the portfolio.”

 

“What was the strongest aspect of the portfolio?”

 

“The nomination expressly focused on online activity and its scientific side, but assessment took into account the entire performance during the past years. Of course, our online activity is a major part of that, as is the renewal of international scientific and museum presence, and the systematic construction and development of the museum. The latter are an inseparable part of the last five years of work, and thus are slightly out of bounds of the assessment’s time interval. And of course they include the exhibitions, especially international ones, since we’ve staged grand exhibitions at several venues, and were rather successful everywhere. We also have smaller touring exhibitions and permanent exhibitions abroad, mainly at European venues.”

 

“So extending the museum’s presence online is only a thin slice of the museum’s expansion.”

 

“In fact, it is.”

 

“When was the last time the Hungarian National Museum was Museum of the Year?”

 

“Never. This is a first.”

 

“We are coming to the end of a five-year director-general term, so this decoration is maybe not only in honour of the museum. What do you consider to be the most outstanding and lasting achievement of the past half-a-decade?”

 

“It is a difficult question since so much has happened to the Hungarian National Museum. I would name perhaps a certain change of view the most significant.”

 

“What did it consist of?”

 

“It happened within the museum’s community with changing our views about our mission, but also, it entailed a change in how we relate to the public as an institution. Owing to the above, the Hungarian National Museum is different from the one five years ago. We are a lot more lively, open, agile, our cooperation with various other institutions are a lot closer and direct than before, all in all, we are fresher.”

 

“And what about more “tangible” results?”

 

“I would definitely mention the renewal of the Museum Garden which was completed in March 2019. The  garden has become an attraction that lives symbiotically with the museum: it also hosts exhibitions, programmes, celebrations, and we have recently opened the new café of the 150-year-old Auguszt Confectionery within, the Geraldine Café. Our international scientific cooperation has also become more organised. While previously it was certain colleagues who had outstanding international relations, by now we have mostly succeeded at raising these relations to an institutional level. For the last years we have been participating in international projects where several large public collections are collaborating.

 

The Old and New Question About General Görgei

 

“The Iron Age Danube Route, a thematic route going through several countries became the latest certified Cultural Route of the Council of Europe, a story which you covered.”  

 

“True, however, I would also mention something else. Three years ago, in the spring of 2018 there were months when we were simultaneously present with exhibitions in China and the US, while presenting the Seuso Treasure in a different town in Hungary each month. We brought a hundred and fifty original artefacts to China with an exhibition about Hungarian aristocratic life called »Sissi and Hungary«. We exhibited them at four venues including the Palace Museum of Beijing, and the Shanghai Museum, and each venue attracted six to seven hundred thousand people.

The total number of visitors from China came to 2.7 million. The Hungarian public is largely unaware of it, but this was one of the all-time greatest museological successes in Hungarian history. And if I had to single out an exhibition, I would either choose »Grammar and Grace« which commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, or »The Unsung Hero: General Görgei«. The former covered practically every aspect of the history of the Reformation in Hungary through a fantastic and stunning display of artefacts, and the latter was very powerful because of its complex message, and the way it questioned how we relate to our historical memory.”

 

“About the Görgei exhibition, let me tell you that I was already very impressed with a subtle part of its image design, the way the »s« of »ismeretlen« [lit.: unknown] was written upside down to make a question mark. Why?”

 

“Because the way we think about Görgei is always full of questions, even doubt. The way we relate to the War of Independence in 1848-49 influences, the way we feel about him, and vice versa.”

 

“I suppose it has to do mainly with the phrase »Görgei the traitor«.”

 

“The accusation surfaced immediately after the surrender, partly owing to Kossuth and Vörösmarty. According to it, we lost the war because Görgei lay down his arms. While the historian’s standpoint is quite the opposite: Görgei surrendered because we had lost the war.”

 

“I understand the tension these create, but why is it a problem?”

 

“The Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–49 became the foundation of our modern historical memory. The Horthy regime saw some lauding of Görgei, but the centenary, in 1949, during the communist Rákosi era had already brought change and spoke of Artúr Görgei as an offender during the war. And even though historians have cleared his name again from the 1960s, the image of Görgei, the traitor is what was stuck in textbooks. So in spite of scientific rehabilitation, generations have grown up with the notion of Görgei having been a traitor, or at least a questionable character.

I am convinced that today’s generally negative public view of Görgei is a direct result of what people used to read in the school textbooks during the 1950s and 1960s about him. The whole Görgei issue is significant – and complicated – because 1848 and the War of Independence was such a key moment in the creation of Hungarian civil society and democracy. Let me just say that the 12 points of the 1848 Revolution and the April Laws were the foundation upon which the regime change in 1990 was based.”

 

“So the way we relate is a question of emotions or identity.”

 

“Exactly. And upon the horizon of this connection lies the existence of national association and co-operation, and its ethical basis comes from the belief that we were right when we created a modern civil society. Because we were unquestionably right in 1848. But our sense of righteousness tells us that »if we were right, we couldn’t have lost«. In power politics, however, it is natural that the victor is not the one who is right, but the one who is more powerful. You can achieve victory through being right and powerful, but being right in itself is seldom sufficient.

This is what makes how we relate to 1848–49 tense. We were right, yet we lost – which reinforces feelings of national tragedy. The reason we had to create this exhibition was to be able to cope with this feeling of national tragedy. We wanted to make people feel that it is not only the New Settlement of 1867, which produced the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, which would have been unthinkable without 1848–49, but also the victories during the war and the post-1849 self-consciousness would have been unthinkable without Görgei.”

 

“How did the exhibition contribute to this?”

 

“It pointed out subtle connections and facts that refute the claims of treason, and portray a proud character. We had an outstanding general who did an amazing effort during the birth of modern Hungarian nation. Let me just mention this one: Görgei was wounded on the head on 2 July, 1849 in Komárom, and for more than a month he commanded his troops, fought battles and made decisions with a 12-15 cm fissure through his skull.

Seven days after his injury he marched out of Komárom with 25 thousand troops to the southern border – which  saw 150 thousand Russians arrive – and not only did he get his whole army there intact, but also avoided capture while having toured half the country on horseback with a fractured skull. He could have made a suicidal last stand to sacrifice these 25 thousand soldiers entrusted to him, but he chose not to. The Tsar was deeply awed by this action and personally demanded that the Emperor spare Görgei’s life and not execute him along with the other generals.

We wanted the exhibition to show what an impressive character Artúr Görgei was, that he is a national hero, and that in spite of the surrender at Világos the modern political institutional system of a free and liberal Hungary was born. We have plenty to be proud of.”

 

“So this is how you sang about the unsung Görgei?”

 

“Like this, and also by showing what people know very little about: that after he left the army at the age of 26, in 1845, he went to study at the University of Prague and authored a paper on the chemistry of coconut oil that was cited and referenced for the next 50 years worldwide. He could have become an excellent chemist, yet he gave that up when he returned in the spring of 1848 to serve his homeland in arms.”

 

Memory and Science

 

“Taking a step away from the Görgei question: am I correct to understand that the significance of all this is to make our national thought more critical and less black-and-white?”

 

“Criticism is good when it comes from an analytical viewpoint and facilitates understanding. Today it is all too often taken as eo ipso rejection, which has the opposite effect. Not even Kant stood for such a restricted interpretation of criticism. But every civilised and mature society needs the analytical approach.”

 

“Is developing this analytical approach one of the tasks of a national museum?”

 

“A museum is insufficient on its own for changing the views of a national community, but has to represent it anyway. Let’s start by saying that there has always been historical memory, it is a lot more ancient that modern historical scholarship. Memory isn’t necessarily analytic, but history as a discipline must identify and reassess the inevitable inaccuracies and contingencies in public opinions and historical memory. This of course leads to conflict. A museum stands precisely at the crossroads of these two territories. The essence of a historical and archaeological museum’s mission is to perceive, process and demonstrate this duality.”

 

“How?”

 

“We need to reinforce public memory, but also use scientific tools to carefully and with deep empathy shed light upon errors and myths. There is no need to believe in historical myths. Perceiving the mythical traditions of our national memory as historical facts of mythical traditions of our memory does not make us the lesser, rather it enables us to acquire a sense of calm, content, self-confident consciousness.

Every kid is convinced that their father is the strongest and smartest in the world. Then they slowly realise that’s not the case. But that only makes them love him more, not less. Because in spite of his weaknesses he is still their father, and from then on they love him for what he really is. Going back to the relationship between national memory and science: our mission is to convey this duality through exhibition programmes, research and conferences that shed light upon it.”

 

Relevant Messages

 

“What do you think has the most influence on shaping historical memory?”

 

“Literature, films, operas, the press, political speeches that in spite of being spoken belong more to the genre of op-eds rather than pillars of historical authenticity. A politician will always address their voters, and that’s not going to be about science. And understandably, even a rare statesperson with a far broader field of view than your everyday politician is motivated by the realisation of their vision, and not historical accuracy. These are all different tasks and roles that serve society.”

 

“How can we deal with our national memory’s tragedies?”

 

“With great difficulty, I’m afraid, but it is just one aspect in this National Museum, albeit a significant one. We have a strong mission to revive and integrate the lost and glorious layers of Hungarian history. It is essential to get a grasp on historical successes. Strengthening national pride through it is setting out on a good path, since let’s face it, a national identity based on the tragic series of Muhi-Mohács-Világos-Trianon-The Holocaust-Gulag isn’t the healthiest one. I’m not talking about some imagined past, of course.

Historical objectivity is very real and is not to be neglected, however this leads us back to the necessity of analytical and critical thought. Modern historical scholarship critically examines the changing trends of thoughts, approach, methodology, thinking and results throughout the history of historical science. This isn’t surprising, since the methodology of the history of natural sciences also entails an examination of a similar series of paradigm shifts.”

 

“Is this significant?”

 

“But of course! First of all, historical memory is invented – or not invented – by a whole nation. Second, you cannot successfully run a museum based on exclusively negative messages. Not even German museums, who take their own 20th century history extremely critically – with some reason, I might add – would attempt such a thing.”

 

“Obviously, national tragedies are not the best exhibition material. What makes a good exhibition?”

 

“This is the most difficult question. What makes a good novel, a good theatrical performance or a good film? Is there a universal answer to all this? We know that only a few moments separate a very good film from a very poor one. It is our duty  to make honest, professional quality exhibitions, but whether they will be merely “honest and professional quality” or awe-inspiring and congenial, is, in my opinion, entirely down to the creative aspect, and maybe a gift from the gods.

Technically, only paint, brush, and canvas are required to make a painting, but that doesn’t mean the result is going to be a masterpiece, because it still needs – what? The human factor, the blessing of talent and ingenuity. And at the end of the day, other humans are going to judge both the painting and the exhibition. Expertise and humility are requirements to get started, but you’re not going to get very far with only those. The situation is always the same: professionalism is indispensable, but then it is either accompanied by genius or not.”

 

“So then what habits and characteristics does a museologist or curator need?”

 

“There are quite many such characteristics, and there are huge differences between excellent curators.”

 

“Please, just name one which is absolutely necessary.”

 

“The key question in our profession is whether we are able to provide a deeper, more significant and relevant narrative beyond telling the unique story of an artefact or a series of artefacts. When these artefacts are removed from the warehouse and put in a different room, to be called an exhibition gallery, they have to come alive. There needs to be a connection between them, a network of meaning or layers of such networks that reinterpret certain elements of our memory or knowledge and reveal new connections and relationships.”

 

“But without it, can’t the artefacts carry the exhibition on their own?”

 

“If we don’t have well thought-out things to say, the most we can achieve is a dignified showroom, which isn’t the real thing. You need to convey a message that will be relevant to the visitor’s life, way of thought, something that reflects on the present.

It helps permanent exhibitions and is indispensable for temporary ones, since a visitor is not only coming to see the exhibits but also the exhibition, which is going to interpret the artefacts no matter what, the question is what message it will try to get across. What questions does it raise, what does it confront you with? Embarrassingly enough, many times it isn’t even clear if it wants to ask questions, let alone offer any answer.”

 

“Let’s assume it does, maybe a library’s worth of knowledge…”

 

“All the more reason to have a clear message no more than a couple of sentences long to enrich the visitor with, and an exhibition needs to be able to drive that message home.”

 

“What kind of sentences make for good messages? Questions? Statements? Compound or simple?”

 

“Any one will do so long as it makes you think instead of offering a ready-made answer. Socialism or Nazism was, among others, about telling people what they should think – a modern exhibition does not wish to indoctrinate. The desire to ponder is a characteristic of European civilisation, we want to think freely of our past. This means that we, curators and museum directors need to have the tools to make people think. The best seem to be messages that are slightly shocking. A good exhibition can have up to two or three such messages, that seems to be the limit.”

 

“The limit for reception?”

 

“That’s approximately the recipient’s limit, and it is actually less, because the exhibition’s experience is also influenced by the time you need to stand in queue at the cashier’s desk, whether it is cold or hot, how far the closest parking space or bus stop is, whether there is a big pushy crowd, the number of people who disturb your thoughts, and so on. Visiting an exhibition is a community experience while at the same time everyone is taking it at their own pace.”

 

Digital Or Real Space

 

Let us return for a bit to where we started from, the Museum of the Year award for online presence: does that mean that the future still belongs to traditional exhibitions?”

 

“Some things definitely work better in cyberspace: exhibiting a tiny object or fragment digitally can be a lot more informative, for instance you can magnify it to a practically arbitrary degree on screen. Texts can be easier to read. Silence, calm, immersion can be solved better at home. But with that the original museum-going experience gets lost or wholly transformed.”

 

“This must be the price for being able to zoom in or the lack of crowds, but that isn’t a museum.”

 

“It’s never about turning a real museum into a virtual one, but about creating a parallel online or virtual museum. Neither one is a surrogate for the other, the same way a book and its film adaptation aren’t.

To expand that simile, a novel can very well consist of two hundred scenes, while I believe films have generally ten to twenty-five. A director has to be able to tell the whole story in that much. The traditional, real museum experience is also more than just meeting the artefacts live. It’s a complex process, starting with the visitor entering the renewed Museum Garden, going up the stairs, stepping into a church-like interior, because Pollack (the architect of the National Museum building) wanted to make a temple out of the museum. It might be an exaggeration, and certainly the temple metaphor is not considered reasonable for the last 50 years, but in a sense it remains true, since we are almost compelled to fall on our knees in the end. If the experience is worth it.”

 

“What makes it worth it?”

 

“Calm needs to be at the core of the complex experience, since – as a wonderful Hungarian curator keeps saying – »a museum is a slow genre«, to which I would add, that it offers mental recreation in exchange for a non-hasty reception.”

 

What’s Not Allowed

 

“The temple simile reminds me of you saying in a previous interview that the world of museums is very moral. What did you mean by it?”

 

“Museums store and exhibit the tangible memories of the history of humankind. The artefacts of Hungarian history are at the same time a part of humanity’s treasures. Honesty and authenticity are decisive in the European world of museums. We need to constantly monitor if an artefact is authentic, whether it rightfully belongs to a collection, are we taking proper care of it, are we interpreting it using reliable scientific methodology.

Anyone who works directly with these objects: curators, restorers, photographers and so on, do they comply with these criteria, are they following the rules? These are fundamental questions. You’d think the world of museums is also about money, and of course we cannot operate below a certain budget, but it’s not the decisive factor. All the funds or political power in the world won’t afford you authenticity and reliability.”

 

“Just like other areas. But an exhibition generally requires the same three things that Montecuccoli said were needed for war: money, money, and money.”

 

“On the contrary, you primarily need creativity. Money isn’t even a decisive factor for international exhibitions. No one is able to borrow artefacts just because they’re rich. To be able to borrow, the lending museum needs to respect your museum’s and colleagues’ level of expertise and agree with the goal and message of your exhibition. Simply put, the question is if they are willing to donate their name to a collaborative effort.

You can not exhibit counterfeits, and you need to rule out mistakes as much as possible. To me it is also an ethical question that during such a collaboration we should work to the best of our ability – even that way many mistakes will remain, but that is a fact of scientific life. It’s your intentions that carry the greatest weight. The stakes are high when you’re dealing with unique artefacts, and through them, the memory of mankind as a whole. You don’t play games with those.”

 

“You can’t or you won’t?”

 

“I won’t. But of course nothing makes sense without playfulness, cheerfulness and laughter. I enjoy a good laugh above all.”

 

Originally published: Magyar Hírlap