“Once a castle – now but stones”

Castles and castle museums in Hungary – situation and opportunities

MúzeumCafé 36.

Is there anyone who is not interested in castles? For men, battles, fighting and the achievement of glory cannot be separated from strongholds erected from earth, wood, stone, sometimes bricks, as well as concrete in more recent times. Women are drawn to old stories about castles that today seem romantic and they believe they can discover the shadows of mysterious characters within the ancient walls. As for children, the old stories come to life in no time. Whoever we are, we all seem to like castles, whether they still retain their miraculous features or have remained only “mournful ruins” of past times. According to István Feld, the doyen of Hungarian castle excavation and castle archaeology, it is virtually impossible to ascertain how many forts were erected in the Carpathian Basin in the course of past millennia. The problem immediately begins with the terminology, continues with serious deficiencies regarding sources and often ends with the frequent disappearance of physical traces. Feld believes that what remains is a speculative method relying on a few data: on the basis of some completed castle topographies, roughly 80 castles or forts are probable on average for each county. If this figure is multiplied to cover the Carpathian Basin, the number of constructions built by humans for the purpose of defence must have been around 5,300, about 1,500 within the present borders of Hungary. If these are realistic figures, at least to some degree, we can be satisfied with matters as regards legal protection. In Hungary today the number of castles and castle sites that are known from their traces, fortresses and town wall remnants under archaeological or listed building protection can be estimated at nearly seven hundred. Yet according to more stringent data, in Hungary at present there are only 160-170 castles and forts which stand, or at least places where indications on the surface such as earthworks or wall remains can be detected, indicating they have preserved something of their “castle-like character”. If this range is extended to the borders of historic Hungary, the figure increases. The number of forts which are visible today and were erected between the Copper Age and the 20th century exceeds 1200. This involves ditches, ramparts, earthworks, Roman defence systems, fortified areas, fortified churches, keeps, baronial castles, modern fortifications with arrow-headed bastions, 19th-century historicising residences or 20th-century concrete constructions. The figures show that far fewer castles have proportionately survived in today’s Hungary with its mainly plain areas than in the surrounding Carpathian Mountains, the better terrain there being more suitable for fortified buildings. Regarding the issue of ownership, it is impossible to exactly outline the past of castles due to constantly changing proprietorship and the unreliability of records. The Hungarian National Asset Management Inc., which embodies the role of the state as an owner, accounts for some fifty castles, ruins and remnants of fortifications, while other forms of ownership are diverse and include business companies, local authorities, NGOs and private owners. Of those in a better condition and with minimum foundation walls or ruins, thirty-six are included in the scope of national heritage, which basically involves state ownership. These are registered in the appendix to the Law on Heritage Protection, a list compiled at the beginning of the 1990s and which since then has remained essentially unchanged. As with ownership, it is also difficult to give a comprehensive and reliable report about the condition of castles in Hungary. Finances have been certainly lacking from time immemorial and the last large wave of restoration work – undertaken on the basis of currently arguable principles and technical solutions which become problematic over time – was done before the 1989-90 political changes. In the past two decades or so, efforts have been made by the state authorities and by the profession, yet they have achieved only partial results which have remained peripheral. Lack of finance has an impact on regular maintenance which, as a matter of fact, can be called an enormous waste. After all, repairing deterioration which hasn’t been stopped in time will eventually result in multiple costs for the future. A number of Hungary’s castles with a great past have naturally outgrown local significance. Moreover they have played an important role in Hungary’s history, therefore many are regarded as important locations of national history and national identity. This was expressed in the statement of the National Memorial Site and Funerary Committee, which was given legal status. At the proposal of the Committee, in 2011 Parliament appointed nine “national memorial sites” and thirty-six “historical memorial sites”, including castles as highlighted locations to be especially protected. Of the castles one – not as a specific castle, but rather the Buda castle complex – has been included in the former category. Eleven of the latter category are significant castles, namely those of Diósgyőr, Drégelypalánk, Eger, Esztergom, Gyula, Komárom, Kőszeg, Sárospatak, Sárvár, Szigetvár and Visegrád. Although the prestige resulting from such an official declaration is rather notional for the time being, according to plans it will soon be supplemented with earmarked subsidies that can be acquired or applied for. While the aforementioned archaeological and listed buildings statutory protection and the appointment of memorial sites sound relatively positive, it is less heart-warming when the official data are analysed from the aspect of public collections. The 2011 records of the ministry show that the number of public collections in castle museums and castles that predominantly preserve their fortress character is extremely small – twenty-one out of the 835 museum institutions. The state assumes a funding and operative role only in five of the twenty-one locations classified as museums. Except for Sümeg Castle under the property management of a businessperson, Márévár, which is under forestry management, and Bory Castle, which is managed by the family, the remainder are funded regionally or locally, and are operated by non-profit companies founded by local cultural associations, educational institutions or local authorities. Castles, whether of great prominence as modern fortresses or castle ruins mainly visited by backpackers, have always been popular tourist attractions. Fortunately Hungarian edifices that can in one way or another be classified as castle museums are all accessible and can be visited. However, browsing through the statistical data of recent years it must be stated that the recession which can be seen in cultural tourism across Europe has also hit Hungary and the number of visitors is generally falling.