Collection, concept, building

The first 50 years of the Museum of Ethnography

MúzeumCafé 34.

Hardly a decade after setting up the Ethnographic Department of the National Museum in 1872, a commission concluded “…the present ethnographic collection must be wound up and assigned to the Museum of Applied Arts…” What changed in only 10 years? The explanation is partly that the idea for the collection implied the establishment of a museum of applied arts, aiming at the development of national industry, far more than founding a museum which would be ethnographic in its present sense. When that happened the Ethnographic Department, deprived of its Asian collection, was no longer interesting, especially with the head of the National Museum, Ferenc Pulszky’s concept promoting development with an art historical angle, which implied that the presentation of universal art was the most suitable tool for the Hungarian public to learn about the world and thus Hungary’s own place in it. Besides this concept relying on the thesis of a science that had been well-formed by the second half of the 19th century, there hardly remained a role for an institution hallmarked by János Xántus, the first representative of a science yet to be born. A specialised scientific basis was required to stabilize its position and guarantee its future. That came about in 1889 with the appearance of the Ethnographic Society, which was able to bring the cause of the science and the development of a museum to Parliament. The activity of ethnography and the Museum of Ethnography had been characterised by exploring certain issues from the beginning: how to define its own role and its place within society, what should be collected, and how to acquire social recognition for its collections, which would recognize the museum’s existence, moreover provide further development ensuring its own building.