Educational shivering, or a stroll in the heart

Benedek Varga, director of the Semmelweis Museum of Medical History, the Museum of the Year, 2011

MúzeumCafé 25.

The medical history element in the Görgei exhibition is important. It is about the frailty of a young man whose determination was close to being violent. It’s about the fact that you can survive a head injury if you feel you still have things to do. The exhibition is about the knowledge compiled in a particular era – surgery before antibiotics, and the lack of pain relief. It is also about how Lajos Markusovszky – known by present generations only since a hospital bears his name – was an outstanding physician. I got to the museum by chance. I graduated in history. I focused on political intellectual history and for that it was inevitable that I did research in England. I graduated in 1989 and although I had been to the UK on a scholarship twice the draw of the political changes was so strong, so many exciting things were taking place in Hungary that I had to return. I was offered a job at the museum after being interviewed by József Antall. During my second scholarship in the UK I began examining the connection between changes in 16th and 17th-century concepts of the state and the development of the history of anatomy. It was a good, rather complex theme and as a result I am somewhat competent in the history of anatomy during a two-hundred year period. Thus I became a historian of medicine. These days we are concerned with the history of not only medical science but also that of health, the health service and healing as a cultural phenomenon. Budapest’s museum of medical history has always been different from others in Europe. Many philologists were present at its foundation, and art and culture have always been in focus. A painting depicting the visit of a patient is as valuable to us as the description of a disease or a contemporary medical tool. We try to show how medicine is embedded in a given historical age. We are careful not to present myths but the most up-to-date scientific results with the best possible presentation. For that we need the cooperation of a graphic designer and a specialist in visual effects. What makes an exhibition good is not that a new display case is nicer than the old one, but whether the idea can visually be presented in an appropriate way. I hold to the principle of less is more: don’t burden the visitor, as far as possible we should work with few objects in space which is easy to survey. We have a permanent contract with the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design. A summer internship is included in the students’ syllabus. We have certain ideas concerning the 19th century, for example about István Széchenyi and Ferenc Deák. The effect of Deák’s depression on the processes of the Reform Age is unknown to the public. We are planning to do something on the large epidemics: the cholera following the plague, the Spanish flu and the flu epidemics. But in no way would I want this museum to become set in its ways; we would always like to surprise visitors, hold exhibitions which don’t follow but form public thinking. My favourite museum would be both pleasant and clever. I don’t have a single favourite, though I very much like the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden, London’s V&A, La Specola in Florence and the New Acropolis in Athens; of the Hungarian museums the Ludwig, the Szentendre Open-Air Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Petőfi Literary Museum, the Móra in Szeged and the Wosinszky in Szekszárd; then there’s the Csík Sekler Museum in Transylvania. I am probably an unusual and bold director. For sure I have faith and energy, and it’s true that I poke my nose into everything. I’ve been here for 22 years, I’ve picked up this and that from a variety of professions. The building is small – there is no space elsewhere so we have tea in the restoration workshop. That’s followed by a ten-minute discussion and if someone convinces me I give up. It’s lucky that my colleagues often reach the same conclusions whether I’m present or not. I’ve been in overall charge for four years and headed the museum section for twelve. By now we have grown to each other and the staff understand what I want, why and how. I trust I have a strategic way of thinking and that I can see through complex processes. I expect my colleagues to fill in the outlines with content precisely and by the deadline. The adjectives unusual and bold do not refer to this but rather my style, which is devoid of formalities and hierarchy. I include my colleagues in decisions and listen to their opinions. They sometimes shout at me and rarely I shout back, although the latter has happened maybe three times in the past four years. Shouting means that the museum is as important for them as for me, therefore I don’t find it a problem. Yet, if I want something and I’m convinced it’s right I don’t yield after a certain point. It’s a small place, many of my colleagues have been working together for 15-20 years. Even if we don’t meet socially, I know everyone’s personal problems and I take them into account. If someone is moving, getting married, divorced, giving birth or the child or a parent is ill, I take the burden off them, openly taking on in front of the others that we must relieve the person, though another time someone else could be in that position. It requires more energy.