The functions of museum ceremonial halls

How can museums make good use of spaces originally created for society events?

MúzeumCafé 25.

The wheel has turned full circle. Today visitors can use a museum for a variety of purposes, elevating their own events by using its rooms and halls. This doesn’t only apply to buildings taken over by the state after 1945, since quite a lot of museum buildings both in Hungary and western Europe came into the possession of the state, a local authority or foundation through inheritance or purchase and afterwards were transformed into museums. Then there are institutes whose buildings were explicitly planned to house museum collections. In the 19th century museum buildings were erected as citadels of culture, reflecting the views of the then elite. Thus in their exterior appearance they vied with the largest palaces. Such institutes guarded the objects in their possession like an aloof fortress and received those who wished to enter the shrine of culture with courtly elegance. The ‘cultural palaces’ – for example, the Palace of Culture in Szeged or the similarly named institute in Marosvásárhely (today Tîrgu-Mureş) – had large, multi-functional halls suitable for organising major, prestigious events. The ceremonial halls, separated from exhibitions, from the portico and aula accommodated conferences, discussions, concerts and museum presentations as an independent entity – and most still do today. As museum functions changed, spaces were sometimes altered and ceremonial halls became places divorced and locked off from the everyday life of an institute. If in the course of time one or another funding body was not compelled to divide the big halls in order to gain more space for exhibitions, for work or simply to make them easier to heat, then today when there is a struggle over resources, the halls recalling the glitter of old times can come to the fore as hidden reserves in museums’ cost calculations. However income is not necessarily generated from extra events. The Xántus János Museum in Győr has allowed concerts, receptions and weddings to take place in its precious hall, but the income gained from this is insignificant in relation to the museum’s overall budget. The use of ceremonial halls, however, raises other questions. How do museums and visitors manage and use these halls? As listed monuments, art objects, imprints of the times or perhaps as ‘best rooms’. How far can a museum go in the use of a precious space? Should it restrict itself to museum functions and organise only temporary exhibitions and conferences? Or can it go farther and be open to other representatives of ‘high culture’, for example performing artists? Perhaps it gives way to more mundane aims, providing opportunities for members of the public not normally associated with the museum to organise banquets, receptions and weddings? If so, how is the security of the hall’s valuable furnishings, decoration and art objects to be guaranteed? How can the usual, everyday life of the museum and activities associated with use of a space be separated? Essentially, how can the traditional public service and culture communicating functions of a museum be reconciled with commercial use? We received answers to these questions from the Hungarian National Museum and the Museum of Applied Arts, both originally built as museums, as well as from the Museum of Ethnography housed in the former Palace of Justice, the Museum of Natural History in the refurbished classicist spaces of the former Ludovika Military Academy, the Petőfi Museum of Literature in the former residence of the Károlyi family, Székesfehérvár’s King Saint Stephen Museum in a former Jesuit house, the Koszta József Museum in the former county hall of Szentes, the Rippl-Rónai Museum in Kaposvár, the Vay Ádám Museum in Vaj, housed in the only example of a mansion on the Great Plain built in late Renaissance style, and from the Nádasdy Ferenc Museum located in the castle of Sárvár. All the aforementioned are based in listed buildings of significant architectural value. Each of their ceremonial halls is a multifunctional space in line with the style of its building while reflecting the museum’s own history. A museum ceremonial hall opens like a gateway to its architectural period, and the interior as an imprint of the times provides a special experience for visitors. In such instances the hall itself is an art object, preserving the past of the building and the museum. In contrast with the neutrality of exhibition spaces, these halls were not created to house significant works of art collected from elsewhere, but with their own beauty give expression to their owner’s power, the ideas of the architect, and later the cultural and social role of its funding body. The unbound nature of the space allows the visitor to decide what they draw from the process of experiences, time and memory, while the museum has to determine what it allows in from today’s times. Thus it is with the neo-Classical building of the National Museum, constructed to the designs of Mihály Pollack in 1837-47. Its ceremonial hall was completed in 1845 and has preserved its original form and function to this day. The ceremonial halls of the Petőfi Museum of Literature, however, were not built for a museum. The form of the neo-Classical building reflects the lifestyle of an aristocrat, Count György Károlyi. Its ballroom today used as a ceremonial hall and the rooms which can be opened up and connected on the street façade can be used for similar purposes – they were constructed in the late 1830s. The cream of Pest society used to frequent the Károlyi residence. The mansion was famous for its grandiose evenings when Ferenc Liszt would play the piano. It wasn’t nationalisation after the Second World War which put an end to this aristocratic lifestyle. The mansion was taken from Mihály Károlyi by the state in 1920 and the Budapest municipality bought it in 1928. The Municipal Picture Gallery was housed here from 1932 to 1953, then when its collection was transferred to the Fine Arts Museum the Petőfi Museum of Literature acquired the building in 1954. Thanks to refurbishing completed in December 2000, besides four other spaces, the ceremonial hall with its marble fireplace now reflects the building’s original condition.Another Budapest museum has an entirely different history. The ceremonial hall of the Museum of Ethnography, built in 1896, originally functioned as the council chamber of the Supreme Court, or Palace of Justice, designed by Alajos Hauszmann. As revealed by last year’s exhibition Metamorphoses: From Palace of Justice to Museum, and from time to time the idea arises that the museum must move elsewhere. In comparison, the still to be renovated hall of the Natural History Museum is in greater danger. It’s a big question as to what a museum understands by the notion of ‘museum-related’ or ‘event complying with its status as a listed monument’, since an appropriate answer has to be given as to within what limits a hall is used, what investment is required, is there a chance that a return can be made in such a way that the hall and the valuable nature of the museum are not damaged. When museums reflect on their activities as they protect, research and exhibit, the big question is whether they should rather be offering services to the public.