Invisible Collection

The Hungarian Historical Gallery and Its Exhibitions

In accordance with the monarch’s decision of 1 May 1884, Ágoston Trefort, Minister of Religion and Education, ordered the establishment of the Hungarian Historical Gallery, the first exhibition of which was organised in the halls on the south side of the Castle Garden Bazaar by Károly Pulszky and opened on 17 January 1886. Little is known about this debut since the 161 exhibits were not recorded in a catalogue.

The venue soon proved to be unsuitable for the safe display of the sensitive artworks so the collection was moved to the art hall of the 1885 Hungarian National Exhibition on Stefánia Road in the City Park. The new exhibition comprising 490 paintings, sculptures and graphic sheets was opened here on 17 May 1894. The material was selected and arranged by Károly Pulszky and János Peregriny, who also made the catalogue. However, with the Millennium Exhibition approaching, the halls in the City Park had to be emptied by 1 September 1895, and the works were again transferred to a new location and displayed in the nine halls on the third floor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. This exhibition was rearranged and augmented several times but in its essence it sought to preserve the first concept once made by Pulszky, who by then had resigned from his post. The show that opened here on 1 March 1907 presented 1132 artworks of the significantly enlarged collection: 528 paintings, graphic works and sculptures, as well as 604 drawings and prints in the showcases.

The exhibition was temporarily closed during World War I, at which time the collection organisationally belonged to the Museum of Fine Arts, with the storage rooms and staff members having been re-located to the museum. The last re-arrangement of the permanent exhibition was completed in 1922.

Pursuant to an Act, the Hungarian Historical Gallery was organisationally transferred back from the Museum of Fine Arts to the Hungarian National Museum in 1934, and it was then that the idea of moving the artworks back to the building of the latter was put on the agenda.

One wonders why in a country for which its national past is an avowed and frequently quoted priority, a collection like the Historical Gallery, unique in scale and quality, is not granted a permanent and exclusive venue of exhibition. Why has the public not been able to view these artworks at a permanent exhibition for almost seven decades now? Is it perhaps because in Hungary “memory, which is defenceless against being used and manipulated” is more important than “history, which is always a problematic and imperfect reconstruction of what no longer is”?

What should a contemporary presentation of the Historical Gallery be like? Should such a permanent exhibition reflect upon the history of the institution, its founders and upon the extent to which historical research and even political changes have helped or hindered the display and critical evaluation of the collection? One thing is certain: the objective should be not to show off the ‘heroes’ glorified by the incumbent political systems but to present identity, history, culture, creative genius and diversity through historical portraits.