Modernism and Biopolitics

The Social Welfare Museum of the Past

The Museum of Public Health had changed its name, maintaining institution, location and objectives several times between 1901 and 1939. Its operation was finally put paid to by World War II, when its entire collection was destroyed and its replacement and the restoration of the museum building were never realised. The former, 5-storey seat, now home to the Mayor’s Office of Budapest’s 6th district, can still be found at 3 Eötvös Street in Budapest.

During its forty years, the museum set itself the mission of documenting the history of industrial healthcare, embracing worker’s safety training as well as the moral, political and health education of the working class.

The Social Museum was established in Budapest in 1901 by the minister of commercial affairs with the aim of raising awareness through exhibitions on public healthcare and workers’ interests. It operated as part of an international network alongside the German Soziales Museum, the French Museé Sociale and the British Institute of Social Service, and harmonised its activity with these institutions at a theoretical level as well as in regard to specific events. At its first exhibition in 1901 it sought to present a selection of the objects previously displayed at the World Fair in Paris and especially products linked to industrial capitalism. According to its mission statement issued in 1909, the Social Museum’s main goal was to promote the emancipation of the working class by documenting social service measures and the means through which they are realised (achievements in workplace safety, healthcare, hygienic developments). Until World War II, the term ‘worker’ was equally applied to officials, tradesmen, industrial workers and private employees. As the museum attracted a wide range of visitors, it significantly extended its scope of themes presented within the area of workers’ protection, addressing issues such as foreign and domestic social legislation, healthcare regulations, the situation of workers’ homes, child services, education in hygiene and poverty. To this effect, it also launched its own journal, founded a permanent collection besides its exhibitions, organised its own festivals and events and issued various publications.

In 1920 the Ministry of Public Welfare became the maintaining authority of the Social Museum, and the institution was renamed the Museum of Public Health. Its scope of objectives was narrowed down to healthcare and social interests, and while the cause of educating the working class was carefully hidden between the lines, it was no longer named. Between 1920 and 1927 the museum was repeatedly on the verge of being closed down due to uncertainties in regard to its maintaining authority and objectives. In the end, it reopened in 1927 as the Museum and Institute of Social Hygiene with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Its scope of tasks was expanded upon a ministerial act, and henceforth it did not operate exclusively as a museum but also as a supervisory authority of public health organisations and as the country’s health propaganda institution.