How did the museums settle in the palace?

Thoughts of those who moved in

Katalin Irás Melis, archaeologist, József Lakatos, restorer, Béla Esti, former director


In 1945, Buda Castle Palace was burnt out and in ruins. In the end it was rebuilt as a cultural rather than political centre, perhaps because it was clear that restoration could take decades. From the mid 60s to the mid 70s, three museums needing extra space were gradually moved in. MC spoke to people from all three who witnessed that important period.

Do you remember the ruined palace before the museums moved in?

Katalin Irás Melis: In September 1959 I was a first year archaeology student. Our professors wanted the fourth year students to take the freshmen to the palace where a colleague of the Budapest History Museum (BHM), which then functioned elsewhere, met us. We walked around the explored and largely restored premises of the medieval palace. Much work had also been done on the Baroque palace, which was built in the first half of the 18th century. The roof, the levels separating the floors, the doors and windows on the ground floor were ready. The Chief Directorate of the BHM, its Financial Directorate, the Department of the Middles Ages and the Castle Museum were to move into the Charles Wing above the area of ruins. Of the other parts we only saw the Lion Courtyard, since we approached the Castle via the Ferdinand Gate on one side. The palace area was closed from the other side. The courtyard buildings appeared ready from the outside.

I started to work at the BHM Medieval Department in 1965. My colleagues were already working hard at staging the ruins area exhibition. I was charged with beginner’s tasks, such as participating in selecting the exhibition objects, their being restored and photographed. By then the Baroque palace above the medieval ruins, the new museum building of the BHM was ready. Other parts of the palace also seemed completed from the outside, but work continued inside. Dilapidated buildings stood on Szent György Square, and only parts which were a safety hazard were removed. Between Dísz Square and the
Lion Courtyard it was either very dusty or muddy. It was a construction area and many people were working there.

József Lakatos: The vicinity of the palace was closed. The public could not enter, but many people worked on rubble clearance and renovation, including prisoners. I was told that [politicians] wanted to move into the palace. Later I moved into the room which was intended for [one of them]. Then the “White House” was built by the Danube, hence the palace fortunately was left for culture. The reason for the success of the first large exhibition of mainly 20th-century sculpture, staged by Gábor Ö. Pogány, the then director of the Hungarian National Gallery (HNG), in the building of the BHM was because the castle had at last opened. Crowds of people went to see the palace.

Béla Esti: I remember the dilapidated palace only as much as most Budapest residents. I couldn’t see the ruined area since it was closed off.

How did the museum staff receive the idea of the palace being converted to the new home of the museum?

Katalin Irás Melis: Naturally the staff of the BHM were very pleased to move there from their Szentháromság Street building, which was very small and not really appropriate for a museum. In the palace suitable storerooms, workshops,
a library and spacious exhibition rooms were shaped, besides offices.

József Lakatos: From afar we saw the dome being built. I worked from January 1974 in the HNG where I went over with the old (pre-1800) Hungarian artworks, since the Collection of Old Hungarian Painting had only two exhibition rooms in the Fine Arts Museum and we were always in the way of the “ruling class”, i.e. the Old Picture Gallery. We hoped there would be room for everything in our new home, but it was not so.

Béla Esti: The institution, which was established in 1957 as the Museum of Recent History with a scope of national collecting and was called the Hungarian Labour History Museum (LHM) from 1966 to 1989 moved to the rebuilt northern wing of the palace, Building A, on four floors in 1974. It was the museum’s second move. The walls of its original building in József nádor Square cracked, so in 1968 it was quickly moved to the building of the old Buda Town Hall in Szentháromság Square. It was where the Medieval Department of the BHM occupying the southern wing of the palace had moved out from. The staff were happy to have space in the palace, because the museum did not have rooms suitable for exhibitions and a significant part of the collections had to be stored in external warehouses. Besides, moving to the palace raised the prestige of the museum.

Do you remember who, on behalf of the museum, took part in moving and whether anyone from the museum had a say in the design of exhibition areas, storerooms and offices?

Katalin Irás Melis: Everyone participated in packing and moving. The palace buildings received a uniform interior with red marble floors, stairs and wooden panelling. The office furniture was uniform. The heads of the BHM and the senior staff decided together with the architects and especially with the interior designers where the offices were to be and what type of built-in furniture they required.

József Lakatos: By the time the works of art arrived the Department of Sculpture had already moved into Building B. The red marble floor and the white marble stands reflected the interior design expectations of the time. The original idea was for people to be able to walk through the whole palace, so a ticket bought for the BHM could be used for the HNG. Yet the funding bodies could not agree, so this possibility ceased. Interior designer István Németh designed the new furnishings, but we also took with us some chairs and glass cabinets, which later were changed.

Béla Esti: All the museum staff took part in the move. The handlers of the collections and financial-technical units performed the largest tasks. When planning the rebuilding of the palace the architects listened to our wishes, but during the actual reconstruction they hardly took them into account. They did not create a “museum”, rather an imposing public building, whereby the main approach represented the monumentality of the external and internal spectacle. The function hardly mattered. For example, in Building A the enormous foyer received a dominating role. Despite our explicit request, its interior surface was covered with red limestone that gave the illusion of marble, thus making it almost impossible to stage exhibitions there. The storerooms for collections were not equipped with appropriate air-conditioning. The windows were installed so high in the offices on the first floor that it was a constant problem to open or close them.

How did packing and moving the collection take place? How long did the transfer take?

Katalin Irás Melis: Every unit in the Szentháromság Street building knew what had to be moved. Everyone participated in packing and administration. Of the Medieval Collection the archaeological objects constituted the largest part. Two lorries appeared on 1 April 1967 and began moving them. Since the new exhibition was shaped on the area of ruins, we first unpacked the separately boxed exhibition objects and dealt with the others in the autumn only after the exhibition opened. As a young museologist I benefited a great deal from the packing. That was when my interest turned to my first scholarly theme, the subject of my 1969 doctoral dissertation, The Árpád Age Settlement History of the Pest Plain. In all my archaeological work I made use of the typological information I gained in the course of packing.

József Lakatos: The artworks related to Hungary from the 1800s to the present (then the 1950s) were first separated from the collections of the Fine Arts Museum in 1957. They, together with works selected from the collection of the Municipal Picture Gallery, were moved and exhibited in the Kossuth Square building of the Supreme Court, thus establishing the Hungarian National Gallery. Pre-1800 Hungarian works were included in the HNG in the second stage and that was connected to moving the whole collection to Castle Hill. We had to implement the transfer from May to 20 December 1973. During the first stage we moved the stones, followed by the Baroque paintings and statues in such a way that everything had to be in a condition that allowed the move. Packing was preceded by surveying the condition of the works and, if needed, their conservation.

Béla Esti: It was a varied and complicated task to prepare and pack the collection of several hundred thousand items. No less a task was to place them in the new storerooms. And then there was furnishing the restoration workshops, photographic studio and offices.

What was the palace’s immediate neighbourhood like? How could the museum staff and visitors get there?

Katalin Irás Melis: The damaged buildings on Szent György Square were stabilized. At that time there were no longer any excavations in the closed areas. At the beginning of the 70s there were smaller excavations due to extending the district heating and other public utilities. It was then that the statues were found. Some large-scale landscaping and grass sowing took place in the whole of the closed area in summer 1967. A proper paved road was made from Dísz Square and the stone paving of the courtyards took place. Temporary building site sheds were removed. Visitors could approach the palace on the pave-stoned road from Dísz Square and through the Ferdinand Gate. The path along the side of Castle Hill leading from Clark Ádám Square opened only after the HNG had moved in. Coming from the Dózsa statue the museum staff could use the lift, which is still working today.

József Lakatos: Bus No. 16 could be taken to Dísz Square. Then those large buses were replaced because they caused a lot of damage to the cellars of Castle Hill. We walked from the square to the palace. A gate also opened by the Mace Tower from Krisztina Town. With regard to the neighbourhood of the palace, the part in front facing the Danube was first paved from the Eugene of Savoy statue to the Funicular, followed by the next part beyond the statue.

Béla Esti: The vicinity of the building was more or less settled when the museum moved in, but there were still damaged buildings in the area towards the civilian part of Castle Hill, including the Alexander Palace, Carmelite
Monastery and the Army General Headquarters. The museum could be easily reached from Dísz Square by bus No. 16.

How long did it take for the museum to settle in and before the exhibitions opened in the new building? Was there any kind of opening ceremony?

Katalin Irás Melis: We settled in almost immediately. The offices were furnished. Everyone knew where they would work, at which table they would sit. It was cleaned beautifully. For the time being there were phones in just two places, the directors’ rooms. The internal telephone network and switchboard were installed only the following year. Various skilled workers continuously worked in the restoration and photographic workshops because machinery and other technical equipment were transferred from the workshops in Szentháromság Street. Furnishing the archaeological storeroom was left to the autumn, primarily because of the preparations for the exhibition in the area of ruins. The exhibition presenting the history of the medieval Royal Palace was nearly ready in that area, as were the cellars which were fashioned into exhibition space. The Budapest History Museum and the exhibition in the area of ruins opened at the end of the summer.

József Lakatos: A permanent exhibition from the medieval collection was staged on the first floor of Building C, one of Baroque works on the first floor of Building D on the Danube side and one of 19th-century painting on the second floor. Graphic art, 20th century painting and sculpture were presented on the third floor. In October 1976 the Gallery was ceremonially opened by Gyula Kállai, President of the Patriotic People’s Front. Also present were the cultural ministers of the COMECON countries.

Béla Esti: The museum settled in quite quickly. The first section of the permanent exhibition presenting Hungary’s labour history opened on 1 April 1975. It displayed the labour history of the country as an integral part of national history. It illustrated the development of the formation, life and working conditions of industrial workers with many objects. The opening of the first section up to 1945 was the first great celebratory event in the building of the museum. The photographic exhibition Hungary Today opened at the same time. The second part of the permanent exhibition opened in 1977. And there were always temporary exhibitions.

Was there feedback from the broader profession about the palace building accommodating museums?

Katalin Irás Melis: I don’t know when the political decision was made about rebuilding the Royal Palace for cultural purposes. Excavations began in 1949 and lasted until the late 1950s. When the reconstruction was determined, the decision of what purpose the building should have was also made. Like us, the “broad profession” was happy because all the museums and institutions had suitable buildings and exhibition spaces. The Széchényi Library also gained a far larger space in the palace.

József Lakatos: We temporarily dismantled the Baroque exhibition, hung grey velvet curtains in order to stage the memorable exhibition from the collection. That took place in 1985.

BélaEsti: As far as I know the fact that the Buda Castle Palace became a cultural centre was received by everyone with agreement, moreover with joy.