“I was quite active at the time, completely sincerely and utterly unnecessarily”

In conversation with historian Péter Deme

Péter Deme (b. 1950) graduated in history and English from ELTE in 1973 and was conferred the title dr. univ. in 1978. He started working in the Party History Institute in 1973 and from 1987 was appointed deputy director-general of the Hungarian Labour Movement Museum (later: Museum of Contemporary History). He was the head of the public relations department of the Hungarian National Museum from 1993 to 2002, ministerial commissioner from 1994 to 1997, and headed the department of social relations of the National Office of Cultural Heritage from 2002 to 2012. He held various senior positions in the Pulszky Society from 1992 and has been its president since 2001.

Péter Deme joined the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) as a fourth-year university student and a member of the Hungarian Young Communist League, but in the third year of his university studies he had already helped a researcher write catalogue cards in the Party History Institute. After his graduation in 1973 and after being politically vetted and his employment approved by the Secretariat of MSZMP’s Central Committee (CC), he joined the staff of the institute, working there from March 1974 to the end of 1986.

His workplace, the Party History Institute (est. 1948) of MSZMP’s CC, theoretically operated as one of the departments of the CC’s apparatus, however its direct links were primarily to the CC’s scientific, public education, cultural, agitation and propaganda departments. The staff of the institute was predominantly composed of labour movement veterans and Holocaust survivors, the majority of them having obtained the relevant qualifications in accelerated courses. It was in the early 1970s when young people were first employed on the basis of merit and their knowledge.

Starting his office as deputy director-general of the Hungarian Labour Movement Museum on 1 January 1987, his duties extended to international relations, publications and exhibition organisation, i.e. community culture and external relations, while his other area was professional and collecting work.

It was at the 1988 party conference, when János Kádár was appointed President and Károly Grósz General Secretary of MSZMP, that a genuine change could be first perceived in the political climate. This affected the museum too, where the party leadership stated their support of reforms aimed at democratic socialism. Péter Deme also played an active role in those years “completely sincerely and utterly unnecessarily”, to quote his own words; he was even delegated to the Budapest convention of delegates preceding the 14th Party Congress in 1989. A decision adopted at the turn of 1989 and 1990 stipulated the termination of the museum as a national institution as well as its integration into the National Museum as a history museum branch.

It was around this time that Deme joined the Pulszky Society. He founded and became the head of its community culture department, elected among the society’s committee and board members and then its acting president. In 2011 he was conferred the office of the society’s president, which he has continued to fill, and is now in the second cycle.

Péter Deme was also one of the leading participants in the Dutch-Hungarian “collection management” cooperation programme, which started fundamental changes in Hungarian museology.