“I wasn’t prepared for this, nor did anyone prepare me.”

Conversation with, Friderika Biró ethnographer, one of the founders of the Hungarian Open-Air Museum

One huge research subject has essentially defined Friderika Biró’s career from university to today, namely developing the Western Transdanubia regional unit. Alongside her work as a museologist, she has also conducted much scholarly research. We spoke about the secrets of her career, which can be regarded as accomplished.

Friderika Biró was born in Budapest in 1943. In 1968 she graduated in ethnography at ELTE University’s Humanities Faculty, where she completed her doctorate in 1972. From 1968 she worked at the Hungarian Open-Air Museum in Szentendre (and its predecessor, the Village Museum Department of the Museum of Ethnography). Her most important task involved assembling and arranging the buildings and objects of the Western Transdanubia regional (Őrség, Göcsej and Hetés) unit. Her research field covered vernacular architecture, folk objects and interior decoration. She has had several studies and books published about the vernacular architecture, interior decoration, peasant lifestyle and folk art of Zala and Vas counties. Together with Lajos Für, she wrote and edited Búcsú a parasztságtól (Farewell to the Peasantry), which was published in three parts in 2013-14. In March this year she received the Hungarian Order of Merit, Knight’s Cross awarded to civilians.

She never viewed ethnography as something exotic and never looked for such. The Museum of Ethnography’s Village Museum Department was established in 1967, exactly 50 years ago. It functioned in that form, as a special department of the Museum of Ethnography, until 1972, then the two separated and it moved to Szentendre in 1974.

Her first research took her to Szalafő in the Őrség region, which in the 1960s took one day to reach. The anxiety and suspicion of the locals towards outsiders took some time to dispel. It took a while before Friderika Bíró realised what had happened several years before to the local peasantry – as the title indicates: “I wasn’t prepared for this, nor did anyone prepare me.”

When she moved to the Hungarian Open-Air Museum, it was natural for her to be in charge of the Őrség and Göcsej units. Her tasks included identifying the buildings which could be purchased. Zoltán Erdélyi and Lajos Szolnoki, who worked out the concept of the museum, had already singled out buildings which represented the types of dwellings found in Western Transdanubia. However, apart from Szentendre, there were also open-air museums in Zalaegerszeg and Szombathely, so it was often necessary to divide up the selected buildings.

Today the community no longer exists. The ties that for centuries bound people together have been broken. It is not only the community which has disappeared, but also an entire lifestyle. People lived in accordance with a rhythm established over centuries, but within a decade, in an unnatural manner, the community was broken up as an effect of an overpowering external force.