Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum

Yesterday another museum, this one, the Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum – Hungarian National Museum is around the corner and down the street from where I’m staying. Perfect for non-committal museum wandering. I went there for there—as usual—for the mediæval stuff. In fact there’s not much in the way of paintings or sculptures, but room after room of archaeology. It’s the Budapest equivalent of Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum or Bologna’s Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna.

Downstairs to the small collection of tombstones in the Medieval and Early Modern Lapidary. Some beautiful stone carving, and for me my favourite was the life-size knight in armour, who (maybe I’m just seeing this everywhere now) looked distinctly African. Downstairs further into the basement, and the Roman Lapidary. More tombstones from the Carpathian Basin region. At first I was surprised to see (though as usual I was looking for) a woman’s tombstone, of equal size and artistry as the men’s. Then another, then more. About a third of all the tombstones at the end were for women, and there were many also of families. Yesterday I was reading a research article, Preliminary Results From WIGI, The Wikipedia Gender Inequality Indexwhich I am not drawing conclusions from, merely pointing out a correlation with something I’ve noticed, that female (and non-white) recognition drops off significantly in art through the Age of Enlightenment, and by the late 1700s it’s a fest of old, rich, white men. My feeling is this relatively recent trough is something we are still recovering from, and the strident denial of women’s, non-white european’s and non-european’s place and representation in history and culture is evidence of this.

There was also a sculpture from a sarcophagus of Leda and the Swan, which made me immediately think of Orphan Black.

Upstairs and upstairs, to the first floor (also the entrance floor), and right into old stuff: On the East-West frontier: History of the people of the Hungarian lands from 400.000 BC to 804 AD. My mind is still preoccupied with the mediæval, and in searching out the hundreds of years between the start of that and around 600CE, so I was mostly perfunctory until I saw the glowing orange and red beads strung for a wrist, and thought immediately of Hild. Yes, around 600 but before rather than after, so out by 1200 years or so. Still, carnelian, so they are what Hild wore, and I started paying more attention.

Shortly after, the alien head, a head I associate with the North-West Coast of America, the Americas in general, but did not expect to see in an archaeology of Hungary. But no, the Huns who arrived around 340CE brought with them artificially elongated and sloping heads, shaped from when a child.

Moving towards Hild’s time proper, I saw shoulder brooches and pins for cloaks and other garments, rings for fingers and arms, earrings, pectoral crosses, spindle whorls, awls, and pins of stone, metal, and bone, knives for cooking, eating, killing, decoration, seax in copper-tipped sheaths, bone and antler strap-ends and belt-ends, pottery and ceramics of all kinds, weapons and armour from wood to chain and metal, things of gold and silver, bronze and iron, woven and beaten, coarse and hard for battle, delicate and detailed for status.

Once I reached the Avar period, 567/8-804, I had arrived, yet it jumped—while telling us this is one of the key eras in Hungarian history—in barely a breath from the end of the 6th to the early 8th centuries. Christianity and conversion arrives proper, Hungary ascends. In the early 10th century there is a set of jewellery and ornaments worn by a woman of higher standing. The hair braid ornaments with their mounted straps looked like something Korra or the Water Tribe would wear.

Up more stairs. The History of Hungary from the foundation of the state to Middle Ages. One of the first items, the “Monomachos crown” from around 1042-1050 is also one of the most beautiful in all the rooms. There are many other object, large and small, I would have liked to have photographed, but a combination of poorly coloured, dim lighting, and dirty reflective glass left me frustrated. I swear, the person who invents non-reflective glass without losing transparency … well, it has been invented, just probably low on underfunded museums’ lists.

When I was in Essen at IMPACT14, there was much talk about “new museums” and while the emphasis was on museums of contemporary art, there wasn’t a distinction made around the word ‘museum’. As with the Hungary National Gallery, the difference between the two exhibitions—the former relatively newly updated; the latter looking like it came from the ’70s—was substantial, yet also minimal. Simply changing the lighting to a properly colour-calibrated, diffuse source, and adding a non-reflective coating to the glass would make a massive difference, even if the captions and all the rest remained untouched.

There was a bronze mirror from China in the grave of a Cuman woman buried in around 1200. Also a beautiful enamelled double reliquary cross on a fine tower of a base that was lost in reflective glare. The last thing I took care to photograph was a Chasuble with St Elisabeth and St Marguerite. Fine weaving and embroidery in blues and silvers, reds and golds.

From there, the museum plunged into the Renaissance, and towards all the 19th and 20th century nationalism I gain no pleasure from looking at. A little too much downplaying of a country’s own history of colonialism, xenophobia, anti-semitism—which they would have gotten away with if it weren’t for Germany and the European desire for Empire—seems to be a theme in museums I’ve seen outside of Berlin. Paradoxically in Berlin museums there is almost a collective, therapeutic joy in admitting everything, in taking full responsibility. It’s this latter aspect that unfortunately allows other European countries to continue the deception that they were simply, unfortunately occupied, made poor choices because of world events of the ’20s and ’30s, weren’t really like that. Which isn’t saying I don’t have an interest in learning about this period in the countries I visit, just that museums serve a particular ideological purpose, whether it’s acknowledged or not.

Back in the lithic ages, I noticed another ideology, one representing the men hunting or at the forge and women in the kitchen. There seemed also in the presentation a hierarchy of value, the former above the latter. I wondered if this were true. Modern pre-industrial, agrarian cultures might have this distinction of roles, but that certainly does not mean they held for tens of thousands of years. And even if women were cooking, isn’t it more likely they first experimented with kilns and smelting, by virtue of working daily with fire? Hunting also is seldom that of mega-fauna, more often of snares and traps, small animals, requiring skill and quietness, not brute strength and violence. I’m saying all this in the context of an audience in a public museum, thinking about what I see and what I’m told is history in the context of what I know, and asking questions about what I’m being told. What does this mean, and for who, if this is true, and what does it look like if I imagine it in other ways?