Thursday, 29 September 2016

Why visit the Hungarian National Museum? (and why you should make copious notes when you do!)

If you are unfamiliar with Hungarian names or history then the streets and statues of Budapest can be pretty confusing. (And, for an English speaker, tongue-twisting!). Who were St Matthias, Kossuth, Szechenyi and Bajcsy-Zsilinszky?  A great way to discover who the utca are actually named after is to go to the Hungarian National Museum . The streets will start to make sense plus you’ll also start to understand the last two thousand or so years of invasion, revolution and scientific-cultural achievement that formed the country today. You can connect historical events to solid objects in front of you makes it far better than just looking up names on Wikipedia.

Hungarian National Museum photo by Yazan Badran

Housed in a beautiful Classicist building on Múzeum korút, the HNM collection span 2500 years of Hungarian history, as well as temporary exhibitions (currently ‘Contact’ by celebrity photographer Eva Keleti and a moving selection of art and artefacts from the 1956 revolution).

So, if you want to consume over two and half millennia in one afternoon, I recommend working your way through the History of Hungary Parts One and Two. Each room has a large placard in Magyar and English, but then virtually every artefact has a smaller label that not only explains the object but also continues the story told in the section plaques. They’re often tiny, but they are essential reading to get more than just an overview and contain insightful detail about the key events and players.

I used my visit as a kind of self-taught crash course in Hungarian history and made four and half pages of notes (that I’ve been referring to as I wander the rest of the city). I left dazzled and little overwhelmed but feeling considerably less like an ignorant tourist. In addition, I can now inform/bore my partner with historical factoids on nearly every street and square.

Statue of Stalin in Hungarian National Museum photo from Expedia

The website has a handy ‘Top 50’ highlights but I think my favourite item was a coin that saved the life of Bajcsy-Zsilinszky (an anti-Nazi politician) during a gun battle with the Gestapo. You can not only see the dented coin, but also the path of the bullet through the papers he had in his pocket.
And as for those tongue-twisting names, the best advice I've heard is: listen to the announcements on the metro, trams and buses, then copy their pronunciation. (Disclaimer: you may end up sounding like an overly formal robot!)

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