Conference article

A National Historical Narrative in Universal Context - The Historical Mural Cycle of the Hungarian National Museum

Miklós Székely
Research Center for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Hungary

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Published in: Great Narratives of the Past Traditions and Revisions in National Museums

Linköping Electronic Conference Proceedings 78:26, p. 395-404

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Published: 2012-10-30


ISSN: 1650-3686 (print), 1650-3740 (online)


The earliest modern museum building in the Austrian Empire was the Hungarian National Museum in Pest; Hungary. The classicist building was constructed between 1837-47 after the plans of Mihály Pollack and followed the concept of the important museums of London; Berlin and Munich. The decoration of its staircases was executed in the 1870s; they represented the cultural history of Hungary in the path of the tradition of the murals of Peter Cornelius in Altes Museum; Berlin. The murals created not only the frame of interpretation for the earliest exhibitions of the museum but they also interpreted the history of Hungary in the context of European and especially Austrian political history.

Side by side with the creation of modern museums; the universal exhibition was a typical phenomena of the 19th century. Its appearance followed in a short time the spread of modern museums in the early 19th century. Both the museum and the universal exhibition were conceived as useful tools for the self-representation of the state in economic and cultural fields. In terms of state representation the Hungarian political elite pursued one major political goal during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918): the creation of the image of an economically and culturally independent country. Hungarian sections at universal exhibitions served the cultural and political representation of the country; which appeared as a new political entity in the 19th century globalization only after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise in 1867. The first manifestation of its political goals were of mixed character: the cultural history of Hungary was represented through politicized historical paintings at the Hungarian fine art section of the Vienna universal exhibition in 1873; especially the preparatory drawings of the mural for the staircases of the Hungarian National Museum.

The first part of this paper analyses the political aspects of the historical narratives in the Hungarian National Museum depicting national cultural history. The second part of the paper concentrates on the sketches of the mural of the National Museum exhibited in Vienna in 1873; their original meaning; the change of the program and their interpretation.


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