Standing gracefully on Múzeum körút, Budapest, the neoclassical building of The Hungarian National Museum, designed by the architect Mihály Pollack, was constructed during 1837-1847. However, the museum traces its foundation in 1802, when Count Ferenc Széchényi, one of Hungary’s most eminent aristocrats, offered to donate his country his personal collection of around 1156 manuscripts, 142 volumes of maps, manuscripts, 2019 gold coins and archaeological finds, including the Celtic gold and silver jewellery. In addition, the collection also included a huge 2nd-century Roman mosaic, King St Stephen’s crimson silk coronation mantle, a Broadwood piano used by both Beethoven and Liszt and other memorabilia from socialist times.
The donation was instrumental in the foundation of a national museum in 1802 and subsequently, the Hungarian Parliament of 1832–1834 voted in favour of giving half a million forints to help with the construction of a new building for the museum. During that time, the Hungarian National History Museum was officially set up under the Hungarian National Museum, before it moved to its current neoclassical building. The Hungarian National Museum is the national museum for the history, arts and archaeology of Hungary, containing relics from the nation’s history, which are not even included within the modern border of the country. But it is not to be confused with the collection of international art in the Hungarian National Art Gallery, located in the Buda Castle in Budapest.
Although the building of the museum was designed by Mihály Pollack, the sculptural decoration on its tympanum, the area enclosed by the triangular pediment on the façade, was made by the Munich sculptor Rafael Monti and the decorative sculptures, statues and paintings were created by other artists. The middle of the tympanum is adorned with the female figure of enthroned Pannonia, offering the laurel held in her right hand to the personification of science and art and the laurel in her left hand to a personification of history and fame. In addition, the figure in the extreme right corner signifies the River Danube and the figure in the extreme corner stands for the River Drava.
The Portico of the museum is decorated with statues, also created by Raffael Monti of Milan, which include the famous allegorical figure of Hungary, holding a shield with the Hungarian coat of arms on it, flanked by the figures of Science and Art.
However, the paintings and the allegorical frescoes that featured the walls and the ceiling of the main staircase of the museum since 1875 are the works of the German-Hungarian painter Karl Anton Paul Lotz and Mór, a Hungarian painter of the Realistic school, who worked for several other museums and galleries in Hungary.
The ground floor of the grand building of the museum exhibits and traces the history of the early settlements in the Carpathian Basin, the large plain of Hungary, till the arrival of the Magyars, the ancestors of modern Hungarians in the 9th century. In continuation of that, the ongoing story of the Magyar people resumes on the upper floor, from the conquest of the basin, through the days as an Ottoman province, an Austrian sister, as a Soviet satellite and to the end of communism and an exploration of a modern, 21st century country.
The display of ancient topics on the ground floor covers the age of the Arpad dynasty, named after the Hungarian Grand Prince Arpad, who was the head of the Hungarian tribal federation during their conquering of the Carpathian Basin in 895. One of the internationally famous artefacts in the collection is the Byzantine enamel plaques of the 11th century Monomachus Crown, consisting of seven gold plates depicting Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus, his wife Zoe, her sister Theodora, along with two dancers and two allegorical figures. Apart from that, a separate room on the floor displays the medieval Hungarian Coronation Mantle. However, the permanent exhibits on the ground floor, focused on Medieval and Early Modern stone inscriptions and carvings, were mostly discovered during the 1960s and 1970s, since they looked for more relics post World War II.
The display of the contemporary history on the upper floor begins with the Rákóczi War of Independence during 1703-1711, the first significant attempt to topple the rule of the Habsburgs over Hungary, conducted by a group of noblemen, wealthy and high-ranking progressives, led by Francis II Rákóczi, exhibiting different sections of his military attire and various coins. Finally, the history section ends with the display of the rise and fall of the communist system in Hungary. The final permanent exhibit, the Roman Lapidary exhibit, which is a collection of ancient Roman stone inscriptions and carvings, is located in the basement of the museum.
The Hungarian National Museum played a major role in 1848, during the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence. The Revolution was partially spurred on 15 March 1848, when Sándor Petőfi, considered the national poet of Hungary, recited his patriotic poem Nemzeti dal on the steps of the museum to inspire a gathering crowd, who by the end of the programme, started shouting, as they began to march around the city, seizing the presses, liberating political prisoners and declaring the end of Austrian rule. Later, in remembrance of the revolution, two statues were added to the museum. The first of them, the statue of János Arany, a Hungarian poet, writer, translator and journalist, who wrote more than 102 ballads and often said to be the Shakespeare of ballads, was unveiled in 1883. The second statue was added in 1890, next to the stairs of the museum of a memorial tablet to Sándor Petőfi. Today, festivities in remembrance of the National Commemorations Day of 1848 are celebrated in front of the museum, while the garden, attached to the museum, has become the venue of the Museum Festival and is also used primarily for various concerts.