Curating New Ideas: Natural History in Budapest

Whenever I go to a new city, the first thing I typically look for is its natural history museum. It’s not a make-or-break for visiting somewhere, but it sure comes close. I recently forced myself into a holiday, going to Budapest for a couple days. They happen to have a natural history museum. Double-plus good.

During a rather sweltering September day, I went to the.. Magyar Termés..Természet..tudomá..nyi Múzeum. Hungarian isn’t exactly an accessible language to me, hold on. The “Magyar Természettudományi Múzeum” which translates, quite neatly, to the “Hungarian Natural History Museum,” is an interesting sort of place. It’s in the middle of a rather large park of other educational facilities, and seems to have a historical connection to the conservation efforts of the Hungarian Zoo. It’s sleek, modern, engaging, yet at times, rather baffling.

Its entrance fee is quite decent, at 1600ft (about €5) for the main exhibitions, with the temporary exhibits adding just a couple euro more. The front staff were kind, and spoke English, though I found a couple of the guards (or observers, or whatever you’d call them) weren’t able to. It was kind of a shame because finding my way around the building was rather difficult- and while I managed it eventually, it was rather awkward wandering around a few empty hallways until I found the halls I was allowed into under the basic ticket.

A small note is that natural history museums often fall rather low on many people’s list of places worth seeing in a city, and to a degree I can understand. They’re often old buildings full of old stuff presented in an exhausting, crowded fashion. At least that’s the sort of “classic” style. I had a conversation with a museum curator once, and he referred to it as an aloof, better-than-thou sort of idea, where the museums would stack huge amounts of varied taxidermy animals, minerals, rocks, fossils, plants, etc. in massive, magnificent display cases knowing that it would  be confusing and awe-inspiring to the average person, just for its own sake*. Make people feel stupid and overwhelmed in the might of the science, in a way. Problem is that given enough time, anything amazing becomes blasé, the great becomes banal. In a world of lightning-fast wifi and smartphones, display cases full of dusty, dead animals is boring at best, or a shrine to the glorification of colonial destruction, at worst. I plan on talking about this more later, but the point stands that this old model doesn’t work anymore. Natural history museums have had to change in order to survive. This can be said for the museum in Budapest.

There are very few cases full of moth-bitten monkeys and dusty penguins, but taxidermy animals on open display, often from deceased animals from the Budapest Zoo (not necessarily modern). The core room that worked sort of like a central hub, had a room-wide mini-exhibit of the history of the museum and its modern, pro-conservation/education mission statement. Cramped, old-style holding cages versus the more airy cages today, the diet typically given to the animals in the zoo, the cooperation between the zoo and natural history museum, among many, many other examples. Nice way to start the experience, as it really gives off the idea that the people there actually care. Perhaps it’s a cynical appeal to making more money, but hey, I can’t believe that all the time. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. Barrier-free, too. Most of the taxidermy animals were just… there. No boxes, no shields; it had a wonderful open-air effect.

The main hall itself is a rather long, tall affair with only two floors, but fascinating in how they’re trying to rejuvenate the idea of natural history. They have separate rooms on the main floor, which are all about interaction. In fact, that’s the main word I would use for the museum’s approach: interaction. Separate side rooms for hands-on experiences, with varying age levels corresponding to increasingly complex experiments available

One of the highlights: 20160912_134403

Boom. Interactive. Want people to care more? Let ’em touch stuff. Literally touching something normally kept behind a window? Awesome. It wasn’t small, either. It was a good 50cm across. A small, possibly risky idea, but putting something out for everyone to literally get their hands on helps contextualize that these things exist, that this was something at one point. Also, that it makes the exhibits more approachable and thus, more enjoyable.

Even the displays were done in a very sleek, modern way. Instead of only having stacks and stacks of display cases, they hung up plants and animals together, making a sort of diorama of sorts. 20160912_134611.jpg

They even went on to discuss man’s effect on the world, discussing how some animals can now no longer live without human help, or could not thrive outside of prefabricated environments. Also included were animals in the home. Animals both wanted and despised.

“You have various animals from all over the world in your home every day, and you don’t think twice about it,” they basically say, “only because it’s in packages and on the dinner table.”

However.

However, this isn’t always done in the most… tactful way. Or scientifically-savvy way. When I realized it, I was dumbstruck, and many others I’ve shown these images to reacted the same way. Hypothetically, what’s a really clever way to discuss biodiversity in an engaging way, yet allows you to show off every type of creature at once? Well, in this case…20160912_134505

Noah’s. Bleeding. Ark.

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On one hand: wow. The pig-headed idiocy to combine one of the most patently absurd biological myths ever told with as a literal metaphor for biodiversity? What a wonderful (as in, so wonderful that it’s not wonderful in the slightest) way to dangerously combine the Bible with biology. No, please. No. Just, no. That is almost the last thing that should be done in this case other than providing incorrect information. Not to mention the sheer ludicrous impossibility of the situation which needs not be said.

But on the other hand: well done. It’s more clever than I want to give credit. It’s a way of combining vastly different animals all together in a way that is easy to understand and more personally engaging than a display case. Not to mention, this display could make people less keen on science (putting it tactfully) to approach and appreciate biodiversity. I can understand why they did it, even if I completely disagree with the implications this makes, intentionally or not.

It’s not the biggest museum, it’s not the most diverse museum, but it certainly is the most personally-engaging natural history museum (or any museum) I have been to in a long time, if ever. Full marks for effort, and perhaps the amount displayed still needs some work, it does pretty well with the limited space on the grounds.

So if you’re in Budapest, yeah, I’d say to check the place out. Worth the trip there, worth the price, and certainly worth the experience.

* [As a footnote: he actually referred to it as a very “German” style, but I’ll discuss that more in a later post]

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