The Visual and the National: the Making of the Transylvanian Ethnographic Museum (1902)
Szabó Levente

1. The "visual / pictorial shift? and the making of the modern museums

The middle of the nineteenth century brought about the first debates related to the role and forms of the public museum in Hungary. There had been private museums before, but the founding of the Hungarian National Museum brought the issue of national representation to the forefront along with the similar Western examples of the time. Originally the only visitors of the Hungarian National Museum were researchers, the issue (and the fear) of the general public came into discussion only in the middle of the century. The process of "museification? cannot and should not be separated from two nineteenth-century phenomena: the enormous need, impact and truth-making effect of visuality, respectively the "pantheonization? of national culture, and the inscribing of grand national narratives into visual imagery.

The "hunger for certain kinds of visual information? is hardly ever mentioned in analyses of Hungarian mid-nineteenth culture, though the invention and diffusion of different kinds of photography, and the massive production and consumption of the printed visual imagery completely reworked the Hungarian cultural imagination. The expanding pictorial world actually proved to be an efficient tool of nation-building, since (before the 1868 introduction of compulsory primary education) visual literacy was much higher than literacy in general. The printed image also transformed popular culture: the pictorial and the illustrated magazines made an enormous impact on framing visuality as a major medium of nation-building. That is why it is not surprising at all that at the midst of the nineteenth century the museum came to the foreground as a major repository of the national past and present, a representational medium not only for the few and educated, but also for the socialization and nationalization of the less educated masses. That is why the constitution of the national museum (and then the founding of the smaller regional and professional museums around the turn of the century) was permeated with different types of narratives and plots of the nation. The visuality of the first Hungarian museums and exhibitions is not translucent at all; on the contrary, visual narratives of nationhood have a role in Hungarian nation-building as important as the written or printed types of discourse.

The "pantheonization? of national culture could be viewed as a core process that inscribed strong master narratives of nationhood into Hungarian visual representations (including the ones used in and by museums and exhibitions) throughout the nineteenth century. In his Üdvlelde? an almost untranslatable title that is analogous to the Western ideas of the Pantheon ? István Széchenyi imagined the institutionalization of national remembrance in the form of a huge vision: he proposed a site that would embrace the visual representation of the major historical figures (of course, according to a canon of the then contemporary times). Even though his wish materialized much later, the idea of the national Pantheon through an overlapping and complex visual network proved to be strong enough to recur in a number of nation-building phenomena.

The literary cultic events of the 1850-1860s, celebrating the writers of the recent past (and practically founding the canon of the literary classics), were such phenomenon with a wide public appeal. They extensively employed sophisticated visual narratives, refunctionalizing, reinterpreting and nationalizing the 17-19th century confessional visual conventions. These powerful images, reproduced and disseminated both through new printing technologies and different novel photographic techniques, socialized more and more viewers into the conventions of the visual narratives of nationhood. The status of the museum as the foremost institution of the visualization of national memory is grounded right here, in these processes. The visual / pictorial shift of modern culture, that coincided with the advent of modern Hungarian nationhood, resulted in powerful bonds among the notions and narratives of both phenomena. Viewed from this angle, it is no wonder why some of the major modern professions and new disciplines of the early phases of modern Hungarian nation-building made extensive use of this overlapping character and interconnectedness. One of these, the professional Hungarian ethnographic discipline can be a master example for the foundational use of visual narratives and ideologies. Certainly, one of the consequences of the visual turn within this discipline is the shift from texts to objects, from folklore texts to the objects of "the people.?

If early Hungarian ethnography used literary philology to select, to group and to evaluate folklore texts, the taxonomy and "musealization? of folk objects owes a lot both to previous visual narratives of nationhood, and the new visual taxonomies of the fin-de-siecle social sciences. One of these taxonomical narratives that had its visual analogies was the idea of primitivity that came to be a major (though not the sole) organizing principle at the exhibition of the Kolozsvár / Cluj-based museum of ethnography, opened in 1902.

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