A Curious Trade

Hungarian museums are distinguished not so much by the quality of their collections (which range from awful to excellent, same as any country's) as by the audacity of their curators. The National Museum has an exhibit on 19th-century metal laurel wreaths, together with a long descriptive text about the political and ideological implications of calling artists "immortal" in their own lifetimes. When it works, it's wonderful: an exhibit on the 1956 rebellion juxtaposes a recreation of the office of the head of the secret police with a recreation of a prison-camp cell. And when it doesn't work, well, it's still kind of impressive to see see a museum devote eight display cases to proving that Hungary's ceremonial crown was built at one time (rather than being glued together from two distinct crowns).

The grand prize for ambition, though, goes to the Museum of Ethnography, which has supplemented a costumes-n-tools permanent exhibition with a temporary show entitled "Images of Time," which gives the impression of being the final class projects of a bunch of brash young curatorial students told to "make a room that explains time." "Musical Time" explores musical notation as a system for illustrating time; "Timeless Time" explains itself by means of Zen Buddhist artifacts. It gets better. "The Museum as Time Machine" is just what it sounds like, whereas "The Timelessness of Confinement" compares monasteries to prisons in their relation to time. One room lays out Mexican popular devotional altars (candles, icons, Corona bottles), another traces the "transitional time" of a Berber wedding ceremony, and the final room is devoted to gambling and board games as techniques for predicting the future.

It seems to me, perhaps, that fifty years of creativity and conversation have been not so much suppressed as bottled up, and that Hungary's curators, as the keepers of their country's intellectual tradition, are trying to make up for lost time, as it were.