Dispossession and Self-Respect

25/Jun/2014 - 3/Feb/2015
The True Story of Braziers, Pot Menders, and Trough Carvers


One of the Museum of Ethnography's considered aims is to actively promote mutual understanding among Hungary's national and ethnic minorities, combat prejudice against them, and contribute to the sense of dignity such groups enjoy by familiarising the public with their social situations and cultures.

The present exhibition concerns a range of occupations that have historically operated on the fringes of the economy, most of them practiced by itinerants representing the lowest stratum of the trade hierarchy. In fact, some of these were not official trades at all, but merely activities pursued by dabblers and home entrepreneurs out of hard economic necessity, vocations that were barred from membership in either the guild system, or, later, the national chamber of industry.

The material presented here seeks not only to describe the economic historical processes involved, but also to reflect on how national and local society responded to such people, what images of them developed over time, how depictions of them gravitated toward certain themes, and how their trades affected such phenomena as the development of ethnic self-image or the expression of national culture.

Kettle menders
Of the various figures described in this exhibition, it is perhaps that of the tinker or kettle mender that can claim the deepest roots, as evinced by the character of Christopher Sly from Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, or the 17th-century tinker-come-preacher John Bunyan, who authored the great Christian allegory The Pilgrim's Progress. In the Central European socio-historical context, it was the Kalderash people who pursued this trade, beginning, as attested by various sources, in the late 18th century, and who were to beget the famed "kings of the Gypsies" known from the mid-20th century onward.

Pot Menders and Tinsmiths
The pot mender's trade first developed in the western counties of Upper Hungary, in an area bordering on Czech Moravia, spreading quickly from there to minor parts of the region of Spiš. Born in the town of Nagyrovnó, the trade initially consisted in the mending of ceramic vessels with wire, along with the production of mouse and rat traps. By the second half of the 19th century, however, pot menders throughout Europe and even North America had set up permanent manufactories and other hubs of operation, where they produced tinsmithing products and managed networks of travelling tradesmen.

Trough Carvers
By the turn of the 20th century, trough and wooden spoon carving had fallen into the near-exclusive purview of the Boyash Romani group, though formerly, the production of objects from single blocks of hardwood had constituted a Slovak and Romanian cottage industry. By the beginning of the 19th century, most of the Romani trough carvers originating from Romanian-speaking territories were still itinerants, though by the mid-20th century, such groups had become permanently settled. Contemporary photographs show trough carvers living in woodland camps in the company of their families, in communities consisting of multiple family groups.

The material for this exhibition has been developed in partnership with the Považské Museum in Žilina, Slovakia.

Curator: Péter Szuhay
Co-Curators: Katarina Hollanova, Eszter Kerék