One of the earliest specialised museums in Europe, the Budapest Museum of Ethnography was born on March 5, 1872, when János Xántus (1825-1894) was appointed to the head of the Ethnography Department of the Hungarian National Museum. Xántus, a lawyer, former officer in the Hungarian War for Independence, and well-known natural historian in emigration in America, owed his appointment to the success of a large-scale exhibition he had organised from over two and a half thousand pieces he, himself, had collected in East Asia. Xántus's unique and monumental endeavour, displayed between 1868 and 1869, had been preceded only by a collection of 92 ethnographical artefacts assembled by Antal Reguly (1819-1858) on the Ob-Ugric peoples of the Northern Urals in 1843-1845, now found in the collection of the National Museum. Xántus also headed the collecting of a large number of ethnographical objects in Hungary in the year of his nomination for the World Exhibition in Vienna in 1873. The larger parts of both collections later found their way into the Museum of Applied Art, at that time just in the process of being organised.
The ethnographical collection was raised to the stature of a true museum under the expert hands of János Jankó (1868-1902), creator of the Ethnographic Village in the City Park of Budapest for the 1896 Millennial Festivities. This latter, an outdoor display of 24 residential buildings associated with various ethnic groups, rivalled the famous Skanzen of Stockholm opened only a few years previously. (Following the festivities, the buildings were disassembled, while the furniture and clothing became part of the museum's collection.)
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Budapest Museum of Ethnography was considered one of the best in the field, boasting contributors such as folklorist Béla Vikár (1859-1945), the first person in the world to record folk songs using the phonograph. His work was carried on by outstanding musicians such as Béla Bartók (1881-1945), Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), and László Lajtha (1892-1963), whose research earned the museum international renown.
In the meantime, the international and domestic collections of the museum were growing rapidly under the efforts of a number of Hungarian ethnographic travellers and collectors. When Emil Torday and Sámuel Teleki returned from Africa, Sámuel Fenichel and Lajos Bíró from New Guinea, Rudolf Fuszek from Liberia and Cameroon, György Almási from Central Asia, Benedek Baráthosi Balogh from the Amur region, Géza Róheim from Australia, and Vilmos Diószegi from Siberia and Mongolia, each one contributed generously to the museum's international collections, while for decades János Jankó, Zsigmond Bátky, and István Györffy, and later Edit Fél and Mária Kresz, continued work on the Hungarian collection.
At the beginning of the 1930's, the Museum of Ethnography embarked on its first major synthetic ethnographical project, resulting in the publication of numerous significant works, including The Ethnography of the Hungarians, an extensive work in four volumes, Hungarian Folk Art, a series of some dozen volumes issued between 1924-1925, and István Györffy's monograph entitled The Cifraszűr (long, decorated felt coat), published in 1930. In 1929, the museum was moved to the Népliget school building, where its rich collections now occupied the space of thirty rooms. Members of similar European professional institutions visiting at the time spoke of the museum's permanent exhibition with admiration. (The museum was forced to disassemble the exhibition in 1942 due to the air raids.)
The museum split formally from the National Museum to become an independent institution of national reach in 1947. The museum's collections were moved from one location to another until 1975, when the museum was finally given a permanent home at its current location opposite the Houses of Parliament. The building in which the museum now found itself had been constructed in 1896 based on a design created by Alajos Hauszmann, and had originally functioned as the Hall of the Supreme Court. In 1949, however, it was made an institute of the working class movement, until the newly founded National Gallery moved in in 1957. The National Gallery's move to the Buda Castle in 1975 finally allowed the Museum of Ethnography take up residence in the heart of the city, where its numerous exhibitions have served the purposes of public education ever since.
The museum's first permanent exhibition at its new location was opened in 1980 under the title "From Prehistoric Societies to Civilisations". The articles it presented were taken from the museum's international collection and were displayed until 1995, when the exhibition was disassembled for the purposes of restoration. The opening of the permanent exhibition of the Hungarian collection was delayed until 1991 due to institutional difficulties.
The Museum of Ethnography's exhibition entitled Folk Culture of the Hungarians depicts the everyday life and festivals of the Hungarian peasantry in a display occupying thirteen rooms. Items on exhibition were collected between the end of the 18th century and World War II from territories inhabited by ethnic Hungarians.
The exhibition was refurbished in the year of the museum's anniversary and, with the addition of new multimedia technologies, has been made more colourful and spectacular than ever before.
The Budapest Museum of Ethnography, one of Europe’s most prestigious social science museums, houses more than 200,000 ethnographic artefacts, coupled with a unique archive of photographs, manuscripts, folk music recordings, and films. In addition to its incomparable collection on Hungarian folk culture, the museum holds the largest body of material on foreign cultures in the country, and is also an important focal point for research in contemporary cultural studies.
Since around the turn of the millennium, the Museum of Ethnography has served as one of the nation’s most important institutions for research in museology. In recent times, the museum’s focus on Hungarian peasant life and the cultures of distant continents has been expanded to include various projects aimed at documenting contemporary social phenomena, while efforts toward the analysis and digitisation of individual collections have also been stepped up. At present, nearly 40% of all artefacts are viewable online through the Museum’s Web site. Other recent activities include the launch of new series of books, the development of research projects, the organisation of successful exhibitions both in Hungary, and abroad, and the hosting of a variety of museum education programmes.
Pursuant to Government Decree 1866/2015 (XII.2), in 2019, a new museum building in Ötvenhatosok Square is to be constructed as part of the City Park Budapest Project, while the museum’s collections are to be moved to a new National Museum Restoration and Storage Centre in Szabolcs Street.