Museum history

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 was built in Ötvenhatosok Square as part of the City Park Budapest Project, while the museum’s collections were moved to the new National Museum Restoration and Storage Centre in Szabolcs Street.

The Museum of Ethnography in Budapest is an important specialised museum at European level. Now, with the inauguration of its new building in 2022, it has become one of the most modern ethnographic museums in the world. Besides its collection of around 225,000 ethnographic objects, the museum’s holdings include exceptional photographic and film materials, manuscripts, and folk music recordings. Alongside priceless relics of Hungarian folk culture, the museum houses the biggest collection in the region of ethnographic objects representing the folk cultures of distant continents. Dating from the 17th century to the present, these objects illustrate everyday life, human existence, and community relationships in their myriad different forms. Since the turn of the millennium, the Museum of Ethnography has emerged as one of the most important centres in Hungary for museological research and the renewal of ethnographic museology, with an emphasis on the documentation of contemporary social phenomena and the digitisation of its existing holdings. A total of 173,000 items from the museum’s collections and archives are currently accessible on the Museum of Ethnography’s website (

The Museum of Ethnography’s Africa Collection, also encompassing the island of Madagascar, currently comprises around 10,500 objects, while the Asia Collection contains around 13,000 objects, four-fifths of which were acquired by the museum between the late 19th and early 20th century. In quantitative terms, the two biggest subgroups within the Asia Collection comprise objects originating from Japan and China, followed by India, the Amur region, Mongolia, Turkey, the Caucasus, and Turkestan. The Oceania Collection is, in many respects, one of the museum’s most significant collections. It is recognised internationally partly for its size and composition, and partly because of the period in which the collecting work took place. Three-quarters of the 14,500 objects that make up the collection were acquired at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, a period when this region was still largely untouched from an ethnographic point of view. The core of the Indonesia Collection, which currently comprises some 4,000 items, was collected between the end of the 19th century and the outbreak of the First World War. Half of the material in the collection comes from two narrow geographical areas: Java and Borneo.

The Europe Collection, which contains around 10,000 items, is one of the Museum of Ethnography’s first collections. In the 19th century, collecting work tended to be focused on the Finno-Ugric peoples who were ethnically related to the Hungarians. However, from the early 20th century, particular emphasis was given to collecting objects from the nationalities living in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the territories that belonged to it. The vast majority of the collected items are embroidered textiles, as well as musical instruments, metal objects, leather belts, jewellery, and ceramics. Comprising around 8,300 items, the America Collection is the smallest of the museum’s non-European collections, although its origins date back to the foundation of the museum itself, as it includes objects collected by the museum’s founder, János Xántus, in the 1850s and 1860s.

Besides the tasks of conserving, researching, and presenting this important international material, the museum plays a key role in strengthening Hungarian national identity. The materials from the Carpathian Basin, which date from the 17th century up to the end of the 20th century, preserve the traces of a bygone lifestyle — that of the peasants who made up a large proportion of Hungarian society until the middle of the 20th century. From the late 19th century, life in Hungary was radically transformed as a result of modernisation, urbanisation, and globalisation. In a race against time, researchers from the Museum of Ethnography successfully collected objects associated with the everyday existence, festivals and working lives of the Hungarians and other nationalities living in Hungary, preserving their knowledge for future generations. Through the tens of thousands of simple utilitarian and representative objects in its collections associated with traditional forms of subsistence (fishing, animal husbandry and herding, agriculture, and hunting and gathering), the museum illustrates the challenges people faced in the centuries before mechanisation, and the way of life in the fertile countryside criss-crossed by rivers. With around 13,000 objects, the Crafts and Trades Collection is the museum’s fourth-largest collection of Hungarian materials. The Transportation Collection and the Building Construction Collection, comprising 1,500 objects associated with popular transportation, carriage, haulage, and communications and signalling, represent an important contribution to our knowledge of the history of technology. The Ceramics Collection, with its almost 30,000 objects, is one of the Museum of Ethnography’s biggest collection units.

The Collection of Textiles and Costumes contains around 50,000 items, making it an outstanding thematic collection at European level. Besides the folk costumes and household textiles of the peasants, craftspeople, and herders living in the villages and market towns, all of which were characterised by an extraordinary wealth of ornamentation, motifs, and colours, the collection also encompasses the material culture of the wider population, including the urban lower middle class and intelligentsia.

The items in the Collection of Furniture and Lighting Instruments originate primarily from the territory of historical Hungary, chiefly from the Hungarians but also from the other ethnic groups living in Hungary. They include items of furniture, lighting instruments, home furnishings and interior decorations (clocks, mirrors, pipe racks, family portraits, and commemorative pictures), children’s furniture (cribs, playpens, and walkers), and items used in everyday life (for bathing, washing, and heating).  The Nutrition Collection comprises items used in relation to the storage, processing, and preserving of food, along with tableware that does not form part of other collections. The Collection of Religious Objects, the Collection of Customs and Toys, and the 1,000-piece Musical Instruments Collection contain objects and utensils associated with church life and community customs.

The Museum of Ethnography specialises not only in artefacts, but, from its very beginnings, has also endeavoured to collect and preserve intangible cultural heritage and materials associated with ethnographic research. Former contributors to the museum’s work include such prominent figures as composers László Lajtha and Béla Bartók, whose sound recordings are preserved in the museum's collection of 4,500 phonograph cylinders. Their collecting work encompassed the musical traditions not only of Hungarians but also of other ethnic groups living in the Carpathian Basin, and, in Bartók’s case, even extended to the Anatolian Turks and Algerian Arabs. This material makes up only a fraction of the Museum of Ethnography’s tens of thousands of analogue audio recordings.

As part of the Ethnological Archives, the Film and Video Collection, which contains recordings made on ethnographic topics dating from the 1930s, is similarly unique. The museum’s Photograph Collection, which comprises 340,000 items, is the largest collection of images of traditional peasant and folk culture in Hungary and also includes many photographs of the peoples of distant continents taken as early as the end of the 19th century.

 The 30,000-item Manuscript Collection and the drawings, paintings, and prints preserved in the Image Archive attract international researchers, whose work is also supported by the museum’s specialist library, which boasts 197,000 volumes.

Despite its prestige and professional recognition, the lengthy struggle for a suitable building had a significant impact on the Museum of Ethnography’s first 150 years. As the museum takes possession of its new premises in March 2022, this struggle has finally come to an end. The new building has been constructed at the entrance to the City Park, one of Budapest’s oldest green spaces, based on a design created by the company Napur Architect. Tracing a curve of 1 kilometre in diameter, the two wings of the building support a roof garden planted with a variety of shrubs and perennials, which rises to the height of the crowns of the surrounding trees. Below ground level, the almost 7,000 square metres of exhibition space will host both temporary and permanent displays. Above it can be found a bookshop, a restaurant, a library, a documentation centre, co-working facilities, a visitors’ centre, an events centre, and an interactive museum for children, making the museum an important venue in terms of the city’s cultural life. The Ceramics Space, which can be visited free of charge, takes pride of place. Almost 4,000 ceramic objects from throughout the world are on display here, along either side of the 40 metre staircase. The building’s crowning glory is its glass facade, the entire length of which is covered with a metal grid structure, into which almost half a million pixels have been inserted, depicting selected ethnographic motifs from the museum’s Hungarian and international collections. The structure envelops and curtains the building like a tapestry woven from Hungarian and world culture. At the same time, it embodies the ethos of the collections and encapsulates both the work carried out in the Museum of Ethnography over the past 150 years and its definitive, ongoing contribution to contemporary culture.

Photo: László Incze
Photo: László Incze

Photo: László Incze
Photo: László Incze