The Museum on the Road
Always up-to-date, since 1906
The Ethnography, National Art, Decorative and Industrial Art Museum was established by Royal Decree in July 1906. Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș was appointed manager, starting October 1st, at the proposal of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, Mihail Vlădescu.
The museum’s activity took place within the precincts of the former state mint until 1912, when the headstone was laid for what was going to be the neo-Romanian building of “The Museum on the Road” – the term of endearment used by Bucharesters for a long time to come. Nevertheless, the building waited for decades to be finished, having to face the adversities of times and people. Since the beginning of the 20th century up until now, The Museum on the Road has always been up-to-date, its history joining and reflecting the national construction and its vicissitudes.
This history begins before the official establishment of the museum, a short time after the appearance of the United Principalities. At this dawn of our national undertaking, the Peasant becomes a central symbolic landmark of our identity and the village culture is a point of increasing interest to city dwellers. Aiming to give an impulse to “household industry”, affected by the competition of the foreign products (which were trendy and cheaper, being made industrially), in 1863 Al.I. Cuza issues a regulation to organize exhibitions meant to host products of the peasant household industry, among others. Thus, on the 20th of May 1863 takes place at Obor, under the lead of Ion Ionescu de la Brad, the opening of “the national exhibition at the Moșii Fair of cattle, flowers, vegetables, agricultural and industrial products”. It is the time when the first private collection appears, when the first national exhibitions and Romanian participations to world fairs take place. The question of a national museum is already being raised, a museum designed to host mostly art products of the Romanian people. “To sketch a family tree, one must first designate some ancestors” – was noting Irina Nicolau, telling the story of The National Museum of the Romanian Peasant. This faraway ancestor was The National Museum of Antiquities (established in 1864 by the same Al.I. Cuza). That is the place where “a special section is organized, where textile art works made in our country will be exposed: clothes, carpets, woven fabric, felt etc.” at Titu Maiorescu’s proposal. The exhibits come mainly from the collection of lieutenant colonel Dimitrie Pappasoglu, who had already organized, in 1864, a small museum in a pavilion of his house. A number of objects in the collections of The Romanian Peasant Museum date back to that epoch.
However, these first attempts were made unmethodically and lacked curatorial vision, which made Tzigara Samurcaș wonder: “Do we deserve a national museum?”. And it will also make him strive his entire life to answer that we do, and to achieve this goal of a “true national museum”.
He deems the first name of the museum “lengthy and uselessly complicated”. His vision about the purpose and setup of such a museum becomes clear in time, as he changed its name, as well, into “The Ethnography and National Art Museum”, and then into „Carol I National Art Museum”. Peasant art became national!
The Museum on the Road undergoes fundamental changes after the Second World War, when it was in danger to become the barracks of the “redemptory army”. In 1953, the building was turned into the Lenin-Stalin Museum, then into that of the Romanian Communist Party, into the Revolutionary and Democratic Movement Museum, only to become, more and more, in the last years of the communist regime, a kind of museal homage to President Nicolae Ceaușescu. The collections were chased away from their home, gathered for a while in the building of the Știrbey Palace on Calea Victoriei, where they will form The Folk Art Museum of the Socialist Republic of Romania under Tancred Bănățeanu’s lead, and then piled up in the storehouse of the Village Museum. Here they waited, in a relative oblivion, for better times.
These times came right after the 1989 Revolution. On the 5th of February 1990, a new and inspired minister, Andrei Pleșu, lays a new foundation by appointing artist Horia Bernea – at Dan Hăulică’s recommendation – director of the re-established Museum of the Romanian Peasant.
Irina Nicolau, one of Horia Bernea’s main collaborators, recalled in her diary: “We began to make lists of names for the new museum – How should we call it? Which is the right name? God, why didn’t I keep the paper! I know for sure that Horia numbered them and they were more than twenty. „The Museum of the Romanian Peasant” escaped him, but he didn’t like it. In a few hours it was precisely this name that was chosen, which in the first years, at least, annoyed many. Peasant? It sounds pejorative, pretended the French. Romanian? Too narrow and politically incorrect, pretended others. Later on, we too felt sorry that we hadn’t simply named it The Peasant Museum.” And then: “In one year or so we were still striving to add a subtitle – The Arts and Traditions National Museum. We gave up. Every cloud has a silver lining: we would have entered a family of European museums which are not like ours at all.”
Indeed, The Museum of the Romanian Peasant is not an “ethnographic museum” in the common sense of the word. On the contrary. “We shall study the village, the contemporary man, the peasant as he is now – declared Bernea -, but we shall understand what has happened only if we set up well in the museum “the model” – the traditional village. Open to changes and to “the present times” up to the point of becoming intriguing for the classical museographers, The Museum of the Romanian Peasant insists on keeping this firm and permanent anchoring in this archetypal “model”. The name of the museum may thus be misleading: it is not a “museum of a society” which faithfully presents us with the life and craft of the peasant communities from certain regions and epochs, but it is what Irina Nicolau called “the traditional man” and Gabriel Liiceanu considers to be „the universality of a human type which the peasant represents”. The Museum of the Romanian Peasant is that of a somehow timeless spirituality, which his founders were obviously in love with and which they proposed as an eventual landmark for nowadays.
This vision, rather universal than particular-ethnographic, has brought the great international acknowledgment of 1996: the EMYA prize for the European Museum of the Year. On the other hand, The National Museum of the Romanian Peasant is always trying to be up-to-date through its temporary exhibitions and its old, but also recent collections, through its already traditional fairs and the promotion of the “Romanian peasant products”, through its activities for children and soon for the elderly, through the diversity of its cultural activities: book launches and debates, concerts and anthropological films, colloquies and cultural evenings.