Museum on the Road

Always up-to-date, since 1906

The Ethnographic Museum of National Art, Decorative Art and Industrial Art was established by Royal Decree no. 2.777 of 13 July 1906, at the direction of which, at the proposal of the Minister of Instruction and Religious Affairs, Mihail Vlădescu, from 1 October 1906, Alexandru Tzigara – Samurcaș was appointed.


The Ethnographic Museum of National Art, Decorative Art and Industrial Art functioned on the site of the former state mint until 1912, when the foundation stone was laid for what was to become the “neo-Romanian” building of the Museum on the Road – as it would long be known to the people of Bucharest. But the completion of the construction will wait several decades, having to face the adversities of time and people. From the beginning of the 20th century to the present day, however, the Museum at the Road has been permanently relevant, its history accompanying and reflecting national construction and its vicissitudes.


This history begins, in a sense, before the museum’s institutional establishment, soon after the advent of the United Principalities. In this early period of national construction, the peasant already became a central symbolic reference of our identity and peasant culture began to interest the townspeople more and more. In order to give a boost to the ‘cottage industry’, which was suffering from competition from foreign products (fashionable and, moreover, cheaper, being industrially created), Al. I. Cuza issued an ordinance in 1863 for the organisation of exhibitions in which the products of the peasant cottage industry would be included. Thus, on 20 May 1863, the “national exhibition of cattle, flowers, vegetables, agricultural and industrial products” opened at the Obor, under the direction of Ion Ionescu de la Brad. The first private collections, national exhibitions and Romania’s participation in universal exhibitions appear. The question of a national museum, which would house in particular the artistic products of the Romanian people, begins to be raised.


“In order to draw a family tree, you first have to name some ancestors” – notes Irina Nicolau, recounting the history of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant. And this distant ancestor was the National Museum of Antiquities (founded in 1864 by the same Al. I. Cuza). In 1875, at the proposal of Titu Maiorescu, “a special section was organised here to exhibit textile art works made in the country: clothing, carpets, hangings, felt cloths, etc.”. The exhibits would mainly come from the collection of Lieutenant-Colonel Dimitrie Pappasoglu, who in 1864 had already organised a small museum in a pavilion of his house. A number of objects in the MȚR collections date from that period.


However, these first museum attempts were made without any order and without a proper museographic vision, which led Tzigara Samurkas to ask rhetorically: “Are we worthy of a national museum?”. And to strive for a lifetime to answer in the affirmative and realise this desire for a “true national museum”.


Its first form is that of the “Museum of Ethnography, National Art, Decorative Art and Industrial Art” – a name that Tzigara-Samurcaș considers “prolix and unnecessarily complicated”. The vision of the purpose and design of such a museum was to be expressed over time by changing the name of the museum to the “Museum of Ethnography and National Art” and then to the “Carol I Museum of National Art”. Peasant art had become national!


The Museum at the Road will continue its historical journey after the fundamental changes after the Second World War. Avoiding to become the barracks of the “liberating army”, the building will become, starting in 1953, the Lenin-Stalin Museum, then the Museum of the Romanian Communist Party, of the Revolutionary and Democratic Movement of Romania, to become more and more, in the last years of the communist regime, a kind of museum homage to President Nicolae Ceaușescu. The collections will be removed from their premises, gathered for a while in the building of the Știrbey Palace in Calea Victoriei, where they will form the Museum of Popular Art of the Socialist Republic of Romania under the direction of Tancred Bănățeanu, and then piled up in the warehouses of the Village Museum. Here they will wait, in relative oblivion, for better times.


These will come soon after the 1989 revolution. On 5 February 1990, a new inspired minister, Andrei Pleșu, made a new founding act by appointing – and at the insistent recommendation of Dan Hăulică – the painter Horia Bernea as director of the newly (re)established Museum of the Romanian Peasant.


“We are starting to make lists of names for the new museum”, recalled Irina Nicolau, one of Horia Bernea’s main collaborators, in her diary. What shall we call it? How is it more appropriate? My God, why didn’t we keep the paper! I know for a fact that Horia had numbered them and that we had come up with twenty or so names. The Museum of the Romanian Peasant escaped him, but he didn’t like it. After a few hours, it was precisely this name which, at least in the early years, annoyed many. Peasant? It’s pejorative, the French claimed. Romanian? It’s limiting and politically incorrect, others claimed. Later we were also sorry we didn’t just call it the Peasant Museum.” And further: “A year or so later, we are still struggling to add a subtitle to the name – National Museum of Arts and Traditions. We give up. All for the good: we would have joined a family of European museums with which we have nothing in common.”


Indeed, the Romanian Peasant Museum is not an “ethnographic museum” in the classical sense of the word. Quite the contrary. “We will study the village, the modern man, the peasant as he is,” Bernea declared, “but we will only understand what happened if we have the ‘model’ – the traditional village – well configured in the museum. Open to the changes and the “present time” to the point of being scandalous for classical museographers, the Museum of the Romanian Peasant is therefore keen to maintain a firm and permanent anchorage in this archetypal “model”. The name of the museum may thus be misleading: it is not about a “society museum”, faithfully presenting the life and creation of peasant communities in certain areas and specific periods of the country, but about what Irina Nicolau called “traditional man” and Gabriel Liiceanu considers “the universality of the human type that the peasant represents”. The Museum of the Romanian Peasant is thus the museum of a somewhat timeless spirituality, with which its initiators were obviously in love and which they proposed as a possible reference point for today’s world.


This universalist rather than particular-ethnographic vision brought, in fact, the great international recognition of 1996: the EMYA prize for European Museum of the Year. On the other hand, through its temporary exhibitions and its old and recent collections, through its already traditional fairs and the promotion of “Romanian peasant products”, through its activities with children and, soon, with the elderly, through the diversity of its cultural activities (book launches and debates, concerts and anthropological films, colloquia and cultural evenings, etc.) the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant tries to keep itself permanently up to date.