The Highway Museum
Always topical, since 1906
The Ethnography, National Art, Decorative and Industrial Art Museum were established by Royal Decree in July 1906. At the proposal of the Ministry of Education and Cults, Mihail Vlădescu, Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș was appointed manager, starting October 1st.
The museum functioned in the place of the former state mint until 1912, when the headstone was laid for what was going to be the “neo-Romanian” building of The Highway Museum – as the Bucharesters would cocker it for a long time to come. But the building waited for decades to be finished, having to face the adversities of times and people. Nevertheless, since the beginning of the 20th century up until now, the Highway Museum has always been topical, its history accompanying and reflecting the national construction and its vicissitudes.
This history begins, in a way, before the official establishment of the museum, a short time after the appearance of the United Principalities. In this period of the rise of the national construction, the Peasant already becomes a central symbolic landmark of our identity and the village culture is a point of increasing interest to urban dwellers. Aiming to give an impulse to “household industry”, affected by the competition of the foreign products (which were trendy and besides cheaper, being made industrially), in 1863 Al.I. Cuza issues a regulation to organize exhibitions meant to host, among others, products of the peasant household industry. 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. And this removed ancestor was The National Museum of Antiques (established in 1864 by the same Al.I. Cuza). That is the place where is organized, at Titu Maiorescu’s proposal, “a special section where textile art works made in our country will be exposed: clothes, carpets, woven fabric, felt etc.”. 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.
These first museal attempts were made, though, in no order and with no real museographic 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 clarifies 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 Highway Museum undergoes fundamental changes after the Second World War, when it was in danger to become the barracks of the “redemptory army”. Since 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 Popular 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 inspired minister, Andrei Pleșu, lays a new foundation by appointing the painter Horia Bernea – at the recommendation of Dan Hăulică, as well – director of the newly re-established Museum of the Romanian Peasant.
“We begin to make name lists for the new museum – remembered Irina Nicolau, one of the main collaborators of Horia Bernea, in her diary. 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 didn’t name it simply 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 do not resemble ours at all.”
Indeed, The Romanian Peasant Museum is not an “ethnographic museum” in the classical 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 happened only if we have well set up in the museum “the model” – the traditional village. Open to changes and to “the present times” to the point of becoming intriguing for the classical museographers, The Romanian Peasant Museum insists on keeping this firm and permanent anchorage in this archetypal “model”. The name of the museum may thus be misleading: it is not a “museum of a society” which presents us faithfully 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 „the universality of a human type which the peasant represents” The Romanian Peasant Museum is thus the museum 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, in fact, the great international acknowledgment of 1996: the EMYA prize for the European Museum of the Year. On the other hand, 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 with the elderly, through the diversity of its cultural activities (book launches and debates, concerts and anthropological films, colloquies and cultural evenings etc.), The National Museum of the Romanian Peasant is trying to be in the pipeline.