Such bold dynamism! [The late poet] Géza Szőcs would surely be happy to see this; and if he can see it, he is surely happy. Let us not forget that it was from his mind that there sprang the idea that Hungary – or Budapest – would be a worthy location in Europe for an unprecedented museum district.
I greet you all, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Special greetings to Minister János Csák. This is how it goes, János: you have not even occupied your post, and you are already basking in glory. I would like to warmly greet our Mayor, István Tarlós, without whom we could not have launched on this great adventure. I would also like to greet the current mayor, but out of sensitivity for his feelings I will not do so now – since he has not come here. But, since we are in an ethnographic museum, my suggestion to opponents of the Liget [City Park programme] comes from Dakota folklore: if you notice you are riding a dead horse, dismount.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good afternoon to you all. It has been a long time since we saw one another: four months ago to the day, when we gathered nearby for the inauguration of Hungary’s House of Music. And now we are back again to inaugurate a superb new cultural centre, the Ethnographic Museum. In the meantime, of course, one or two other things have happened. Let us thank God that we can stand here with Hungary moving forward, not back. I do not know if our friend Lakatos Szakcsi is here. Who would have thought, even fifteen years ago, that the biggest cultural investment in the entire Western world would take place here in Városliget [City Park]? Who would have thought that we would hardly be able to keep up with all the opening ceremonies, and that we would be winning one international award after another? Why have we done all this? Why have we built all these wonderful buildings, including this one? Why, in the middle of an uncertain and changing world, have we decided to channel Hungary’s resources towards culture, cultural spaces, museums and concert halls, and the rehabilitation of the built environment and Budapest’s most beautiful park? This is not an easy question to answer. Einstein once said, “Everyone knows that certain things cannot be achieved, until someone ignorant of that fact comes along and achieves them.” This is the situation we were in. While everyone was saying that it could not be done, we were progressing step by step, building by building; and on 3 April Hungarians reassured us that we were right to do what we were doing, and that they think that we need to go on and on and on to bring Europe’s biggest cultural project to final completion. I feel that we have been given a mandate to implement the entire programme.
It is said that in the British parliament during World War II Churchill was urged to cut spending on culture and divert the money to the military budget. His reply was, “Then what are we fighting for?” This is right: the culture of a nation is in fact an immovable signpost; culture shows us where we have come from and where we are going, and if we ignore it we will find ourselves hopelessly lost. And if we lose our way, then after a while we will not even know why we are fighting.
The importance of culture is amplified when it comes to Hungarian folk art. Folk art shows us what it is to be Hungarian, and it also shows us how good it is to be Hungarian. Hungarian folk culture sums up the wisdom, knowledge, life experience and worldview of our people, accumulated over a thousand years – and for perhaps even longer than we have been here in the Carpathian Basin. We are a people whose ancient writings have not survived. We have no written memories of our own from our life before our arrival in the Carpathian Basin. But we have Hungarian folk art: folk tales instead of documents; folk art instead of cult objects, folk songs, ballads and dances instead of rituals. This is the wisdom of our ancestors. And from all this, from Hungarian folk art, the Hungarian character is clearly visible. What, then, is this Hungarian character? What is the defining Hungarian characteristic? No one can articulate that well, which is why we have built this Ethnographic Museum to answer this difficult question.
What we know for sure is that our language and our music connect us to places and times which are unfamiliar to other European peoples. This is what gives the Hungarian world its unique character, the deeper reason for our existence, and for our existence today. If we were to disappear, together with us something irreplaceable would disappear from the world. And this also forms the mission of our life, the mission of Hungarians. No one except us is equipped and able to preserve all this culture. It is also clear that cultural inclusiveness has always been an important element in our world. The Carpathian Basin has been inhabited by a colourful cavalcade of peoples; and yet there are similar features in the houses, the order of the villages and the curves of the roads from Zsolna (Žilina in Slovakia) to Brassó (Brașov in Romania), from Máramaros (Maramureș in Romania and Ukraine) to the banks of the River Dráva. In this museum it is also clear that Hungarian identity is like a birthmark: indelible. It is passed on from generation to generation down the centuries. Tulip patterns curve around our painted Easter eggs, ears of wheat arch on our decorated plates, and wide fields are revealed on the Kalocsa woven cloth we saw on our grandmothers’ tables on a Sunday – or, as we grow older, increasingly on our own tables. The same motifs run right through the centuries of our culture and history. The Hungarian soul is like the wildflower of nature: it can live anywhere if it is free. It is like Petőfi’s poetry: even if it grows around weeds, it still emerges and sooner or later finds a way to free itself from the grip of the tendrils clinging to it. When we see our ethnographic heritage, we not only see it as beautiful, but we are also filled with a sense of freedom – at least I am – and we smile involuntarily. It is good to be Hungarian. This is why we are able to anticipate and why we resist when others seek to impose restrictions on us. This is why we are quick to recognise when there is trouble, when there is a threat to our culture, our customs, our way of life, our heritage. The attachment to beauty and Hungarian identity have shared roots. We see and understand the beauty in the Hungarian world, the Hungarian soul is beautiful, Hungarian life is pleasing, and the Hungarian world delights the eye and the soul. As László Ravasz writes: “Hungarians are happy in themselves, they find pleasure in themselves.”
In today’s modern world, there is a basic assumption that beauty is something subjective: you, the observer, decide what is beautiful and what is not. It is an attractive idea. But according to a wonderful British friend of ours, the late Sir Roger Scruton, beauty is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world. Beauty is a universal value anchored in our rational nature. Sir Roger Scruton argued that we humans are capable of articulating truths that stand up on their own, independent of any historical period, cultural background or political viewpoint. And he said that the best example of this is our sense of beauty. That there is eternal, universal beauty – which is truth itself – is proved by the fact that we see nothing beautiful in a concrete block, but find beauty in a sunset or an image of a mother embracing her child.
Although it is a beautiful building, the museum’s former home in the Curia building in Kossuth Square had a form that was not suited to its content. Its form was that of public offices, while its content was that of Hungarian culture; and let us admit that these did not reinforce each other, but instead cancelled each other out. This building is different. Here content and form meet each other. This building reflects our conviction that there is beauty in the world. And that even in a world of uniform cube-like buildings and unimaginative office complexes, it is possible to create something unique that fits into its surroundings, catches the eye and delights the soul. We wanted a building in which the natural beauty of Hungarian folk culture could unfold to its fullest. We have done the work, and now it is up to you to judge the product.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today is a day of celebration, a day to celebrate that our treasures have found their rightful place. We have one remaining task: we must rise to the occasion. We must reach the point of maturity whereby there is not simply one day of celebration, but – as László Ravasz admonished us – we find joy in our Hungarian identity every day. This remarkable building, another outstanding example of Hungarian ingenuity and sense of beauty, will help us to do that. Congratulations on this beautiful museum, and thank you for the opportunity to celebrate with you. God bless you all!
Photo credit: MTI