Czech National Museum: An architectural gem full of treasures

National Museum, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

The neo-Renaissance Czech National Museum building has dominated Wenceslas Square in Prague for 130 years. Since the centenary of the republic’s founding, it has a shiny new façade.

The museum’s history itself is still a few decades older. The patriotic Czech nobility were behind its creation. It took some time to secure a sufficiently representative setting. From 1891, the Neo-Renaissance palace became a dominant feature of the city. Today, it stands atop one of the busiest places in Prague, between two main roads.

It is hard to imagine that originally the building was entirely surrounded by a quiet park, adjacent to the Horse Market. The equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas, located a few metres below in the upper part of Wenceslas Square, was intended as part of the museum entrance. However, the sculpture’s creator, Josef Václav Myslbek, did not agree.

National Museum | Photo: Rijksmuseum,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0 1.0 DEED

Facelift for a façade

Skeleton of the fin whale | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

Up until a few years ago, the museum building was dark, marred by decades of car exhaust and other residue on the façade –which was also pockmarked from Soviet bullets during the invasion of 1968. But now everything shimmers. Apart from the exterior, the vestibule also got a makeover, as did the gleaming mosaic floors. The Italian artisans who created them allegedly consumed three and a half million marble stones.

Large paintings on the walls are also a significant element. They depict four famous Czech castles: Prague Castle, Zvíkov, Křivoklát and Karlštejn. The back corridor of the gallery in front of the entrance to the exhibition halls is decorated with two von Schwanthaler statues; on the left it is the poet and writer Bohuslav Hasištejnský from Lobkovice, and on the right the first archbishop of Prague and advisor to Charles IV, Arnošt from Pardubice.

The Pantheon is a celebration of personalities of Czech science, art and politics. The museum’s collections include thousands of unique pieces, rare coins and minerals. But the most famous exhibit is undoubtedly the skeleton of the fin whale.

National Museum | Photo: Eliška Kubánková,  Radio Prague International

Movie set favourite

Do you remember how James Bond, in the film Casino Royale, exits a Venetian hotel to look for a femme fatale who seduced him and then disappeared with his winnings? This is the main staircase of the historic building.

In the film Red Baron, the museum itself represents a German imperial castle. The entrance hall or Pantheon has also appeared in a numerous foreign and Czech films. For example, the spy thriller Mission Impossible, the Jack the Ripper adaptation From Hell, and the Czech film Kawasaki’s Rose.

National Museum | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International