The National Museum, a monumental backdrop to modern Czech history

Photo: CzechTourism

No visitor to Prague can fail to admire the beautiful National Museum, the dominant feature atop the long boulevard of Wenceslas Square. It is home to millions of items of natural and social history. However, today’s edition of Spotlight focuses not on the exhibitions inside, but on the building of the National Museum itself, one of the instantly recognisable landmarks of the Czech Republic.

Art historian Lubomír Sršeň has the most excellent appearance of a museum employee. The elegant 60-year-old has an air of being right at home in the marble foyer of the National Museum where we met, and well he should – as one of the building’s longest serving employees he has been caring for its artworks for nearly a third of its history. Since he was asked to prepare an exhibition for the building’s 100 year anniversary in 1991, he has also become the authority on its history, and so I came to him with my many questions about the monument, beginning with what was here before it.

“The New Town district of Prague ended at this point, there were city walls in this area, and right where the museum is now was the New Horse Gate, which was built in the 19th century on the site of an older gate. If we face Wenceslas Square, which used to be a horse market, then behind us fields and meadows and orchards began and the city ended. And because they had begun taking down the city walls in the late 19th century and the entry gates as well, new lots were available where the Main Train Station and other public buildings like the National Museum were built.”

The National Museum was conceived with an eye towards grandeur. It entirely closes the top of the square where it provides a defining view of Prague. It is one of the largest buildings in Prague – 100 metres wide and almost 70 metres in height, making it taller than the small Eiffel tower on Petřín Hill.

The National Museum in 1891,  photo:
“The reason for the size was not really how much room the museum needed, it was more about the architect’s idea to create a monumental backdrop that would kind of seal the urban design of the square. When it was built it seemed like the museum might not actually be able to make use of so much space. That is funny, because in just a few years it was bursting at the seams, and by the beginning of the 20th century the collections couldn’t even fit inside.”

The National Museum is one of four, particularly superb neo-renaissance buildings in Prague, along with the National Theatre, the Rudolfinum and the Museum of Decorative Arts. It stands out from them though not only with its mass but also with the added aspect of a central pantheon of statues of great Czechs that lies directly beneath the building’s large domed tower, making it not only a museum but what Dr. Sršeň describes as a kind of holy ground.

“As the building was made at the end of the 19th century, at a time of revival for Czech art and culture, the museum was built with the lofty idea of paying homage to the great figures of Czech history, culture and science. And the inclusion of the pantheon in the design was actually one of the reasons why the architect Josef Schulz won the commission. Nothing like that had been asked for, and it was by somewhat violating the restraint of neo-renaissance architecture, with the high cupola above the pantheon, that he won over the jury and won the tender.”

The National Museum's pantheon,  photo:
In the four arches of the pantheon are masterworks of two of the painters of the National Revival, František Ženíšek and Václav Brožík, which show defining moments of Czech erudition: the founding of Charles University, the first university north of the Alps, Saint Methodius completing the Slavonic Bible, Comenius presenting his writings to the world. In this monument of Czech nationalism there were once two marble statues of non-Czechs, those of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and the Empress Elizabeth, and they came straight down upon Czechoslovak independence in the first quarter of a hard century.

“With its position on Wenceslas Square, this building has been a witness to everything this country has gone through in the 20th century. The museum itself is closely tied to Czech history, it saw all of the injustices and the glory, and I suppose the unhappy events were more numerous.

“If we begin with the Second World War, which so humiliated this country, a symbol of that was the damage the building suffered when a bomb was dropped straight into the centre of it on the 7th of May, 1945. I don’t know how credible it is, but it is said that it was dropped by the last German plane that flew over Prague.”

The building damaged by a bomb in 1945,  photo:
The next unfortunate event to which the museum was a backdrop was the Soviet invasion of 1968. Soldiers in tanks by the statue of St. Václav showered the building with machine gun fire, apparently thinking they had been fired on. The shots can be seen on the facade today, as repairmen sealed them with stone of a different colour, perhaps even purposefully to leave a reminder.

Later, in the 70s, Czech workers, as Dr. Sršeň puts it, “managed to damage the building on their own” when the city’s metro system was being constructed.

“I was working here by then, so I remember it. We heard an underground explosion during the day. We knew they were forbidden to use dynamite to make the metro tunnels, but they did it anyway because they needed to break some drilling record. They probably did break the record but they caused immense damage, the entire left corner of the building tore off all the way to the roof leaving a crack you could put your finger through. The whole corner of the building had to be cut off of the foundation and hydraulically lifted a bit and then the cracks were filled. I remember that.”

And it wasn’t just material damage that the communists caused to the building; the National Museum could also be a prop for socialist pageantry that undermined its nationalistic dignity. In protest of the Soviet invasion, people had burnt themselves to death at the foot of the National Museum, but still there were celebrations of socialist achievements being held there, like the opening of the highway that runs past the museum on either side.

The view from the National Museum towards Wenceslas Square
“Suddenly, the National Museum was cut off from the square and we were no longer at the address Wenceslaus Square 68, but the Avenue of Victorious February 74 [referring to the 1948 communist coup]. I remember feeling so humiliated and angry when the ceremonial opening of the highway took place in the pantheon to the very obliging acquiescence of the general director, who agreed with it and tolerated it.”

It is important to note the that “the National Museum” does not refer only to the main building on Wenceslaus Square, but to the institution as a whole with a great many branches, buildings and chateaux throughout the Czech Republic. Because there were simply less historical artefacts at the end of the 19th century and a great preponderance of manuscripts and items relating to natural science, a tradition has been maintained of the main building showcasing mainly these items – to the surprise of tourists who expect more historical exhibits. Such exhibits have been shown more frequently in recent years, and there is a window of opportunity to see them right now.

“We have been planning a reconstruction ever since I came to work here, it really is needed, but everyone has always been hesitant because it means the tremendous task of moving millions of items out of the building. But last I heard the building should be empty by the end of next year, and it should take three to four years, but deadlines always prove to be more flexible than when they are set. So those who have the opportunity to come to the museum should while these exhibits are still here.”