National Museum undergoing major renovation

National Museum's main building, photo: CzechTourism

The historic building of the National Museum overlooking Wenceslas Square is undergoing a major renovation that is set to end in 2018. The museum has had to relocate thousands of exhibits and is using the time to create new collections and work on a modern, interactive presentation. I spoke to the head of the museum’s collection-building and exhibitions department, historian Michal Stehlík, about the renovation and the challenges it poses.

National Museum's main building,  photo: CzechTourism
“The main building of the National Museum is from 1891 and it has gone for 120 years without a major reconstruction. It was damaged in the course of the 20th century –in 1945 and during the Soviet-led invasion in 1968 and to some degree also by the building of the Prague metro which passes under it. So the building had many problems, not just as a result of the damages I mentioned but as regards inadequate conditions for visitors, old technology and old exhibitions. And now we have a chance to prepare a new historic building with brand new exhibitions. It will be a relatively conservative reconstruction, not a great many architectural changes since we want to respect the work of architect Josef Schultz from 1891. The main changes will concern three points. The building has two huge courtyards and we plan to roof them over to create new space for exhibitions and new space for visitors and the third point is a tunnel between the new and old museum buildings. We plan to link the two buildings by an underground tunnel which will house a multi-media exhibition on the 20th century, Wenceslas Square and Czech history. I think it will be interesting for visitors and for us it is necessary to have this connection between the new and old buildings. We plan to have new exhibitions not just in the old building but in the new glass building across the street as well, focusing on Nature, Earth and Life. The old building has relatively conservative architecture and preparing exhibitions with new media can present a big challenge. We have four years in which to plan and I hope that in 2018 we will have a renovated old-new building with new exhibitions for the public. We will change all the permanent exhibitions in the historic building because the old ones were on archeology, mineralogy, zoology and so on – in other words very conservative and good for school outings but not the modern, interactive exhibitions that you see in British or German museums. We want to prepare six seven exhibitions on Czech history, nature history, numismatics and so on that will bring us up to the best European standards.”

“We want to link the new and old museum buildings with a tunnel.”

This has proved a major logistic challenge for you, you have relocated thousands of exhibits…where are they now and will they be accessible to the public during the renovation?

“Our collection has approximately 20 million items –relating to history, natural history, theatre, music and so on. The ones we had to relocate are now in our depositories in Terezín or Horní Počernice and some of the pieces are having to undergo conservation because of the damage done over the years when they were permanently on show - damage relating to temperature, light and so on. But I firmly believe that all of them will be back on display in 2018.”

The relocation of one of these items triggered great public and media interest and that was the relocation of the brain of a leading Czech scholar and historian –František Palacký. Now from today’s point of view this may seem like a morbid relic…can you tell us how it came to be there in the first place and where it is now?

Relocation of the brain of František Palacký,  photo: CTK
“Yes, that is something of a curiosity. František Palacký was one of the masterminds behind the National Museum in the 19th century and his significance was enormous not just for the museum but for Czech politics, culture, history and so on. And in 1876, after his death some people from the National Museum got the idea to preserve his brain separately from his remains. They got the consent of his family and it was placed in the National Museums depositories. Today we can ask ourselves why this was done. Maybe there were scientific reasons and it is true that in 1901 Charles University conducted some research on it, and also it could have been regarded as a historical relic, as a national relic, back in the 19th century. Since 1958 Palacký’s brain has been in the Pantheon of the National Museum –the hall of fame, dedicated to leading personalities of Czech history – and because of the reconstruction we had to move it to the house where he lived in Prague. And we are now discussing what to do with it – with his family, with the public and with experts. It can either be buried and reunited with his remains or it can go back to the Pantheon. It is up to his family and the director of the National Museum. We have even launched a public debate about it on our website. I know that it is a relic from the 19th century and today people have other concerns that to discuss the fate of Palacký’s brain but the brain is part of the National Museum’s collection and we will have to make a decision.”

“The National Museum will have to decide what to do with Frantisek Palacký’s brain”

So you have asked the public to help you decide? What kind of response have you had so far?

“Not a great deal. His family has responded and it seems they would like to see the brain buried, but it is only the start of this discussion.”

Apparently there was also a death mask made and a cast of his hand…does the National Museum have those items as well?

“Yes, that is not so unusual, it is a specialty of our historic collections, we have many death masks from our politicians, Masaryk, Švehla, Palacký and so on. Actually, next week we are opening an exhibition on famous funerals in Czech history where people can see all these things. Our main exhibition project now is Death.”

So the Pantheon, the hall of fame of important historic figures, is one of the things that will remain unchanged in the newly renovated building?

“Yes, the hall will be reconstructed but the question that is now being hotly debated is who should be given a place in the Pantheon. The Pantheon underwent many changes during the 20th century, during the communist era, after 1989 –with some persons out, some persons in – and now we are discussing who will be in the Czech Pantheon after 2018. We are considering opening it to new persons, maybe Vaclav Havel, maybe Jaroslav Seifert, or whether to take a conservative approach and focus of the First Czechoslovak Republic…at the moment we do not have a clear idea as to what the Panthoen will look like after 2018 –we are actively discussing the matter with our curators and the board of the National Museum.”

These are all highly interesting things about the Czech Republic. Does the National Museum get a lot of foreign visitors and what do you have for them?

National Museum's new building,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“Yes, we need to prepare well for foreign visitors because they are our second biggest target group after schools. So we need to take that into account when preparing new exhibitions and projects. Also apart from offering the information in foreign languages you have to give foreign visits background. Czechs who come here generally know our history but for foreign visitors you need to explain more, give things a broader context, provide links to European history and so on. So that is an aspect we must take into consideration and we are actively debating ways of improving the service.”