Prague's National Museum building in dire need of restoration after 115 years of operation

National Museum

The majestic building of Prague's National Museum, standing on top of Wenceslas Square, opened in 1891 to provide a dignified home for the institution, founded in 1818. What was a quiet, leafy area a hundred years ago is now the busiest place in Prague. With congested motorways on both sides of the building and two metro lines crossing right underneath it the National Museum building is suffering considerably.

In his office with a 19th-century feel to it - if it weren't for the view of the steel and glass headquarters of Radio Free Europe just across the street - I spoke to the museum's director Michal Lukes.

"The National Museum is the largest state museum institution and one of the oldest Czech scientific institutions. We collect objects related to the history of nature and mankind. We have five specialised institutes, including the second largest library in the Czech Republic and we have around 20,000,000 objects, out of which only around 1 percent is on display. The rest serves for scientific research, such as our entomology, mycology and botanical collections."

The main building on Wenceslas Square houses the library and has large exhibition halls where you can see, for example, a stuffed elephant or a complete whale's skeleton. But some things have not changed since the building first opened.

"Since the building was erected in 1891, it has not been renovated - only damaged: by everyday wear and tear, but mainly in two attacks. In 1945 a few bombs were dropped on the building. They did not explode but still damaged the building. And then in 1968 its façade was riddled with bullets when the Soviet occupants probably mistook it for the nearby Czechoslovak Radio building. And finally, when a metro line was built underneath it, the structural integrity of the building was impaired and the repairs are still only provisional."

The building is also affected by pollution from the busy roads and so are the exhibits, as there is no air-conditioning.

For a thorough renovation, some 4.5 billion crowns (180 million dollars) would be necessary. The museum has been in talks with the government for several years, but the required funds have not been found. Meanwhile the situation is becoming untenable, says director Michal Lukes.

"The façade is damaged by bullets but also peeling off. There are statues on the roof which will have to be removed because bits are falling off them could hurt passers-by. All the wiring and plumbing is in terrible shape. We now have gas pipes no higher than the first floor and it's the same with fire hydrants. They used to be everywhere including the attic but some 25 years ago they stopped working, so we have to have fire extinguishers everywhere instead. Recently we had a steam pipe burst, and the steam penetrated through holes and vents all the way to a book depository, causing 100,000 crowns worth of damage to the books. And I could go on and on."

Radio Free Europe
Michal Lukes says he hopes the money will eventually be found but still it would take some three to four years just to prepare the building for the restoration. Meanwhile, as Radio Free Europe is expected to move out of its premises just across the street, Michal Lukes says the National Museum is very much interested in the 1970s steel and glass structure, which used to house the Czech parliament.

"The building is a great location and it would be great if we could connect these two buildings. When talks start on its future, the National Museum will definitely try to acquire the building from the Finance Ministry - either to rent or to buy."