From Hungary: Exhibition curators’ work made impossible, profound last-minute changes in exhibition content

Samantha S. Reiter (TEA Editor)

In spite of years of preparation, recent events surrounding an important international exhibition have polarized archaeological and political opinion in Hungary. It began just before Christmas—three months prior to the exhibition’s planned opening—when Minister of Human Resources Miklós Kásler installed a new head curator for Szent István Király Museum’s upcoming “Kings and Saints: The Age of the Árpáds” exhibition (Borbas 2022). On 23 December, Miklós Makoldi, director of Archaeology at the Kásler’s newly-established Institute of Magyarságkutató (“Hungarian-ness”) took control of the project, and began to institute structural changes to the near-finished catalogue, apparently omitting some subjects (such as the presence of other non-Magyar groups in the Carpathian Basin at a crucial moment in history) altogether.

A group of researchers from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences known as the “Stádium 28 Circle” has voiced their opposition to this takeover. In a recent statement, they claim that the new version of the exhibition catalogue mistakenly emphasizes the Hunnic and Hungarian ties of the archaeological material in question (‘A Stádium 28 Kör Nyilatkozata a Székesfehérvári “Királyok És Szentek-- Az Árpádok Kora” Kiállításról’ 2022). However, to understand this situation better, we need to delve into events which took place in Central Europe over a millennium ago.

The dynasty to which the exhibition refers was seated in the area of what would become Hungary between the 9th and 13th centuries AD. A key part of Central European history, the dynasty is named after Grand Prince Árpád, who led the Heutumoger (the federation of Magyar clans whose name literally means “the seven tribes”) in their conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 895 AD*.

But how could these ancient events stir up a furore over 1000 years later? Sources suggest that among the changes instituted by Makoldi is the near complete deletion of the concept of Room 1, slated to touch upon references to the presence of Carolingians, Avars and Slavic groups in the Carpathian Basin at the time of Hungarian Conquest at the end of 9th century AD. The catalogue’s subtext instead seems to follow a line of argument which intimates that Hungarians, Avars and Huns were similar (possibly Hungarian-speaking) peoples at this time (Franka 2022).

This key period in the history of Central Europe has recently been the subject of genetic research; results suggest that there were some genetic similarities between Magyar and Central Asian population groups and that there was also evidence for admixture between Magyar populations and those of their neighbours (Nagy et al. 2021; Maár et al. 2021). The results of these scientific papers were interpreted by the Institute of Magyarságkutató as a direct continuity from the Huns to the so-called “Árpádian genome”, and it is this vision of the past which has been inserted into the exhibition.

Between 24th December 2021 and 1st January 2022, a group of twelve archaeologists, historians and archivists announced that they would cease collaboration on “Age of the Árpáds” as a result of the takeover and/or changes to the catalogue. At start of January, Hungarian government media disseminated texts decrying what they refer to as the “lies” of “left liberals” (Simon, Horváth-Lugossy, and Pokrovenszki 2022). On 14 January, 25 exhibition contributors (from diverse political backgrounds) refuted the Hungarian government’s statements in an open letter and declared that they would withdraw their chapters from the catalogue (begging the question of what material the catalogue will actually consist now that so much has been removed). On 16 January, Section II of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences published an open letter in support of their colleagues and calling the train of recent events surrounding the exhibition an “orgy of dilettantism” (Editor's Note 2022). Two days thereafter, Section I of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences published a statement in which they protested these events and exclaimed against the taking of decisions on scientific matters based on from what they call “non-scientific points of view” (‘Section 1 Hungarian Academy of Sciences Literature and Linguistics’ 2022).

Though Szent István Király Museum’s “Kings and Saints: The Age of the Árpáds” is scheduled to open its doors in March 2022, the issue is still evolving and the scandal is gathering momentum, both in the press, as well as in public opinion. “The Age of the Árpáds” has been financed by a €1.42 million (506 million HUF) loan from inter alia the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and the Vatican. The major international exhibition is slated to open in Székesfehérvár, which lies approximately halfway between Budapest and Lake Balaton.


*The end of the Árpád dynasty followed the signing of the Aranybulla (The Golden Bull) in 1222. Often compared to the Magna Carta, by signing the Aranybulla, King Andrew II was the first European monarch to accept the placement of constitutional limits on his powers as monarch. The exhibition itself is intended to commemorate the 800th anniversary of this crucial event in European history.


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