I believe that one should take any opportunity that comes your way, so when I was invited to go to the Czech Republic and Slovakia for a brief, but full on holiday, I took advantage of it. The area I travelled through is very old and history is everywhere.
Once there, I noticed that while some history is experienced as a fine church or castle, much of it is contained and presented in the many buildings that call themselves ‘museums’.
A little like Ashburton District, it seems that most towns want to have more than one museum. Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, boasts 30!
While some focus on the town or village as a whole, many specialise in a single topic. These topics may be a person, location, event, or – as it sometimes appeared to me – just a rather strange collection. Does the world really need, for example, a marzipan museum (in Bratislava) when a perfectly good café that specialises in that super sweet concoction was right next door?
Sometimes the focus of the collection had merit, but because of sparse information you left feeling more entertained than educated. Surely a good museum can do both?
In order to buy some embarrassing gift for my nephew, I bravely ventured inside the Sex Machine Museum in Prague. (The joke was on me as they didn’t have any souvenirs!). While they had an interesting collection that could have been used to explore many questions about sexuality, I left thinking their sole purpose was to shock or titillate.
Labels or not
Other times there was plenty of information but not what was crucial to understanding the collection.
At the Loreta in Prague they have a well-publicised collection of monstrances – the vessels used in Catholic and Anglican churches for holding the communion wafer.
There, the labels commented on the age, maker and components (one contained 6,222 diamonds). However, as there was no real explanation of what the objects were for, some viewers were left looking at apparently pretty, but meaningless, objects.
In most instances lack of understanding was a frustration, however sometimes you missed out on the experience altogether.
The Pinkas Synagogue, in Prague, is part of the Jewish Museum, which isn’t a museum at all, but a collection of buildings, including a historic cemetery that seeks to preserve and celebrate the Jewish culture.
Compared to the older and more ornate synagogues, the modern synagogue could seem to be just a plain, empty building. Its only decoration appears, on first view, to be walls decorated with tiny wavy patterns. Due to insufficient information, people could miss out on the moving fact that the wavy lines are actually names of all the Czech Jews who died during World War Two.
Some of the best museums were found in unexpected places – unexpected as there was little publicity or even signage to tell you where they were.
The castle museum in Bratislava was something I really only stumbled upon and although it stated that it dealt with the history of the castle and its restoration, it also had an excellent exhibition on the early Celtic tribes that lived in the area.
In Olomouc I popped into a rather sad looking ‘museum’ down a side street that purported to display old statuary. This too had a most impressive Celtic exhibition, including a 3000 year old boat – perhaps the only one its kind.
If some Museums didn’t advertise, others overinflated their worth. The Anthros Pavilion, an anthropology museum in Brno, was a must-see for me after seeing their great website presence. After making an effort to get there on a 32 degree day, I found a sad building with displays that even had cobwebs and which had very out-of-date information panels. This was especially odd as some of the findings were based on discoveries made nearby!
Yet in the small village of Bojnice a group of volunteers did a great job providing up-to-date information on Neanderthals, and even offered a very entertaining programme for children.
It was easy to pick which ‘museums’ (whatever their focus) had enthusiastic people involved. It didn’t matter if the museum was large or the collection ‘important’, or what the budget was like.
Passionate people who wanted to share with visitors what they had to offer provided a much better experience than ‘soulless’ institutions. The age and history of the areas I visited was vast and impressive. It would be ridiculous to imagine therefore, that we have here in Ashburton could ever compare with institutions that themselves have been around for hundreds of years. However, in terms of passion and dedication I believe we can compare ourselves more than favourably.
By Kathleen Stringer
- One of my favourite places has to be Cesky Krumlov. Not able to confine their history in a single building, the whole village has been recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site. It must have one of the most beautiful castles in Europe. They a number of specialist museums and stages festivals throughout the year celebrating different aspects of their heritage.
- This museum in Prague entices visitors inside by claiming it has chamber pots used by Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon.
- A Celtic boat, ‘found’ in a tiny museum in Olomouc. They man responsible was closing but let me in, and although we didn’t share the same language we somehow communicated our mutual interest. With lots of nods and pointing he was obviously very proud of item and very pleased I was excited to see it.
- Made it! One of the oldest Palaeolithic sites in Europe, this open air ‘museum’ in Bojnice was both enjoyable and informative.
- The importance of signage. On seeing an open church I ventured inside, a small sign in a corner said ‘To the rack’. It transpired that I was in the former prison in Olomouc where St John Sarkander was martyred. Good information panels informed me that I was looking at the very rack where he died.