Museums Near You

House of Terror, Budapest, Hungary

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Thank you to the What Katy blog for this exhilarating post on The House of Terror. All photographs are taken from the House of Terror website.

the exhibition list

On a recent trip to Budapest, the place top of my list to visit was the House of Terror. Ominous and intriguing from the outside, I wasn’t sure what to expect on the inside given that I’m only used to visiting British museums. From the moment you go into the exhibition (using the lift to get to the second floor) you are confronted by hundreds of black and white photographs of the victims of the occupations from floor to ceiling. It’s interesting that these faces form the centre-point of the whole building, reminding us of the human cost of war.

the exhibition list

The very first exhibition room I went in briefly explored the Nazi and Soviet occupations, putting the House of Terror itself into context – firstly as the headquarters of the Arrowcross (Hungarian Nazis) and post-war as the headquarters of the Soviet secret police. Sheets of paper in English and Hungarian were in a box at the entrance to every room explaining the historical context of each exhibition room. To begin with, this was extremely useful, however when I had entered the sixteenth room with a handful of paper it began to get a bit tedious. Luckily, I tagged on to an English speaking tour which was absolutely fascinating and much more engaging than sheets of paper. Having said that, people learn in many different ways so it was great that there was an alternative.

The part of the exhibition which I felt was most successful in design and content was the exploration and explanation of the Soviet gulags. A large room carpeted with a map of Eastern Europe featured waist-height pin points holding interesting objects and documents from the time including pots, water bottles, crucifixes and felt boots to name a few. On the walls of the room were large screens showing audio-visual testimony (with English subtitles) and documentary footage of the gulags. The overall experience was completely absorbing. I’m a big fan of “immersive learning spaces” where you can really engage with a topic.

the exhibition list

I was also very impressed by the museum’s innovative installations elsewhere. In particular, the display of a car which was used to take away soviet suspects in the middle of the night was surrounded by a black curtain and was made visible when the lights in the room were turned off unexpectedly. Our tour guide explained the reason for this (and the Jaws-esque music) was to evoking a feeling of nervousness and uncertainty of fate – exactly what people at the time would have experienced.

There was a noticeable and purposeful transition when travelling from the main exhibition rooms down to the basement. In the pitch dark we entered a slow-moving lift (after having to queue for 15 minutes, which was only negative part of my visit) and watched a short film of a man describing the terror and reality of hangings – the context of which came clear when we exited the lift and entered the reconstruction of the prison cells, complete with torture equipment. The nonchalance of the tour guide describing heinous acts of torture was somewhat disturbing in itself but the effect on the audience was quite clear, there were constant gasps of horror and shaking of heads, but more readily just silence. It’s hard to know how to react when you’re in a place where people have experienced immense pain. One fact seemed particularly unsettling for myself and the rest of the tour group – that none of the torturers had been prosecuted following the end of Soviet occupation.

exhibition list

Juxtaposed alongside the torture rooms we had just been in was a room dedicated to Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The design of this part of the exhibit was particularly clever – by hanging clothing and a bicycle from the ceiling interesting shadows were cast on the walls, on which were covered with Hungarian graffiti as well as a Molotov cocktail. Additionally, the Hungarian flag with the centre cut out, a symbol of the revolution, was unfurled also from the ceiling, creating an engaging space. Again an immersive environment really captured the spirit of the uprising and one felt a feeling of admiration for those who resisted the Soviet occupiers.

the exhibition list

In the penultimate room of the museum stood the ‘Hall of Tears’, a memorial to those who were executed between 1945 and 1967. The memorial itself was fascinating as you can see from the photograph below but it was interesting that there was no memorial for those who lost their lives under Nazi occupation. The end of the exhibition consisted of a small room with screens on the walls showing footage of the last Soviet soldier leaving Hungary in 1990, for many in the room bringing the history we had just explored into living memory.

the exhibition list

The House of Terror is a fascinating, thought-provoking and well designed museum. It is not easy to confront such a difficult history, particularly the involvement of the Hungarian Nazis and admitting that some Hungarians were perpetrators. I am told by a colleague that this history is not easily digested by Hungarians themselves, so it was a brave move for the curators to tackle that issue. Having said that, it is clear that the main focus of the museum is to examine the Soviet occupation, which I’m also made aware by my colleague that some Hungarians believe was worse than the Nazi occupation – a contentious issue that I will leave to the historians to debate.

If you’re in Budapest I highly recommend visiting the House of Terror. The content is well written (despite the odd dodgy English translation) and the design is innovative and immersive. A brilliant museum experience.

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