Best History Museum Ever

I was in Budapest last week leading a study tour from my university and while there, a group of us visited the House of Terror (Terror Haza) museum. It was the best history museum I have ever visited (although this fact is not reflected in their website, which still needs work).

The museum itself is housed in the building on Andrassy utca that was the headquarters of the Hungarian Arrow Cross (fascist) movement and then the headquarters of the state secret police during the Stalinist period. It is, of course, quite symbolic that the state secret police would use the same headquarters as the fascists and this gave the entire structure a kind of chilling overlay. When you enter the museum, the first thing you see is a T-54 tank perched in the center of an open atrium. Oil leaks from beneath the tank as though it is damaged and pours down into the basement below, giving the image that the tank is floating on a pool of its own oil. On the wall above it are pictures of victims of the fascist and communist terrors, their faces reflected in the oil pouring out beneath the tank.

The museum itself utilizes the latest multi-media techniques–lots of video and audio, sometimes creating clashing voices that overstimulate, other times forcing you to focus on just one screen, one voice. Many of the screens activate their audio only when you are close, others shout at you as you pass through the room. Objects are displayed very well and the museum is high-touch–visitors are encouraged to touch many of the artifacts on display.

In the basement one wanders through rooms that once upon a time were detention and torture cells–recreated now from pictures and memories–and the smell is one of fear and decay. Most chilling, perhaps, is the final display–images of the “victimizers”, many of whom are still alive according to the dates under the photographs. The fact that so many of the victimizers are still alive shocked several of my students into realizing that this story has not ended.

A Hungarian colleague of mine told me this week that the launching of the museum was not without major controversy. The first plan for the museum, proposed under a right-wing government, was for a space devoted only to the communist terror. Only after many protests (and a change of government) did the fascist terror become part of the final plan for the space.

When you go to the website, you have to click the upper link for “museum” and then click the links to the left that then appear to get a sense for the overall collection. The website of this museum is proof that a fabulous museum and a fabulous website do not have to co-exist. Perhaps one day soon the website for the House of Terror will catch up to the exhibitions in the building.

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