Museums of Music: Budapest


Exhibiting music highlights the challenge of presenting the intangible, through tangible and digital objects, with fragmented collections. In this post I explore these topics as experienced in various Museums of Music across the world while arguing that music can help close the gap between culture and heritage. In this post: Budapest.

Museum of Music History – Budapest (visited October 2017)

The museum is located in the Castle District of the Buda mountain. The museum is part of the Institute of Musicology, which was formed in 1974 to unify the musicological and ethnomusicological research activities and currently includes an archive, a library, a concert hall, and the Museum of Music History. The collections contains folk music and folk dance collections; the Bartók Archives; a collection of instruments; Church music; and a Historical Hymn collection. The Institute for Musicology, known as the Folk Music and Folk Dance Research Department and Archives, is one of the oldest research groups of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. A bilingual catalogue commemorating 40 years of the Institute is available online.

The Music History Museum displays chronologically the development of musical instruments with special attention to specimens made by Hungarian makers. The earliest pieces date from the 1700s, including a positive organ, a square piano (below), a viola da gamba, and a simple pedal harp. Several pianos are displayed from the early 1800s.


There is a section highlighting the production process of string instruments, as Hungary has a renowned violin making history. One example of this is Istvan Konya (1919-1999), who started making instruments for pleasure in a self-taught manner, later earning a diploma from Cremona Italy at age forty five. He was the first in what would become a family of prestigious violin makers.

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A large part of the museum is devoted to the temporary exhibitions. I visited The Beginnings of Ethnomusicological Research in Hungary. Objects displayed included photographs, diary entries, and sheet music from the library and archive collections of the Institute.


The exhibit starts acknowledging ethnographer Béla Vikár for introducing the phonograph, tool that made modern and objective documentation possible even though he had no music education. The development of ethnomusicological research was only possible when Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók embarked in the research and documentation of folk music tradition. The exhibit highlights their work and cooperation in the field.

It was a matter of creating something specifically Hungarian in music, too. This idea caught my eye and focused my attention on the study of our folk music, more precisely to the study of what was then regarded as Hungarian folk music… I soon realized, however, that the Hungarian melodies erroneously known as folk songs – which in reality are the compositions of composers belonging to the upper classes – were of little interest and so, in 1905, I began to explore the Hungarian peasant music, completely unknown before then. (Bartok Autobiography, 1918)

The collections of the Institute for Musicology, in fact, are arranged according to scientific principles founded by Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók, and György Martin (folk dance scholar). Below a folk tune transcription by Zoltán Kodály (left) and by Béla Bartók (right) with characteristic corrections in green ink.


The folk music and dance collections have been documented as audio and video recordings as well as musical notations. The sound recordings collection include 37,000 hours sound of music, including the phonograph cylinders available in analogue and digital form. The microfilm collection was founded in 1966 to make Hungarian plain chant sources accessible in a central location (ca. 800 microfilm), and represents an unique source of early music history significant for medieval music research.  Most of the microfilm collection has been digitized and is available online. Below, the image of a musical carrier made from a medical x-ray from the collection.


Even though the museum has no audio tour, no cafe, and a limited shop, it does have a rather comprehensive bilingual online presence. The museum’s website contains all temporary exhibition catalogues, as well as all digital collections, available as part of the Institute for Musicology. Their home page links to the Visegrad Fund (V4), which provided funding for a collaboration among musicological institutions from the V4, namely Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, to advance the study of music in the region. The V4 Fund aims at promoting regional cooperation in the V4 region by awarding €8 million yearly through grants, scholarships, and residencies.


I was in fact visiting Budapest as speaker for a V4 funded initiative for the stimulation of collection mobility across the V4 countries, the V4 Active Collections Conference at the Hungarian National Gallery, next to the Museum of Music History. The National Gallery had several musical references, including the Annunciation Altarpiece in Saint John the Baptist in Kisszeben (1510) below, and above Woman playing cello (1928) by Róbert Berény (Hungarian artist). Note the available links to each piece in the museum’s collection online.


Music in this small museum in the Castle District is visibly connected to research, with a significant collection of intangible heritage documented in various forms, and largely available digitally online. I was surprised by the visible economic support of the V4, which clearly enables the formation of an information network, of collections, of individuals, and of sounds.


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I am a researcher on the historic and economic aspects of digital heritage. In my free time I sing and paint.

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