In an interview given to kultura.hu, Deputy Secretary of State for Culture Miklós Cseri tells of his first museum experience and the paintings he would like to see on his walls, but compulsory literature and Deep Purple records are also touched upon.
What does culture mean to you?
A form of existence. In a broader sense, I hold the view that all manifestations of life are cultural manifestations to a certain extent.
As a director of a museum, you doubtlessly remember your first museum experience. What was this?
My first museum experience is connected to my secondary school years. I studied at the Hungarian Reformed Church’s high school in Sárospatak, which at that time was called Rákóczi High School as a result of nationalisation. Founded in 1531, it is the country’s oldest Reformed boarding school and boasts an enormous collection of church artefacts. When I found myself there, I was left stunned for days.
Having received my degree in 1982, I got married the next year and reported at my workplace, the Ottó Herman Museum in Miskolc, the following year. Immediately on my first day, the director assigned me the task of establishing a museum in a traditional house in the village of Füzér. I never did anything like this in my life, but it had to be ready by the time it was due to open, 20 August. I made it. Another memorable experience was when I was given a month by the Ottó Herman Museum to revise the inventory of 1600 ceramics in the ethnographical depository. This meant synchronising every single object and its description with each other. It was a massive and instructive load of work. A person who is able to carry out such a task can be regarded as having what it takes to become a museologist.
I suppose you follow the exhibitions that are on show. Have you already seen the Rembrandt exhibition?
Of course. I follow the exhibitions put on my the Museum of Fine Art with respect and attention and I think that this one is among the most consistent so far in terms of both historical accuracy and concept. As a member of the profession’s international body, I have spent a lot of time abroad and had the opportunity to view exhibitions of the type that can be seen in Hungary only rarely. I continue to be a regular visitor of exhibitions, not only when I open them in an official capacity but also out of interest. When I visit a smaller town or village, I do my best to see the exhibitions on show locally.
Looking around your office in the ministry, one can see a good number of paintings. Were these chosen by you?
No, these paintings by Czóbel and Kárpáti I inherited. I find the late Rococo furnishings of my room slightly feminine. My precedessor was a lady and the decoration suited her personality better than mine. In the past few months, I haven’t yet had the time to mold the room to my own taste.
What would you put on your wall if you had a choice of all the paintings of the world?
I would be happiest to choose an Italian piece, Botticelli for example, but as a museologist, I cannot abstract from where the proper location of a massive, antique painting should be. I would not put these “super pictures” into an office or where are prone to being damaged. Otherwise, in my home I surround myself with contemporary art. Many of my Szentedre artist friends honour me by visiting with one of their works under their arm. Not long ago, I moved house and had the privilege of rearranging my pictures with the help of a Kossuth Prize laureate painter. However, I am also fond of Vermeer’s or Monet’s pictures and I am greatly inspired by the lust for life that glows from within them.
During your travels abroad, which country’s culture were you touched by?
I have travelled to over sixty countries but I honestly believe that Hungary is the most stunning place to live and work. If for some reason I’d have to choose another country, I would go to Tuscany, where I have been on shorter or longer stays on almost twenty occasions and which I enjoy greatly. I am taken by the Italian way of life: the environment, the culture, design, gastronomy, the landscape, the sea and the overpowering sense of solidarity that exists in the Italian people.
Are you able to attend the odd theatre performance or concert doing your official trips?
I take the opportunity if I’m able to. I can recall such defining experiences as seeing Carmina Burana in the Rio opera or the tango theatre in Buenos Aires. However, the high standards typical of Hungary are hardly general practice everywhere and unartistic but well advertised performances of lower quality are abundant. These fall far behind the performances put on in the Katona, Örkény or Radnóti theatres in Budapest.
Travel means a lot to me. On the one hand, I like to discover these places, to find beauty in the immense diversity of cultures. No matter where I visit, I always make an effort to live as the locals do. I go out on the street, walk among them and shun restaurants established for tourists for where the locals go. I eat, hear and watch what they do. On the other hand, I am always baffled by how minuscule man is compared to the universe and how good it is to compare ourselves to others. When in the company of foreigners, I always do my best to locate myself in the given context. I believe that we should put ourselves to test not only in Hungary but also in a European and global environment. In the case of both the Open-air Ethnographic Museum (Skanzen) and myself, I have always strived to find a place in the great entirety. One is always taught humility by a trip abroad. The first effect is the ability to integrate. We are often inclined to think of other peoples in stereotypes, when in fact everyone should be judged in their own context. There is no such thing as a people being stronger or more intelligent, only individuals exist. My encounters with foreigners have made me more tolerant and inclusive.
Is there anywhere where you have not yet been but you would like to visit?
Yes, I have a bucket list with Japan, Mexico and Peru on it, I definitely want to make it to these countries in times to come.
What places of interest would you reccommend to visitors to Hungary if they choose to pick Szentendre? In addition to the Skanzen, of course.
Szentendre as a town is unique. It is currently in the process of finding its place, which is due to its cultural schene becoming bloated due to a forcibly implemented political concept. In the Sixties, under the cultural policies hallmarked by the Communist minister György Aczél, large historical or religious centres such as Vác, Esztergom or Visegrád were condemned to marginalisation, but a “showcase” was still needed. This became the picturesque market town of Szentedre, which was filled up with museums and galleries and was also home to the country’s first private restaurant. This is how it became the showcase for Communism’s “happiest barrack”, a cultural hub where foreign visitors could quickly be brought out from Budapest. That political line has since vanished and settlements boasting great historical traditions have begun developing. Szentendre must also react to this trend; however, this is considerably more difficult in the absence of direct political influence. Unfortunately, the odd gallery or small memorial museum is forced to close due to the difficulties of maintenance. On the other hand, I believe that the Czóbel exhibition put on display by the Ferenczy Museum was ingenious, as was the one on Queen Gertrudis. The Margit Anna Memorial Museum and the Czóbel Museum also represent a high standard, but I could also recall the little-known Serbian Orthodox Collection. There are a number of interesting activities and I usually take my guests to these as well, not only to the Skanzen.
What kind of book do you like to read? Which was the book you read last?
I am “omnivorous”. Not long ago, I read a book by Krisztián Grecsó, and I’ve also been given Ken Follett’s latest novel by my daughter. Three or four books are at my bedside at a time and it depends on the situation which one I choose to pick; however, I never read a book more than once because I don’t see the challenge in it. Hungarian and world literature is so vast that there is easily enough to choose from. Rejtő is perhaps the only exception: I read his novels if I want to clean my brain out, if it needs rest, and thus I occasionally read his books over again. My interest is often centred on a specific subject; for example, I have thumbed through many books on the First World War in regard for the anniversary. If I have to give a lecture or open an exhibition, I consider doing research into the subject an intellectual challenge. Regular reading became a habit of mine during my years at Sárospatak, an important period of my life. I set the target of, for example, finishing Steinbeck’s or Hemingway’s works within one and a half months. I probably don’t remember every word but I found it important to read them and I still live off the knowledge I absorbed at that time. I stored the information, which jumps to the foreground if I need it. I studied at a school with an emphasis on the teaching of English and we were made to learn many poems and rhymes by heart. I suffered and I found no point in doing so at the time, but I have this to thank for one of the most successful speeches of my life. The Association of European Open Air Museums, of which I was the president, was having a meeting in Scotland and at the closing banquet, attended by around 150 people, I included a poem by Robert Burns in my closing speech thanks to my years at Sárospatak. It was an enormous success and many were touched by a Hungarian man reciting one of their most beautiful poems, depicting the love of the fatherland and the Scottish highlands.
Did you also read your complusory literature at that time?
Most of it I did, but not in every case to my pleasure. If the decision would be mine, I wouldn’t include all of them in the list of compulsory reading. For example, “Be Fateful Unto Death”, the novel by Zsigmond Móricz, raises questions I believe are inappropriate for the 10-14-year-old age group. I am a first-generation intellectual and I came into contact with culture during my school years. The boarding school at Sárospatak was an institution where we were among each other uninterrupted for thirty days and we could only go home once in a month. That was where I started listening to music, visiting concerts and libraries, until sport and culture became a way of life for me. Having won several contests, I was granted the privilege of being let off early from afternoon study and I could go to the library to read. Taking a corvina, an incunabulum or Prince György Rákóczi I’s prayer book of the shelf and into my hands was an experience for a lifetime.
What concerts did you go to?
I still go. I am very fond of classical music and have quite a large collection. I like going to the Academy of Music, the Opera or the Palace of Arts. This summer, I listened to Katie Melua in Veszprém, but Norah Jones is also one of my favourites. In turn, my tastes in youth was influenced by Woodstock and the like. I had all the records of Deep Purple and Pink Floyd that were available at the time. However, one of my failures in life is that I never learnt to play a musical instrument.
What type of instrument did you want to learn to play on?
At the age of six, my mother took me to the Palace of Music in Miskolc to play the violin. Upon the request of the teacher, I sung a song. After finishing it, I was told to look for some other way to keep myself occupied…
photo: Zsigmond Csákvári