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Popularizing Hungarian Culture “Throughout Europe, and Around the World as Well”: Interview with István Loránd Szakáli, the Man Responsible for Hungaricums

Earlier this year, Hungary Today had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with István Loránd Szakáli, the Ministry of Agriculture’s Deputy State Secretary for Agricultural Development and Hungaricums, to talk about the Hungaricum system, as well as about the work he members of his office do to promote Hungarian culture at home and abroad.

As we have previously written, Hungaricums are those noteworthy assets from Hungary, which characterise Hungarians by their uniqueness, specialty and quality, and represent the peak performance of Hungary. According to the law on Hungarian national values, which entered into effect on 1 July 2012, a Hungaricum is a:

“Product worthy of distinction and highlighting, which with its Hungarian character, uniqueness, speciality and quality is a state-of-the-art performance of the Hungarian people, acknowledged as an achievement of Hungarians and as a distinguished merit both abroad and domestically, a protected natural value or  an outstanding national product declared a Hungaricum by the Hungaricum Committee and which by the force of law is a Hungaricum.”

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The interview below has been translated from the Hungarian, and has been edited for concision and clarity.

How exactly does something become a ‘Hungaricum’?

The Hungaricum system is regulated by the law concerning Hungarian national values and Hungaricums. The system is based on a pyramid principle, and it has three clearly differentiated levels: the base level, which is the level of national values; the middle level, the Collection of Hungarian Values, and values that reach this level are already considered outstanding national values; then there is the highest level, the Collection of Hungaricums, which is currently made up of 60 exceptional values. We can speak about ‘national values’ when a town, county, regional, or foreign values committees of a given area decide that something represents a special value to them. In practice, this means that, for example, if the Gödöllö Values Collection Committee makes a decision that a specific local thing should be registered as a value, then that becomes part of the system. An item that has already been chosen as a national value can reach the middle of the pyramid, the Collection of Hungarian Values, through a decision of the Hungaricum Committee, meaning that this can also be seen as the first step on the road to becoming a Hungaricum. Values can only enter the afore-mentioned highest category if they are already in the Collection of Hungarian Values. The Hungaricum Committee makes this decision as well.

 hungarikum piramis edited

The law describes Hungaricums as “a value worthy of distinction and highlighting within a unified system of qualification, classification, and registry and which represents the high performance of Hungarian people thanks to its typically Hungarian attribute, uniqueness, specialty and quality.” How, then, does the Aggtelek Karst fit into this system?

In its original form, the law stipulated that every value that can be found on any of the UNESCO World Heritage lists, and is tied to Hungarians, would enter the list of Hungaricums when the law came into effect. This is why the Aggtelek Karst is on the list, and likewise, this is why the ‘Caves of the Slovak Karst’, ‘The Tokaj Wine Region Historic Cultural Landscape’, ‘the Millenary Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma and its Natural Environment’, and ‘Budapest, including the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue,’ can all be found there. In 2015 the law was modified, so that now the Hungaricum Committee votes on the values that make their way onto UNESCO representative lists. The most recent to receive such international recognition was the Kodály Method, meaning that it took has a good chance of becoming a Hungaricum. We view the law as legislation that does not wish to over-regulate, that does not want to over-rigorously fix every step of the process. Basically, we want to establish a framework, so that anyone can join in this joint national movement of finding, documenting, and passing on these values. Every step of the procedure is free, but it does require attention and competent work from applicants.

What does a value gain by being entered into the list?

It is, in the first place, a moral recognition, which I think is the most important. The circle of Hungaricums is rather diverse and extremely varied. In general, every country, in one way or another, works to build and position its national brand. We sometimes point out that our approach, and the creation of this rules system is in and of itself a Hungaricum, since we haven’t seen this type of solution anywhere else. In addition, we have publications, a website, as well as domestic and international appearances where we introduce our values, the Hungaricums. In November 2016, we in the Ministry of Agricultural Affairs called together the Forum of Hungaricum Brands, where we spoke with specifically those Hungaricum representatives and owners, who have a value that is a concrete product. We did all this in order to examine how to best assist each other’s’ work, first and foremost in achieving goals in foreign markets. In many places, we hold sessions to popularize Hungaricums—and by extension Hungary—throughout Europe, and around the world as well.

What about the Spanish Marca España?

Yes, this is perhaps the closest to the Hungarian solution. The Spanish established, at the government level, a behind the scenes government agency that deals with these questions. This agency was created in the 90s, meaning that they have a fifteen-year advantage over us. The two systems are in communication with each other, I myself have me the head of the institution, and in fact we have had joint programs in the recent past. Thanks to the products chosen as Hungaricums, we can count on concrete economic opportunities as well, since in general, they are backed by companies which—by Hungarian standards—have strong capital investment and which are profit-oriented. They can expect, and hope, that their participation in our list brings greater attention to them.

The intellectual heritages of Count István Széchenyi and John von Neumann are also found on your list. Can living people join them on it as well?

A life-work can, but living people cannot be included in the Hungaricum Collection.

And the Rubik’s Cube?

Many people have spent time wondering why Ernő Rubik’s world-famous invention isn’t a Hungaricum. I have met him in person, and he wasn’t opposed to the idea either, but Mr. Rubik point out that legal problems might result from the cube being placed on the list, since American trademark laws are much more strict than European ones; this would mean that if we wanted to include the Rubik’s Cube in any of our publications as a Hungaricum, we would have to in each instance receive permission beforehand from the American copyright owners. We are looking for a solution as to when and how the magic cube can take its rightful spot in the Hungaricum collection.

A relatively common critique has been that the list of Hungaricums is too muddled and unclear.

I think this is a fair criticism, we need to present Hungaricums more clearly—but this is, in the first place, a communication challenge. We are working to fix this issue, but it is not a simple problem, considering that if we were to specify next to each Hungaricum as to what category of value it is, that would break up the unity of the current system, which hopes to show that each Hungaricum is unique and equally important. the law places these values into eight categories, but that would complicate communication as well, if in each instance were to say that this one is a Cultural Heritage, that is in the Agriculture and Food Industry Category, or that such and such is a Health and Lifestyle Hungaricum.

Reporting by Balázs Horváth

Images by Lilla Horváth

Translated by Tom Szigeti