Budapest’s “House of Terror”. It Sounds like a Carnival Ride, but it Isn’t, but in a Way it Actually Kind of Is.

So I’ve been spending some days on a very welcome break in Budapest. Most of it was a break, but not all, because I did end up visiting the House of Terror. Far from being some sort of fun fair exhibition, it’s a museum dedicated to the memory of the two ‘terror regimes’ that Hungary lived through during the 20th century. The museum showcases a bunch of exhibits dating back to the rule of the Arrow Cross Party as well as the era of communist rule, focusing in particular on the events of 1956.

I came away impressed by the design of the various museum rooms, which was very well done, very theatrical. The different spaces were designed almost like stage sets, and every part of the rooms was used to convey a certain message – the rooms themselves were the exhibits, as opposed to all those museums where exhibits are lined up on blank walls in otherwise non-descript and interchangeable rooms. To give an example, one of the rooms that dealt with the might of the Soviet Union (or something like that – these rooms’ messages tended to be opaque) had a wall to wall floor carpet map of the Soviet Union from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok (not available in the museum store, unfortunately). In addition to giant carpet maps, the lighting was also expertly done and there was music ominously droning to set the mood. In many ways, this museum *was* like a fun fair ghost town ride. Another example (and in fact an example of an actual ride) was the elevator from the first (US second) floor down to the basement.

This elevator ride is part of the exhibition. It makes the trip down two floors in maybe two minutes and during that time those in the elevator are subjected to an old man describing in detail how exactly the secret service would execute its victims – all before letting you out into the basement where they reconstructed the cells and the execution room to their 1950s state.

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I’ll acknowledge that perhaps I am not part of the intended audience, and I’ll gladly acknowledge that the Hungarian language was an obstacle here and there as not all the signs were translated. Still, my main criticism of this museum would be that it tries to tell the story about these challenging times in Hungarian history mostly through those theatrical devices and not at all through actually conveying factual information or placing exhibits and quotes into a context. The visitor comes away with a strong sense that a lot of terrible things happened, but without having learned very much about why those things happened, what brought them about, beyond the individual agency of the evil-doers. This sense is reinforced by one of the last areas in the museum, which identified what they call the ‘victimizers’ with names and photos. I am in no position to challenge this view of these people and their careers, and I’ll agree that structural and systematic factors are less readily displayed in a museum than a black-and-white photograph of a ‘victimizer’. Still, to pin all of communism’s failings on those people seems a little simplistic, and to refer to these regimes as ‘terror regimes’ does as well.

As a last note, I was intrigued to find out that the museum states the involvement of Viktor Orbán (Hungary’s current PM) in bringing this museum about. In Hungary as elsewhere, projects like these have been challenged by those who describe them as right-wing projects   rather than society-wide attempts to come to terms with unpleasant episodes in the nation’s history. This museum does little to counteract that notion, and it does not seem that the view of the communist past that this museum presents is one that all elements of Hungarian society would share.

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