A Landmark On The European Map: The Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum


The National Village Museum in Bucharest is the kind of museum in which the traditional exhibition halls are replaced by authentic households, consisting of dwellings and their extensions, technical devices, churches and triptychs transplanted from their places of origin into a nonstandard village in the very midst of the capital. This very particular place in Bucharest comprises 340 monuments of traditional architecture, over 50,000 objects, an impressive photo gallery, restoration and preservation laboratories, storage rooms set up according to the most recent exhibitory requirements. This representative patrimony is illustrative of traditional Romanian culture starting from the 18th and up to the 20th century. The exceptional value of this museum consists of the way in which its architectural monuments are grouped together according to the historical provinces they represent, such as to outline the entire territory of the country.The history of the Museum is linked to people and to the magic of traditional life. It is, at the same time, a history of the thousands of villages spread throughout Romania, that have been established and developed until nowadays.In the Middle Ages, the villagers, who were involved in agriculture and different crafts, played an important part in the evolution of society, along with other social strata. These simple people knew how to build houses, toil the earth and harvest its grain crops, look after the livestock and mould the clay, decorate their homes with patterns that granted them a unique identity. That is precisely why a visit to the National Village Museum is very much like a journey back in time, offering the visitor the possibility of discovering something new, exciting and unexpected with every step they may take.The idea of organizing an outdoor museum in Romania can be traced back to the 19th century, when concern regarding the loss of traditional art was first manifested.In 1906, Professor Tzigara Samurcaş was the first to have transferred a house from a village to an exhibition of the National Museum in Bucharest. Between 1925 and 1936, the Sociology Department of the University of Bucharest, chaired by Professor Dimitrie Gusti, initiated a series of interdisciplinary monographic studies in villages located within different areas of Romania, on the basis of which the idea of the importance of folk culture and civilization in Romanian history was formulated. As new results were provided by this particular field of research, Professor Dimitrie Gusti became aware of the need of having an outdoor museum in which different objects could be exhibited as parts of the village context where they had been first created. The idea was supported, in the first place, by Professor H. H. Stahl, who coordinated the monographic research between 1925 and 1936. He was joined by V. I. Popa, Nae Constantinescu and others.In March 1936 the construction process was launched on the 4500 m of land. The Royal Cultural Foundation "King Carol" was a moral and financial supporter of the project and its accomplishment.The buildings that had been selected during research, according to the criterion of their specificity, were dismantled and brought to Bucharest in 56 railway wagons, in order to be reassembled in the area that had been prepared to welcome them, on the shore of the Herăstrău lake. The Romanian Village Museum opened its gates on the 9th of May 1936, due to the extraordinary effort of the project coordinator, of the specialists involved in transporting the monuments and of the numerous craftsmen that had been summoned from the villages. According to Professor Gusti, this museum was supposed to differ from outdoor museums in northern countries, which he considered too romantic. The museum was planned as part of a Social Research Center in which the emphasis was to be on the traditional way of life, later completed by an area presenting the social future of the country. True to the sociological intention, Professor Gusti populated the Museum with peasants who had been brought from the precise areas represented by the exhibited dwellings. They were supposed to offer the visitor a real life enactment of the traditional way of life. Unfortunately, this generous idea proved to be a disaster for the patrimony of the museum, which was damaged beyond recovery.The beginning of the Second World War and the event of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939 led to the loss of a piece of Romanian territory, namely Bessarabia and Herţa, which were occupied by the USSR. Consequently, many refugees saved themselves from Russian troops by settling in big cities. Given this situation, Romanian authorities were faced with solving the complicated matter of their lodging. Under the impact of this tragedy, the Prince Carol Foundation temporarily offered the space of the museum as lodging place for the refugees, a decision which had a negative outcome as far as the patrimony and the exhibitory intention of the institution was concerned. In the same period of time, all structures coming from Bessarabia were demolished because of the building of the Elisabeta Palace, which was a great loss for the museum.After the war, the museum, which was in a bad state of degradation, was taken over by Professor Gheorghe Focşa, who had participated in the monographic research and in the transportation of the Moişeni household at the beginnings of the museum. His appointment at the head of the museum marked a new stage in its development and permanent transition from a sociologic museum to an ethnographic one. The analysis of the patrimony and of the unfavorable political circumstances led Dr. Focşa to the conclusion that this was actually the only way of saving the institution. The Sociology Department of the University of Bucharest had been dissolved, the patrimony of the foundation had become state property, sociology, as a science had been banned and Professor Gusti had been dismissed. A new orientation was required.Starting with 1948, Professor Gheorghe Focşa reinitiated field research so as to restore the existing monuments and accomplish an ethnographical outdoor museum. In the following period of time, the museum developed considerably and became one of the most important and representative cultural institutions in Bucharest and in the country, very much appreciated abroad and taken as a model by many countries who were about to start their own outdoor museums after the war.The main idea was that folk architecture and the very special rural settlements, which were in danger, given the fast transformations after the war, were some of the greatest Romanian assets. In lack of a national program of in situ preservation of the folk architectural monuments, despite great hindrances, the surface of the museum was extended and the Museum was greatly developed due to the acquisition of new buildings and, consequently, the growth of the patrimony. Within the National Village Museum, the traditional way of life is depicted by structures of households organized according to the criterion of the historical Romanian provinces: Transylvania, Oltenia, Muntenia, Banat, Maramureş, Bucovina, Moldavia, Dobrogea. Between 1950 and 1970 a group of specialists was trained, wide research projects, resulting in the identification of new monuments and the increase of the patrimony were carried out, restoration-preservation laboratories were organized, scientific accounts were drafted, guidelines and studies were published – the institution thus becoming an important scientific reference point. But, as everything concerning the museum follows a certain historical line, after this flourishing period, the institution was constantly faced with great shortcomings and with the permanent threat of being dissolved.After 1990, one may refer to a new stage in the development of the Village Museum, mainly consisting of the extension of the surface, massive restoration, the completion of the patrimony with valuable new monuments, exhibitions, published studies, but also two successive fires that burst out in 1997 and 2002, disturbing the entire activity of the museum.After this last misfortune, the whole management, scientific and educational effort was reorganized in a dynamic and effective manner. The attitude towards the public was reshaped and the museum became a lively institution, where attractive cultural events are constantly hosted. Problems that had been an issue for numerous years were solved by the accomplishment of a new modern structure at the very center of the museum. The patrimony storage rooms were reorganized, alongside with the restoration and preservation laboratories. By the same token, a scientifically computerized database was drafted.In its new dimension, the National Village Museum nowadays attracts a large number of visitors, thus becoming one of Romania's most popular museums. People who have never seen it may wonder what exactly is so intriguing about it. Well, to a foreigner who could hardly imagine a small wooden house with a roof covered in straw, which is three times the size of its walls, the visiting, within the museum, of a peasant household, fortified as if it were a medieval dungeon, or of a wooden church with a 35m steeple, is quite a discovery.In many Romanian villages, the religious, architectural, artistic, technical patrimony, as well as the traditional crafts are still preserved. The pleasure of visiting part of these rural settlements within a few hours is practically impossible to fulfill. Nevertheless, it may be accomplished by paying a visit to the National Village Museum in Bucharest. Here, one can travel from plain to mountain, from the 18th to the 20th centuries, one can perceive the differences and similarities of the different ethnographic areas, appreciate the inventiveness of the people, their effort of using the available materials to build their homes, the way in which they perfected new techniques and technologies and humanized the environment.The monuments exhibited in the museum are, by their nature, ecological. For centuries there has been an exclusive use of natural materials: wood, clay, stone, reed, straw etc. Romania's strategic position at the crossroads of three great empires: the Roman, the Byzantine and the Ottoman one, and of great European cultures favored the interaction of specific cultural traits. On the background of a strong autochthonous tradition, all of these influences led to a both unitary and diverse conception.While visiting the museum, one notices that each household consisting of a house and its economic outbuildings actually represents a unit perfectly fitting the social and spatial system, as well as the rural way of life. As family residencies, these households are representative of a certain specificity of their socio-natural environment; their outer aspect is indicative of the owner's material and social status, given the social community function of that particular settlement. The access to the yard is made through the household gate, which is symbolic of the transition from a community to a family space. In certain areas, the gate is particularly connoted and it is adorned with sculptures and different architectural motifs. A household is a functional organism in which, alongside the actual home, one may see a series of outbuildings strongly connected to the main occupations: sheds, barns, wine cellars, stables, hen coops. Their dimension and position within the household depends on the specific traits of each area and of its particular tradition. All of these buildings exhibit a perfect adaptation to the environment, as well as an excellent functionality. The craftsmen who created them had a divine vocation. The intention of perfection is to be felt in the movement of their hands, in the gestures they made to carve the wood or stone. Very important in the household economy was the water source – the spring or the well ensuring life. As a purifying element, water played a very important part in the traditional village, especially when associated to certain birth, wedding or death rituals. The wells, which are important exhibitory objects of the museum, were truly sacred places. In the traditional village people used to build wells at crossroads, at the boundaries of the village, in remembrance of a dearly departed someone.According to traditional beliefs, the house is much more than a shelter. It is here that family life goes on. It is where parents live and children are born, it is where the most important events in the life of a couple take place. The oldest peasants' homes preserved in the museum are 18th century buildings. The most popular building plan has two or three rooms, representing 80% in the 19th century. One of the oldest built types was the half buried house, the "pit house," followed by the porch house, the pavilion house and the two level house.The concern for preserving a certain spirit of the home is obvious in all the buildings exhibited at the Village Museum. In wooden architecture, it is easy to notice that each sculpting and carving detail is strongly representative of its particular function on a given surface. The rhythm, the composition, the order combining in the accomplishment of a decoration are bearers of a logic that was shaped by many generations of craftsmen. In the case of carving, the ornament is practically brought to life by the surface it adorns, or by the emphasized surface, if there is a structure involved. The repertoire, the rhythm, the composition depend on the architectural ensemble.The interior of the house is a feminine space where the woman disposes the organization of things according to the significance of each corner of the room: the stove corner offers warmth, the possibility of preparing the food and, in the past, even the light source of the house; the resting corner, where the bed is, is always close to the warmth one; while the corner of hospitality is where the benches and the icons are.While contemplating the many objects created within each household, one understands that each gesture of this creative process was a symbolic one – an idea leading us back to the beginning of the ages.These gestures and movements turned into shapes were, within the traditional world recreated in museums, models of a unique aspect allowing the comprehension of all essences. It is obvious that it was craftsmanship that gave shape and value to conception and significance. In the process of creation, generations of anonymous craftsmen became people with a vision, through which they demonstrated their own secret nature, by melting it into the larger mould of tradition. All of the things we may admire at the National Village Museum are, eventually, a victory of thought over the hand, a way of expressing the personalities of the thousands of folk artists, of self-discovery.In the context of rural economy, a series of technical devices relying on water or wind solved important life needs: grain grinding, fabric finishing, wood polishing etc. Such devices were the property of villagers and were sometimes used by other farther located settlements.The water and windmills, the wool processing devices, the whirlpools, the saws, the oil presses are only a few of the traditional installations exhibited in the museums.Faith and other spiritual aspects of life were extremely important and were always part of the general traditional belief. Almost every village had a church, either wooden or built of different materials. Within the museum there are four such churches, astonishing through their size, decorations – sculpture and painting, triptychs, those wonderful marks one meets on the road, near wells, in the most picturesque places. They substantially contribute to the recreation of the traditional village atmosphere. One may say that the National Village Museum is actually a book of life, a proof of life and civilization on Romanian territory, as valuable as the most precious archives. Each monument, each object acquired the dimension of a unique document.

by Georgeta Stoica