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The history of the National Museum main building

The National Museum, the oldest museum institution in Bohemia, was established as a “national museum” in 1818 by the ceremonial declaration of the of aristocracy on 15th April. The collections were first gathered in the minority Monastery of St. Jakub and in private flats. Šternberg Palace at Hradčany became the first permanent headquarters of the Museum in 1819, partially lent for this purpose by the Society of Patriotic Friends of Art. Today it is one of the National Gallery buildings.

The Museum Building on Na Příkopě street (1847 - 1890)

Former Museum headquarters in Na Příkopě Street (1847 - 1890)

In 1840 František Palacký prepared a proposal for a new building on the present Smetana Embankment within the generously projected Centre of Science and Culture which was to be built, bearing the name, “Francisceum” (in memory of Emperor František I.) Besides this Museum, an Art Academy, Conservatory and Industrial Association were also planned there. This expansive project was unfortunately reduced to a mere memorial to František I, yet it still deserves attention. This historically initial plan by Palacký for the new building of the Museum consisted of very progressive requirements that were executed (unfortunately not all of them) by architect, Josef Schultz, half a century later. Palacký’s building program demanded not only exhibition halls for Geology, Mineralogy, Zoology, Botany, Archaeology, Numismatics, a Library, Archive, a collection of graphic works, but also a Lapidary. Besides study and reading rooms, it also stipulated the establishment of depositories. Even the idea of the Pantheon with statues and portraits of significant Czechs had already appeared in this programme.

But no construction was executed and so, in 1846, the Museum moved to Nostic Palace in Na Příkopě Street which was purchased for this purpose. However, this small building (today in ruins) was not sufficient for the rapidly growing collections. That is why the discussion about a separate building built specially for the Museum needs was again initiated at the beginning of the 60s. The call by the Bohemian Assembly from 10th May 1864 for the creation of a new building proposal became an important impetus. The Regional Committee specified the main features of the building programme and asked the Prague City Council to assign a building plot in Charles Square in 1865 (in its northern section, near the New Town Hall, with an area of approximately 1,200 m2.) The councillors did not like this plan and so the negotiation lasted several more years.

New Horse Gate

New Horse Gate which originally closed Wenceslas Square

Only in 1876, after the proposal of Fr. L. Rieger, the City Council presented a very precious and advantageous piece of land at the upper corner of Wenceslas Square for the new Museum building, above the recently demolished New Horse Gate, with a total area of 13,598 m2 . The main opposition disappeared but, in spite of this, several years passed before the building was approved. Only on 28th July 1883 did the Assembly return to its decision of 1864 and ask the Regional Committee for the building proposal. The building programme prepared on 14th November 1883 characterised the purposes and significant features of the planned building. Amongst other things, it required approximately 4,100 m2 of exhibition area for the Natural History collections, approximately 2,180 m2 for the Cultural and Social History collections and approximately 350 m2 for the Library. From today’s point of view it is surprising that the space for depositories (stipulated by F. Palacký already in the case of the Francisceum!) was almost not planned for. The building was planned only with a depository of 300,000 books and a storeroom for the Mineralogical and Geological collections with an approximate area of 240 m2.

Josef Schulz, architect of the Museum Building

Josef Schulz, architect and builder of the Museum

Finally, on 15th November 1883, the public tender for the preliminary sketches of the new Museum building was announced. Six domestic architects were asked directly for their participation in the competition. They were Antonín Viktor Barvitius, Antonín Baum, Hanuš Koch, Josef Schulz, Antonín Wiehl and Achill Wolf. In total, 27 proposals were submitted by the closing date, 20th March 1884. The competition jury which consisted, amongst others, of arch. Josef Hlávka, ascribed the first prize to the proposal marked with the password “Pro patria”, created by Josef Schulz. František Schmoranz was in the second position and Hanuš Koch finished third. Schulz’s project won and held the interest especially by enriching the building programme with the idea of a central celebrative Pantheon. Prof. Schulz also readily prepared definitive plans, adjusted according to the comments of the Museum custodians and Viennese experts. He was nominated to the post of Director of the building, which was to be finished in four years. Schulz’s salary for the whole project was 3% of all the planned expenses for the building, that is 53,000 Guilders. The cost of the construction (without the architect’s fee) was estimated at 1,740,000 Guilders. In fact, however, it amounted to approximately 2 million Guilders. The building, intended for the use of the private Association of the Museum of the Czech Kingdom, was financed by the Czech Parliament as the representative of the Czech Lands and controlled by the Provincial Committee.

On 27th June 1885, the Governor's Office in Prague gave permission for building to begin and it got off the ground very quickly. On 20th July, the digging of the foundations began, on 13th August their walling began and by 15th November the cellars were completely walled. In the following year, 1886, the building reached the eaves and was given a provisional roof for the winter so that work could continue on the vaulting throughout the building. In April 1887, the setting in of the stone eaves began. In May, the attic was set with a balustrade and, in the course of the year, the building (with the exception of the main cupola) was covered by a proper roof. At the end of the year, the architecture of the tympanum above the main entrance was completed. In 1888 the building of the main cupola was completed, the main staircase was set in and the plasterers' and painters' work was done. Statues were set in niches and on the balustrades.

The building under construction in the end of June 1888.

The building under construction at the end of June 1888.

In 1888 the building was meant to be basically finished but it was held back by unusually unfavourable weather. In the same year, the preparation began of the internal furnishings of the building, for which the Provincial Parliament approved a budget of 300,000 Guilders. The completion work lasted up to the beginning of 1890. Dr. Josef Emler observed in his report of 16. 3. 1890 that “of the building of the new Museum it can be said that, apart from a few details, it is complete”. “The building is already complete,” stated the Museum Committee in its letter to the Provincial Committee on 4th May 1891. The moving and installation of the collections followed. On 25th January 1890, the Provincial Parliament resolved that the greater part of the left ground-floor tract of the new building should be loaned temporarily to the Czech Academy for Sciences, Literature and Art. The opening ceremony of the Czech Academy held in the Pantheon on 18th May 1891, became simultaneously the opening ceremony of the new building of the Museum of the Kingdom of Bohemia.

The completed building in March 1891

The completed building in March 1891

The new Museum building, completed in the first quarter of 1891, still had to be fitted with furnishings and fixtures and its artistic decorations had to be completed. In particular, the furnishing of the rooms with display cases was a far more demanding enterprise than had originally been estimated. For this reason it dragged on until 1901. In the same year the artistic decoration of the building, which consisted mainly in the furnishing of the main areas with statues and wall paintings, was more or less completed. At the beginning of the 90s, the immediate surroundings of the building were laid out as a public park. The argument between the architects Schulz and Hlávka about the siting of the mounted statue of St. Wencelas was decided in 1893 in favour of Josef Hlávka, who proposed that the statue should not be placed on the museum ramp, but should rather stand apart on Wenceslas Square. The monumental bronze statue was then created by J. V. Myslbek, unveiled in 1913 and fully finished in 1922. The granite base, which had already been standing on the stairs of the ramp for the statue of St. Wenceslas, was removed and replaced by stairs in April 1898.

Surprisingly, in 1901 it was already necessary to repair some of the plaster on the facade which was crumbling. This was the first more extensive maintenance work. The Provincial Committee explained the need for this work in 1899 by the fact that “the facade of the museum building has not yet been repaired since the building was completed”. In the summer of 1902 the unsuitable concrete memorial tablets on the facade were replaced with tablets of red granite with gilded inscriptions.

Already in the year of the opening of the building it was clear that not even this enormous palace would be sufficient for the growing requirements of the Museum. The Head of the Executive of the Museum, Professor Alfréd Slavík, expressed the fear as early as in 1904 that “the development of the Museum will be considerably hampered by the shortage of space, which in a short number of years will become unbearable”. For this reason, at the turn of 1912 and 1913, Professor Jan Koula, then Head of the Historical and Archaeological Department, elaborated a project for an annexe to be built on to the Museum building in the area of Čelakovský Park. This project was not realised, just like all the others envisaged up to the present day. The Secretary of the Museum Society, Dr. Theodor Saturník, stated in 1924 that “immediately after the State coup, it was clear to all that a new building is required for the Natural Science collections” and that “in the course of a few years there will not be a single empty space in the present Museum building”. The State Regulation Commission therefore set aside a plot in the Prague district of Troja “near the future zoological and botanical gardens”for the building. An insurmountable barrier, however, was the shortage of money. The two World Wars severely affected the Museum. The first brought the Museum Society almost to the verge of bankruptcy and seriously threatened the further fate of both the collections and the building. An expression of the new State régime in 1918 was the removal of Wagner's marble busts of Emperor Franz Josef I and the Empress Elizabeth from the Pantheon decoration.

The building hit by a German bomb 7. 5. 1945

The building hit by a German bomb on 7th May 1945

In the period of the German occupation in World War Two, ten bronze statues were confiscated and taken to the store for non-ferrous metals in Na Maninách. Fortunately they were not destroyed, stayed there throughout the war and later were returned to the Museum. At the end of the war, on 7th May 1945, the Museum building was hit by a German flying bomb which considerably destroyed the central tract with the studies and zoological collections. In the first two years after the Liberation, the building was therefore under repair. Later, the collections stored in various places throughout the war years were moved back and the exhibitions were gradually re-opened to the public. The final clearing up of the results of the war was marked by new inscriptions on the memorial tablets at the entrance to the Pantheon in 1947.

The shortage of space after the war, again very acute, was partly settled by the construction of roofed depositaries around both courtyards, begun in 1948. In the year 1950, a further project for the building of a new home for the Natural Sciences Department of the National Museum came into being. This building was to stand on the Pankrác Plain on the site of the present Palace of Culture.

An important change in the artistic decoration of the Pantheon was the reorganisation of its sculptural content by the Minister of Culture, Zdeněk Nejedlý. After the removal of the statue of J. Lobkovic, the statue of Clam-Martinic and the bust of Pekař during 1951 by the National Museum management, by Order of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the statues of F. L. Rieger, T. G. Masaryk and E. Beneš were also removed. The statue of Kašpar Sternberg was moved for several years to the corridor on the first floor. Therefore only the large statues remained in the Pantheon: Hus, Comenius and Palacký. The busts of J. Emler and V. V. Tomek found new sites alongside the Sternberg statue in the corridor and a number of other busts were placed in the depository. The concept of the Pantheon was further completed in the following years by the addition and removal of some other busts and it has not been completely finished to this day. The significance of some personalities of a newer era represented in the Pantheon by busts (Fučík, Nejedlý) now appears as time-conditioned, while we lack busts of persons whose significance in Czech Science and Culture is unquestionable.

A valuable contribution to emphasising the aesthetic qualities of the building was the installation of exterior night floodlighting in 1960, which followed a general repair of the facade in preceding years. In 1962 the historical and artistic importance of the building of the National Museum was recognised by its inclusion in the 33 National Cultural Monuments.

The facade damaged with machine-gun fire 22. 8. 1968

The facade damaged by machine-gun fire on 22nd August 1968

The occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 by the armies of the Warsaw Pact had tragic effects on the Museum building. The Soviet soldiers intentionally and quite senselessly severely damaged the main facade with machine-gun and automatic submachine-gun fire. The shots made numerous holes in the sandstone pillars and plaster, destroyed stone statues and reliefs, damaged, amongst other things, the wallpaper in the session hall and the walls of the Director's office and also caused damage in some of the depositaries. This severe devastation of the facade made its general repair necessary in the years 1970-72. However, the cracks in the old darkened Hořice sandstone are clearly visible to this day.

Simultaneously with this repair, the immense underground work on the construction of the Prague Metro was executed. Right in front of the main façade, the underground vestibule of the Museum Metro station was built by excavating the area from the surface. Victims of this work were two artistically decorated cast-iron flag poles which stood on either side of the fountain. After some years their remains were destroyed as being impossible to repair. The building of the Metro unfortunately also damaged the building of the Museum in a far more serious manner. During the construction of Line A in 1978, as the result of underground blasting, the front left corner rizalit was loosened. Cracks appeared in the walls which widened considerably in an upward direction. The entire rizalit had to be cut off from the foundations, hydraulically slightly raised and stabilised with a concrete foundation ring. In 1986 the cracks were filled in with artificial resin.

The greatest threat to the building was probably the thoughtless and insensitive construction of the so-called North-South Highway which was taken right through the centre of the city, the two sides of which embraced the National Museum itself. The paradox is that the opening ceremony for this highway in 1978 was held in the Pantheon of the National Museum. The building has been cut off from Wenceslas Square by the lower lanes of the motorway, both as regards communications and also visibly, and has begun to suffer from the excessive noise, dangerously high level of dust and constant vibrations. After the “Velvet Revolution” it did return to its original address, which situates it on Wenceslas Square (in the years 1978-1989 it was on Victorious February Road), but the problem of the motorway has not been solved satisfactorily yet. What a contrast there is in the description of the state of the environs of the building in the present time, compared with the instructions of the Provincial Parliament in 1864, which required that the Museum building should stand on a site which “would not be too far from the centre of the city, but nevertheless quiet and peaceful, open and accessible from all sides” and “whose cleanliness and peacefulness should not be too much disturbed by the current of everyday life”(!).

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