In defense of Budapest’s least sexy museum

Budapest’s Museum of Hungarian Agriculture falls under the radar of most tourists. But this hallowed temple to crops, mounted animals, and Habsburg hunting trophies is worth your time.

If you’re a museum lover and get bored in Budapest, there’s no way to break this to you gently: you’re doing it wrong. As a culture writer, I love me a good museum, and Budapest brims with plenty of options. The first museum I visited, the resplendent Hungarian National Gallery, was an almost decadent experience. It has a very fancy-shmancy location in Buda Castle, complete with sweeping views of the Danube. These spots are popular, often crowded, and at times mobbed. Intrigued by what else was out there, I turned to my cousin, a fellow nerd and Budapest resident. Jess is one of those earnest museum-goers who seems to know everything about each item even before reading the captions. Surely, she would know a hip, trendy place to send me next.

Not quite.

“Go to the agricultural museum!” she said. I stared blankly, as if she just told me she wanted her hen party theme to be “filing taxes.” Still, Jess stood her ground. She unleashed many praises for this space, which apparently is wholly devoted to such practices as threshing wheat and raising oxen. You can learn all about exciting crops, like barley or rapeseed, she said. One can also view sundry farming tools. My eyelids drooped with leaden sluggishness when she continued, going into the farming practices of the 11th and 12th centuries. The more she spoke, the more I imagined a building just full of rusty old plough parts. It was easy to make fun of her when, upon asking around, it seemed that no one had ever gone. Or, planned to ever go. Or, even heard of the place, really. It wasn’t just me that thought Jess’ pure love for this museum was unusual. I asked our friend—who actually grew up on a farm—if he ever accompanied her to this apparently hallowed temple to crops. I met a hard no. “I had to draw the line somewhere,” he said.

Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate agriculture, viticulture, animal husbandry, and the people who dedicate their lives to it. After all, they are what keep me alive. Like too many in the United States, however, I am alienated from where my food comes from. Farming is a distant concept. Hearing the term “agriculture” only flashes me back to childhood memories of long, tedious road trips through California’s Central Valley—a vital American breadbasket—where I’d get my only true glances at what stuff looks like as it grows. I’d stare at endless rows of uniform crops. After spotting my twelve-hundredth tractor, I’d accepted that this is how I would die: from boredom.

A few articles described the agricultural museum as often being quite empty. This is surprising, considering its touristy location in Budapest. The museum is situated within baroque-looking Vajdahunyad Castle, an architectural eye candy modeled after a castle in Transylvania. It’s an intriguing sight in the middle of the leafy City Park. Tourists flock to the area, yet the museum never seems to be overrun like the National Gallery or the House of Terror.

Still, for my cousin it was as if the agricultural museum exuded 50-Shades-of-Grey-caliber allure. Even asking her about the museum for this article sparked a love letter litany: “I love the Soviet-era agricultural productivity dioramas.” “I love the basement, filled with antique wine presses.” “I love the mushroom display.” “I love the strange and glorious Hall of Hunting upstairs that displays all of the Hapsburg hunting trophies.”

Over time, my cousin’s animal husbandry siren song took on a sweeter melody. Eventually, I grew curious. Some of the things she was sharing did seem kind of fascinating. (After all, what museum has both a mushroom display and taxidermy heads? Also, she reminded me that I do like anything having to do with wine.) One day, summer heat beating down, I sought an indoor activity and decided to give the agricultural museum a shot. I went begrudgingly, fully expecting an afternoon of staring at old rakes.

I arrived and noted the building is indeed ornate and beautiful. There are little figures and epic windows. It seems a fitting place for the Beast to take up residence before Belle swoops in to save the day. Inside, there’s opulent molding, dramatic arches and stained-glass details. Upon sliding some money through to the ticket taker in a booth just inside, I noted that there were only two other people in the immediate vicinity. Maybe others enjoy learning about wheat and barley I thought, making a mental note to tell Jess that I found her some friends.

The first area I explored housed the bones of different animals native to the region. I pored over spine-bone fragments from several dog species. I found that the Hungarian vizsla, which is gorgeous when alive, is grisly in fossil form. Still, glancing around this exhibition, things got more intriguing. There’s a row of horse skulls amid vintage photos of sheep and goats. Tim Burton would feel right at home here, I thought.

One of the dioramas inside the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
One of the dioramas inside the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Beyond that area, I wandered to the part I had made fun of the most. I hate to admit this, but information on Hungary’s crop history was specific and surprisingly relevant. (Although, one does have to sift through riveting facts about the two-course crop rotation system in the 11th and 12th centuries before realizing how vital Hungary was as a food supplier to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) There is information on forestry and fishing. I also encountered a model yurt, depicting a central part of early Hungarians’ nomadic life around the Carpathian Basin. Bolstered by lush fabrics and looking like a mushroom top, it appeared cozy and inviting, even though there is a sign saying you cannot touch it.

As I suspected, collections of taxidermy in other rooms were also exciting. In one case, there are three smug-looking sheep with dense curls situated behind various bones. Next to them is a very agitated goose. One especially learns a lot about the Hungarian grey cattle, which is a mighty breed topped with gargantuan horns. Aside from being a muscular symbol of Hungary, it was an animal central to connecting others, hauling wagons and enabling commerce.

As Jess promised, the Hall of Hunting was indeed hauntingly cool. It’s almost choked with antlers, with hundreds sharing the space. The ceiling is ribbed with high gothic arches, conjuring a harrowing effect. As one writer put it: “With beautiful vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows, along with the fact that the Agricultural Museum is often empty, this top floor feels like the church of a long lost deer deity.”

The Hall of Hunting. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
The Hall of Hunting. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

What the agricultural museum lacks in sheer sex appeal (unless fossil fragments really get you going), it makes up for in a peaceful atmosphere. It is less packed than the main museums in Budapest, especially outside the school year when museum field trips are rare. There was an eerie calm blanketing everything, especially dioramas depicting rural life. One recreated kitchen of yore has charming details like hanging strings of garlic. It did not help, however, that the many mannequins arranged around them sport smooth, alien-like contours and have no eyes. Are they haunted? Did they come to life at night? If so, at least they have plenty of animal friends.

Above all, you do come away with an understanding that agriculture is woven into Hungary’s history. There’s a stronger bridge to daily life than you’ll find in the prettier portraits or oil landscapes in more popular museums. At the least, the next time you tear into a lángos or gorge on stuffed cabbage at one of the many authentic eateries around Budapest, you may have a newfound appreciation for it—and the boring old rakes that got them there.

The Museum of Hungarian Agriculture is located in Vajdahunyadvár. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, 10-5 on weekends (and closed on Mondays). HUF1,600 (€5) admission.

Cristina Schreil is an author and freelance journalist covering music, culture, health and travel.