The Museum of Fine Arts, opened in 1906, is reputed to be among Europe’s most prominent museums. Its multi-faceted collections and their historical continuity coupled with the large number of masterpieces undoubtedly earn it a prestigious place among public collections. The Museum of Fine Arts displays the treasures of international and Hungarian art spanning from ancient times to the end of the eighteenth century, while its large-scale temporary exhibitions attract hundreds of thousands of visitors.
After the most comprehensive reconstruction project in its history, the museum re-opened at the end of 2018. Thanks to the modernisation, the Museum of Fine Arts now satisfies twenty-first-century requirements for collection care and visitor engagement.
Parallel to the reconstruction, the permanent exhibitions were also renewed: the collection of Hungarian art before 1800 – which was separated from international art in two stages after 1957 and transferred to the Hungarian National Gallery – “came home” after a long period of absence. As a result, returning to its original concept, introduced at the time of its opening in 1906, the museum is again operating as an exhibition venue presenting Hungarian and international art history to the public. Besides showcasing ancient cultures thanks to its collections of Egyptian and classical antiquities, the museum has also become home to artworks from before 1800. Until the opening of the New National Gallery in the City Park, whose building was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning SAANA architectural firm, works of art from the period after the beginning of the nineteenth century can be viewed in the Hungarian National Gallery in Buda Castle.
The foundation of the Museum of Fine Arts was stipulated by the Millennium Act of 1896; the area opposite the Műcsarnok (Kunsthalle) was selected as the site for the new institution. Albert Schickedanz and Fülöp Herzog, the designers of the already standing Műcsarnok and the Millennium Monument on Heroes’ Square, were commissioned to make the architectural plans. The building was inaugurated on 1 December 1906 in the presence of Emperor Franz Joseph and opened to the general public on 5 December. It was worth the monumental effort to have the holdings of the Museum of Fine Arts displayed to the public. The artworks acquired over centuries and integrated into one collection, the magnificent material of the collections of the National Museum and the National Picture Gallery, as well as the Jankovich, Pyrker, Esterházy, and Ipolyi collections were further enriched within the new institutional framework thanks to regular purchases, foundations, and donations. Domestic and foreign research as well as scientific classification elevated the museum into a public treasure of art history and an important institution of Europe with the richest collection between Vienna and St Petersburg, which, unlike those of the largest European museums, was not built on imperial or royal collections.
World War I and the following austerities broke the museum’s spectacular development, although important works entered the collections even in the interwar period. However, World War II shook the Museum of Fine Arts to its very core, dealing severe blows and causing great damage to the institution. The upper staircase was hit by a bomb and the glass roof was completely destroyed. In the last months of the war, the majority of the artworks, including the most valuable masterpieces, were hurriedly and carelessly thrown on rail cars and transported to the west. The collection returned to Hungary from Germany between 1946 and 1947, damaged to a great extent. A smaller proportion of the paintings went missing or were destroyed during rescue efforts and war operations, and have been listed among the war losses to this day.
The Hungarian works were separated from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts after 1957 and were transferred to the Hungarian National Gallery. The two institutions were reunited in 2012 and the Hungarian works from the period before 1800 returned home to the renovated building of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2018.
During its centuries of history, the number of works in some of the Museum of Fine Arts’ collections increased manifold; moreover, new departments were added. The number of artworks found in the museum today exceeds 120 thousand.