What does it mean to be from Budapest? How does the capital affect its inhabitants and those who spend at least part of their days in it? Is there a common knowledge, made up of images, sounds, films about which we can say: this is our Budapest? On 28 April 2023, the Budapest History Museum opened the exhibition The Budapest effect. Metropolitan attachments and identities. One of the key events of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the city's unification, the exhibition will be open for almost a year in the Castle Museum, in Building E of Buda Castle.
How can the atmosphere of a city be captured? How can it be portrayed in an exhibition? What are the means to show diversity and variety? Can we even talk about a ‘Budapestian’ spirit? If we take the century and a half since 1873 as a base, the image and culture of the city have been fundamentally determined by the gesture of inclusion, by the fact that Germans, Jews, Roma, people from near and far found their home here, created their own communities, and added their own traditions to a common melting pot. After the unification of Óbuda, Buda and Pest, smaller and larger settlements were merged into the city, and today, the residents of Nagytétény or Soroksár, Cinkota or Békásmegyer consider themselves as much a part of Budapest as those of Rózsadomb or Erzsébetváros – wherever you came from and whenever you settled here, whether you live or work in the capital, hailing from whichever ethnic or religious background, live in the city centre, in a housing estate or in the suburbs, you are bound to have some kind of Budapest identity.
The first "effect” can be experienced in the gigantic "box" in the Baroque Hall, where nostalgia takes over with newsreels and film clips. But that's just to get you in the mood. Forty-one interviews form the basis of the exhibition, from which the shapes and layers of Budapest identity can be traced. Along the Danube installation in the exhibition space, personal stories are told of an antique dealer in Óbuda, a member of a confectioner's dynasty, a photo model, a water polo player, an actor, a chandelier maker, a rock musician, a Buddhist or a member of the LGBTQ community. Among them are both ordinary and well-known people, united by the fact that their lives are all shaped by the Budapest effect. It was obviously different growing up in the Rákos suburbs, Zugliget or Tabán, in Újpest or the Havanna housing estate, and there is a different attachment to the city for those who have lived here for generations or who came from Transylvania as adults. The "storytelling" part of the exhibition shows what forms of identity are possible, what it means to have a family tradition or a cohesive community, to be attached to a neighbourhood, a religious or cultural group.
Of course, the Budapest effect is not one-way. City dwellers, commuters and tourists, like crystals in a kaleidoscope, keep the city in motion: they move, leave communities and create new ones, take over abandoned spaces and form opinions. They connect with Budapest through critique. Think of the deserted Grand Boulevard, the world of ruin bars, the hustle and bustle of university campuses, the occasionally traffic-free quaysides and the "Szabihíd", the revival of the 8th district. The exhibition features the voice of the passer-by, the thoughts of random interviewees on the smell or the colour of the capital, on the Buda and the Pest identity. All you have to do is sit down on one of the red benches (as if you were just relaxing in the People’s Park) and listen to the conversations. At the same time, visitors can express their opinions, place themselves on the map of Budapest, and influence the ever-changing word cloud of the Budapest effect in the virtual guestbook.
A museum, no matter how innovative the exhibition, cannot leave out cultural heritage when it comes to a city. The different layers of identity are linked to objects and ensembles selected from the unique collection of the Department of Modern Urban History of the Budapest History Museum. However, the "heritage" is not only illustrated by furniture, costumes, or memorabilia related to professions or associations, but also by a wealth of audiovisual material that recalls the century and a half since the city's unification. The visitor can enter the city's living spaces, move backwards or forwards in time, and enjoy a panoramic view of the capital in different time sections through binoculars. The sounds of the city, the noises of a period and a place, can be heard beneath the headgear suspended from the ceiling.
There is a certain "shared knowledge" that is evoked by poems, film clips and musical interludes. (There's that Budapest effect again: the city as inspiration, as muse!) Surely anyone can quote lyrics from old chansons or the songs of Tamás Cseh, or tell stories about film scenes where the capital is the set, or even the protagonist. Can you find a detail that you did not know before?
The exhibition is based on the curatorial concept of Noémi Népessy and is fundamentally based on the people of the city. Those who have spoken, and given their faces, their voices and their stories to the narrative. But it only becomes complete through the activity of the visitors. Everyone arrives with an attitude, their own relationship to the city, and this will certainly change, enrich or become more nuanced by the end of the exhibition. For this exhibition is open and diverse, just like Budapest.