Exodus Stations #6

Photographic Archive of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant Bucharest

Marta Jecu November 2019 (Muzeul Național al Ţăranului Român Bucharest Romania
Topic: All Images Credits: The Ethnological Archive of The National Museum of the Romanian Peasant, Bucharest Some considerations on its history before 1990 and its the museological program starting with 1990

Founding of the Museum and the Communist Period

At its foundation in 1906 the Muzeul de Etnografie, de Artă Națională, Artă Decorativă și Artă Industrială (Museum of Etnography, National Art, Decorative Art and Industrial Art) was meant to represent the values at home that the Romanian participation at universal exhibitions was showcasing through its national objects outside.

‘The romantic nationalism that accompanied the Romanian nation-building added expressions of the ethical and aesthetic virtues of the Peasant (i.e. of the nation) and the ethnographic object started to be collected for its own sake. Later on, in 1930 (…) the ethnographic object was expected to offer now a ‘truth-image’ of the ‘real’ peasant society’ 1

Decades later, in 1953, the communist party installed the Museum of the Communist Party in this building, while the original collections on rurality (which were in the meantime called ‘popular art’) were exiled and stored at various locations in Bucharest. Rurality was an important part of the display of communist Romania. In the archive images from this period selected by Nicu Ilfoveanu, posters and information boards from the communist period depict abstracted ‘images’ of the peasant, associated with certain rural areas in Romania, where obviously the educational and militant content associated with communist propaganda was put forward. (IMAGE MAPd 3038 and MAPd 3045). In a text by Simona Badescu2, a Romanian specialist in communist history, we learn that communism did not exhibit with a predilection for objects in their museums, but considered big posters with images, texts and slogans more efficient for the transmission of the socialist doctrine – as we can see in one of the archive images that reproduces a display of the museum (IMAGE MAP-5489).

Nicu llfoveanu has identified in some of the archival images from the communist period a ‘non-character’ (IMAGES MAP 4316, MAP 8214), another depiction of the ‘peasant’ that is showing a series of attributes of a presumed rural identity but completely leaves out the lived dimension. The ‘peasant’ represents nothing more than an instrument of the communist agenda, devoid of a personal consciousness.


Symptomatically, landscape is represented very little in the archive images and their historic staging of rurality, but some of these few images were included in Nicu Ilfoveanu’s installation. Most of the archive images that show landscape are photographed by museologists and anthropologists outdoors and are dating from pre-communist times. The founder of the Museum of Etnography, National Art, Decorative Art and Industrial Art (1906) Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș photographed an idyllic landscape that runs to the horizon without delimitation in around 1910. The bucolic and atemporal representations of nature in these images probably functioned at this time as carriers of the rural perennial identity, that was seen as a foundation of the Romanian nation.

Images that reproduce landscape in the communist period that followed, include the landscape in documentary panels or posters as a form to ‘fix’ the attributes of the rural reality along with costumes and maps. Nature appears in these images in an abstract form. At the same time these ‘presentations of rurality’ suggest a social complement to the urban plan destined to reflect the ‘worker’s’ environment from which nature was almost completely eliminated.

The artists’ interest for landscape is mirrored in his own images from the Gigi and Preafericitul Valerica series. In the context of recent efforts to ‘revitalise’ Romanian rurality, to connect to its pre-communist past, or to distil a ‘rural essence’, the characters of Nicu Ilfoveanu immersed in landscape make a counter-statement showing no more attributes of the depleted ‘rural world’ of previous decades. We perceive from these images that culture had gone thorugh a process of self-consumption, where nature takes over, in a sort of unique, present moment – a gournd zero, devoid of references. Watching this abundant and wild nature, we are introduced to a vigorous new force that regenerates fast and resourceful, unlike the exhausted ‘rural culture’.

The Museum after 1990

Right after the fall of communism in 1990, the Museum of the Communist Party closed down and the collections of the former Museum of Popular Art came back to its original building. Traces of the communist collections have been conserved in the displays of the newly founded National Museum of the Romanian Peasant. The freshly revitalised museum became a nodal point for historians, philosophers and artists that had fought communism and were searching for foundations to build a new cultural identity. The direction of the museum was taken by a contemporary artist, Horia Bernea, whose art was turning more and more abstract at that time. His vision was to design a museum that reformed the previously politically-instrumentalised presentations of rurality during communism, and that would offer a vision of national heritage that was not based on an historic and ethnographic presentation, and which would transmit a certain ‘native’ spirituality. He involved secondary narratives and quotidian objects – an approach that corresponded to trends that were being developed internationally in anthropology and museology.

The peasant was standing in his vision for ‘tradition’ – an essential, non-historic dimension of the Romanian identity that could bring a new substance to a Romania devastated by communism. Horia Bernea created a sort of personal museum, in which his own mural paintings and handwriting, his self-built display installations, painted scaffolding and workshops framed the objects, while his selection and juxtaposition of objects according to his personal vision, offered a cross section on ‘peasant culture’ that was sensory, experimental, and non-realistic. It presented an ideal that also aimed to revitalise an ‘authentic’ orthodox religious thinking – which was presented as originating in the peasant culture. The material was organised along themes in an essentialist presentation beyond periodisation and regional boundaries: The Power of the Cross, The Beauty of the Cross and others like The Village School, Time, Windows, Food, Living, Together, Minorities etc.3 The minimal display without showcases, with objects of various categories composed in spatial installations was based not on ethnological criteria, but on principles and devices from abstract installation art – which was itself barely developed at that time in Romania and which generated a spectacular display.

Vintila Mihailescu, one of the recent directors of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant and one of the most important Romanian anthropologists since 1990, discusses the origin of Bernea’s peasant figure. Analysing the museum and its display he remarks that:

Historical time is crossed in every direction, as here rules the long period of archetypes. Therefore, the type of ‘traditional man’ is ahistorical.  At the same time, he is a matrix, a ‘model’ of all its versions and becoming4.

Horia Bernea himself talks about the ‘traditional man’ who is seen by him as incarnating the ‘real’ European man. Vintila Mihailescu quotes Horia Bernea saying:

The easiest way to unite Europe is to do it on the grounds of traditional man.5

And Mihailescu comments further regarding the museum:

Nationalism is therefore distilled into Eurocentrism, while ethnographic particularities are transgressed, though without reaching universalism6.

Little has been written about how Bernea’s thinking as an artist influenced the particular image that he created for the rural. Relating his anthropological thinking on the role of the peasant to the aesthetic coating of his ideas, could bring interesting insights. Bernea’s museum was not thought of as an environment that documents rural reality, but rather as a device to transmit an idea of the peasant, his essence, while the aesthetic that was implemented throughout the museum was meant to facilitate the absorption of this ‘rural spirit’. The audience is asked for an approach that comes close to aesthetic contemplation and co-participation – principles of contemporary art emerging at that time in Romania.

An interesting point is made again by Vintila Mihailescu7 who observes that Bernea’s abstractism can be traced back to Orthodox iconoclasm – the interdiction of representing the Image of God in ‘traditional’ religious art in the Byzantine Orient. As the objects are not included in the museum’s display as connected to social reality, but as witnesses of ‘an originary identity’, the museum transmits through its display something that ‘goes way beyond the physical limit of the exposed object’ (Mihailescu quoting Bernea8) – as are the percepts of orthodox religious art from which Bernea took reference.

Not only in the context of the museum, but in his paintings too, Bernea was advocating for the assimilation of principles of medieval art into contemporary art. At the same time, we can note that a conceptual, non-representational direction started to be adopted in Romanian contemporary art at this time – as an antidote to the socialist realism of the imposed propaganda art of previous decades.

Mihailescu writes that in anthropological theory the condition of authenticity ‘is a matter of authority’9. Regarding the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant, the ‘authority’ was Bernea himself. Therefore, not only his role as founding figure of this museum, but also his role as artist is reinforcing this authority. In this sense, not only the identity of the peasant, but the identity of the artist too is redefined within this museum: the artist-founder steps into the position of a saviour of cultural value. Aesthetic apperception is what can recognise and measure authenticity. The museum as a personal artistic installation is affirming its founder as the creator-genius that has the ability to decide what enters the category of ‘national heritage’.

For Mihailescu, Bernea’s Museum of the Romanian Peasant is not a museum – on the one hand because the ‘traditional man’, as imagined by Bernea, does not actually exist, and on the other hand because it does not evoke or reproduce the social word based on empirical data. The interest in this museum does not fall on the truth of peasant society, but on the beautiful of peasant culture, while beauty lies in the authentic meaning/value of objects, in an imagined European value. In this sense Mihailescu launches the question: as it is not an ethnological museum, can we therefore talk about an ‘art museum?’10

I suppose that the museum can be better seen as an ‘art work’ – a personal installation that constructs with museological objects not only the peasant as an archetype of cultural and spiritual ‘value’, but affirms at the same time the artist as privileged, as benefiting from a ‘higher’ intellectual authority.

These complex founding circumstances of this museum which represents as its title states ‘the National Peasant’ is based on the personal program of a founding figure who generated a confusion that has in fact lasted a long time, regarding the assumption of objectivity that it transmitted. At the same time, the sensory, aesthetic and essentialist vision it transmits generated a strong personal identification on the part of the audience. After 3 decades, the public continues to identify with its display, as representing a Romanian spiritual cultural self.

1 Mihăilescu, Vintilă. 2009. ‘Local Museums? Village Collections in Recent Romania’. Martor 14: 11‐20.
2‘Same exhibitions, different labels? Romanian national museums and the fall of communism’ in Simon J. Knell,

Peter Aronsson, Arne Amundsen (eds.), National Museums. New Studies from Around the World, London: Routledge, 2010. p. 272 – 289, p.279

33 A virtual tool of the display conceived by Horia Bernea after 1990 can be seen at:

4Idem, p.19
5Idem, p.19
6Idem, p.19
7Idem, p.20
8 Idem, p.20
9Idem, p.23
10Idem, p. 25