Exodus Stations #6

Layers of Memory: Staging the Romanian Peasant through the Image Archive
of an Iconic Museum in Bucharest

Anca-Maria Pănoiu 1st November 2019
Topic: Lecture at the screening of Nicu llfoveanu's installation Overimpression at Centre Pompidou Galerie 3, Paris, 1st Nov. 2019 (as part of: Cosmopolis #2) all image credits: The Ethnological Archive of The National Museum of the Romanian Peasant, Bucharest,


The history of the actual Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest mirrors quite precisely the three main periods which define, by and large, the 20th century in Romania: the royal period (the Museum of National Art, 1906–1948, linked to the name of its founder, Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș), the communist period (under the designation of the Museum of Folk Art, between 1948 and 1978, ruled by ethnographer Tancred Bănățeanu) and the postsocialist one, starting on the 5th of February 1990, when it was refounded as the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, conceived by artist Horia Bernea in an attempt to recover the initial museum in a contemporary paradigm, being awarded the European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA) in 1996.

The museum’s Image Archive was gathered throughout the institution’s tormented existence of more than 100 years and organized in its actual form during the 1990s. Each age of the museum produced and nourished its own narratives around the image of the peasant. The display politics, the status and value given to the artifacts, were influenced by what was at stake at a certain moment from a social and political point of view. Being currently studied in-depth by various researchers and archivists, this rich visual repository proves itself to be multi-layered, as the representation of rurality cannot be separated from the aims of staging it in accordance with the interests of the time. How do remnants bear witness to the representations of the Romanian peasant as a cultural figure profiled on the canvas of the 20th century? The Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest, together with its Image Archive, is to be employed as an elucidating case study, based on an historical approach.


The Image Archive of the Museum of the Romanian Peasant is the visual part of its greater Ethnological Archive, which was gathered throughout the institution’s tormented existence of more than 100 years and whose content covers the entire period of documentation of the museum, from its founding in 1906 by Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș to the present day. The Image Archive was organized in its actual form during the late 1990s, by visual anthropologist Ioana Popescu and her team, in an attempt to structure, in several funds and collections, visual data spanning the entire history of the institution. It comprises more than 70,000 items, varied in form and content, such as: ancient photographs (dating from the 19th century), glass plates (negatives), negatives and slides, original/contact prints, film reels and VHS from the fieldwork carried out by the museum team in the 1990s and recent fieldwork material (digital and audio). Thus, considered from a historical perspective, the Archive may be conceived as a multi-layered visual repository that bears witness to the representation of rurality1 in a veritable lieu de mémoire2, in the words of ethnologist Marianne Mesnil, as throughout its existence, the museum was a symbol of the cultural scene in Romania – though in different ways, according to the epoch. From this perspective, the perspective of this article is that the representation of rurality has been instrumentalized in all epochs by different parties with their specific interests. This may have happened either through the framing of a peasant subject in the ‘rectangle’ of an image, or through showcasing peasant material culture in an exhibition curated at the museum – as every epoch perceives rurality specifically, according to its social context and political agenda. The Romanian peasant was a strong figure to be profiled on the cultural canvas throughout the 20th century. Therefore, the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest, together with its Image Archive, should be analyzed from an historical point of view. So, how do visual remnants speak about the world pictured in their frames? And, going even further, what can they tell us about the context in which a certain photograph was taken, about the political implications of the time, and about how these can influence perception, research and curating projects in the present?

The Image Archive: layers of representation

The story of the initiation of the Image Archive is a genuine illustration for the statement above. It was 1997, the Museum of the Romanian Peasant had just been awarded the EMYA a year before and the institution had reached its climax on the Bucharest cultural stage, as a vanguard museum attempting to recover The Museum of National Art founded by Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș in 1906, though in a contemporary, post-communist paradigm. While preparing a photography exhibition on childhood, visual anthropologist Ioana Popescu came across a wooden box containing glass negatives, some of them with altered film or even broken3. The vivid sights and the strong depiction of characters appealed to her, as they were both documentary and spectacular, bearing the stylistic mark of their authorship. Nevertheless, there was a political conflict4: according to the register, the wooden box was inherited from the archives of the Museum of the Communist Party, an institution which in 1948 had usurped the building housing Tzigara-Samurcaș’s museum, soon after the installation of the communist regime in Romania, as will be detailed in the following. But the inventory record cards stated clearly that the author of the glass plates was Iosif Berman (1892–1941), a renowned inter-war photographer who had played a strong part in the ambitious research on Romanian villages carried out by the Sociological School in Bucharest, led by sociologist Dimitrie Gusti in the inter-war period, with royal funding. Moreover, the photographs often pictured scenery from the pre-communist epoch and even members of the royal family5, which was totally in contrast to a recently established totalitarianism that aimed to erase each and every trace of the past, mainly to do with the late democracy and royalty. While the deep reasons of such an acquisition by the Museum of the Communist Party are still partially shrouded in mystery, and would make a suitable subject for another dissertation, the newly-discovered collection of glass plates was fascinating enough for the team at the museum to aggregate a direction of visual anthropology and frame it as the Image Archive.

From then on, the visual data was organized in funds and collections based on criteria such as: authorship (when the name of the photographer was known to the archivists), institutional provenance (the case of the MAP – Museum of Folk Art fund, which amasses thousands of images from the patrimony of the Museum of Folk Art, the successor of the Museum of National Art during the communist era), name of the donor or media (for instance, ‘glass plates’). Merely looking at these visual artifacts and the research they occasion to this day highlights the fact that each age of the museum produced and nourished its own narratives around the image of the peasant. The display politics and the status and value given to the artifacts were influenced by what was at stake from a social and political point of view at a certain moment in time. Therefore, in order to understand such implications for the contents of the Archive, first and foremost the history of the museum has to be outlined, as its stages are intimately intertwined with the elaboration of visual and curatorial discourse.

Layers of memory: the history of an iconic museum in Bucharest in political perspective

In Romania, the 20th century can be divided into three main periods: the royal one (up to 1947) – under the reign of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen dynasty, the communist one, which was also totalitarian (1947–1989, with leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu as key figures), and the postsocialist one, after the Revolution in December 1989, which marked the fall of Romanian communism and its transition to democracy. The institutional path of the actual Museum of the Romanian Peasant was strongly influenced by these three main periods and thus, it mirrors them quite precisely, as Ioana Popescu states in an article in 2006, occasioned by the centenary of the institution. She claims that the three major stages correspond to specific curatorial discourses, from the ethnographic and nationalist one, passing through the communist one, and finishing with the period after 1990. She defends the idea that the representation of rurality had to keep up with the political context of each period:

Created as a museum of national arts and popular traditions, the institution was transformed by the communist rulers into the Museum of Folk Art and/or the Museum of the Communist Party, only to become the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in 1990. Going through (un)imaginable avatars, it has always kept an interest in nuce for peasant culture, its main goal being to outline a national Romanian identity. On the contrary, according to political, social and ideological shifts, the Museum had to adapt its discourse and scenography. Thus, its permanent exhibition was always created starting with different themes, artifacts and representations of the same world, namely the Romanian village. At a visual level, the museum assumed different identities and goals, depending on ideas (or propaganda) that functioned as starting points for its discourse. The case of the Museum of the Romanian Peasant is one of the most interesting demonstrations of the fact that the same object can be represented differently, according to various political contexts and mentalities.6

Let us take a closer look at this tormented path, with its ups and its downs. In 1906, the Museum of Ethnography, National, Decorative and Industrial Art was founded in Bucharest through a royal decree issued by His Majesty Carol the Ist. Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș was named its director, as he was known to be the only Romanian art historian to have completed a doctoral thesis in Munich. This was not an unusual case in Europe at that time, because the old continent was witnessing a severe decline of the big empires at the same time as the definition and ascent of national states. In that context, ethnographic museums proliferated in Europe as part of a larger political project which aimed to aggregate and legitimate national identities. In Romania, this meant the fulfilment of some older intentions, namely a project that had intended to extend an existing museum of antiquities by adding a section of national costumes in 1875, and a project in 1901 whose idea stemmed from the Universal Exhibition in Paris7, aiming to create a permanent exhibition of the genre.

At that time, the population of Romania was mostly rural, which is why Romanian intellectuals considered that the representation of this ‘domestic savage’ – the Peasant – could have worked as an identity reservoir prone to stirring feelings of national attachment. For at that time, such a figure was as untamed as it was fascinating and incomprehensible, therefore its representations could be designed to fit certain aspirations. Thus, the Peasant became a pawn in the elaboration of the political project of a nascent state. This project needed a set of values strong enough to claim a certain national specificity. Therefore, the figure of the Peasant was turned into a model and was assigned virtues of wisdom, artistic talent and an intimate fellowship with nature in its purest sense, nearly atemporal, cosmic – the origin of everything. The Peasant was viewed as the one and only repository of certain moral and aesthetic values attached to the idea of being Romanian8, and thus, amassing and showcasing artifacts originating from peasant culture became a political gesture inscribed in the larger project of configuring a national identity.

In 1912 the construction of the actual building on Șoseaua Kiseleff started. The project had been designed by the famous architect Nicolae Ghika-Budești specifically in order to house a national museum, and the construction works lasted 26 years (during the First World War and accompanying many political and economic changes in the country). The architectural style chosen by Ghika-Budești was not a matter of chance: ‘neo-Romanian’ or ‘brâncovenesc’9 style was part of the same political project of legitimizing a nation that was coming into existence. As Marianne Mesnil puts it, the building reminds us of the sumptuous dwellings of boyards10 during the 18th century11, but actually it is a laboratory alloy of both peasant and noble architectural elements amassed from the entire country, aiming to assert national unity by referring to a past that was both peasant and princely. During its existence, the museum changed its name twice, first to the Museum of Ethnography and National Art, then to the Museum of Ethnography and National Art `Carol the Ist’’, after the king who had signed its founding decree. Soon, the place would become a meeting point for the inter-war aristocracy in Bucharest, which garnered it the name of Muzeul de la Șosea (‘the Museum by the Highroad’).

To picture these perspectives on the Romanian peasant in the early 20th century, let us come back to the Archive and take a look at several photographs taken back then, extracted from the thousands that comprise this huge visual repository. Image 112 is a typical example of photographic composition in the style of the period, which bears the signature of Czech photographer Leopold Adler. While the characters – an old man and a girl spinning – seem to be actual peasants (one can observe their harsh features and the dirt on their faces and hands, which would not be the case if they were models), their postures are almost surely imposed by the person with the camera, as they do not look at him, but elsewhere, seeming unaware of being photographed. The man is old and has a beard, a possible indicator for his wisdom. Moreover, the placing of the pair in the same frame may indicate an attempt to highlight gender relations in a world governed by patriarchy. The architectural details complete the traditional setting. Further on, the idea of tradition may be nuanced by looking at Image 2, which pictures a shepherd playing the pipe. This photograph may be given at least two interpretations: the first is related to the ideas about the peasant as a genuine figure leading a pure existence in a bucolic realm, close to nature; the second may turn to a more documentary approach, as we can see the man in the complete attire of his occupation, surrounded almost pedagogically by the instruments of his daily labour, and by architectural elements (the wall, a part of the window, the stairs, etc.). Thus, here is an example of looking at an image in two different ways, that each transmits another meaning, depending on the interests of the parties involved. Things are quite different in the case of Image 3, which is evidently a studio photograph, employing a model in order to represent rurality, but in a way that had more to do with an aspiration than with genuine reality. The background and the decor, the studied posture of the character, the flawless costume and the overall setting aim to depict specific characteristics, but at the same time they make the setting almost untraceable in time and space, linking it to an undefined past (except for the tailoring and ornaments of the costume, perhaps, which may indeed speak to the connoisseurs). But scenography was not at all unknown to the dwellers of the Romanian village themselves at the beginning of the 20th century! Image 4 abounds in clues of what may have been either the unknown photographer’s ideas on representing peasants, or their own will of staging themselves for posterity13. Apart from the rigorous organisation of the visual field, which goes gradually from a near foreground to a far background (each stage being marked by the presence of certain characters, arranged maybe hierarchically), there is an interesting object, typical for peasant photographs at that time, that may stir many questions: the carpet, held by two other persons – one that can be seen on the left and the other one out of sight. Does the carpet function as a separator of contexts – separating the convention, what ‘deserves’ to be photographed, from genuine reality, which is undeserving for it is thought to be ordinary? Was it borrowed from what peasants might have seen in the city, thus an urban visual quote? And, most of all, did the characters in the foreground know that they were not the only ones to appear in the photograph, elegant as they were in their specific holiday attire? Or, to put it differently, did the characters from behind the carpet know that they were being photographed, or was it just a trick of the person with the camera? Many hypotheses can be developed around the same visual artifact and, in the context of employing such images in a museum discourse, they may open different, even opposite, paths of interpretation.

Leaving both the field and the studio, let us take a look at how rurality was represented during that time in the museum framework, merely by arranging items of peasant culture in a new form, taken away from its original context, and rebuilt through intellectual endeavours, aiming to portray peasantry in a way that, at the same time, cannot be torn away from the ideology of the epoch. This is evident in images 5, 6, 7 and 814, as they highlight the ethnographic approach to peasant material culture in a classificatory way. From the very end of the 19th century, the ethnographic museums that were multiplying in Europe with the aim of creating national identities, intended to reproduce a precise ethnographic reality, and to display the exact artifacts and cultural settlements15. Thus, displaying a certain culture represents a reification: the rigid scenography (an imitation of ‘reality’ determined by scientific goals) excludes the vivid side of that culture and ends up by eluding time itself, turning it into a sign, as Jean Baudrillard puts it16. Thus, by decontextualizing objects, the links between them get weakened and they are more prone to be reassembled in a display that follows a curatorial statement, rather than speaking for themselves. In the images mentioned above, this is to be seen in at least four ways: firstly, the marks that depict the museum framework (for instance, the label and the string in Image 5); secondly, the agglutination of objects stemming from different registers, which in their original contexts would almost surely not be put together (as in Image 6); thirdly, the unsubtle juxtaposition of peasant artifacts and instruments from the museum ‘tool kit’, such as showcases or paintings (as in Images 6, 7 and 8), in which the intellectual construction of the time speaks for itself; and last, but not least, the showcasing of mannequins displaying folk clothes, where the rigidity of such representations of culture becomes more than evident.

But the house of the peasant Antonie Mogoș from Ceauru (Image 9) could make an exception, at least from a certain point of view. The house was brought by Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș during the epoch of the royal museum. The director returned from research fieldwork accompanied by the proprietor himself, a peasant from the village of Ceauru, Gorj county. Not only did he sell the old house to the museum, but he came to Bucharest in order to assemble it in one of the exhibition spaces in the building on Șoseaua Kiseleff. Given his organic link to the house, this gesture, together with the presence of the man in flesh and bones, lends some organicity to the approach otherwise meant to depict specific ethnographic items. This particular artifact – the house – may also serve as a bridge between the three ages of the museum, as it was present throughout its entire history, though in different ways: while during the royal period it became a focus in the museum for the elite of the time, during the communist era it was moved to the Village Museum and left unattended, only to degrade in the open air. Finally, during the late 1990s it was brought back to its original place, as is to be detailed later.

The national art genre is to be encountered even in the context of the research carried out by the Sociological School, even though a certain objectification of the peasant was at stake at that time (as will be stated in the following), rendering his representation closer to the facts of the time. Nevertheless, genre compositions persisted, as can be seen in Image 10. Its particularity resides in the fact that it is actually ‘a photograph in a photograph’. While the traditional setting in this image remains unaltered, the fact of including the photographer tells us more about the documentation of the photographic act, than about its subject. It was the inter-war period and mentalities were shifting. Soon, the political regime was to shift too, imposing a different ideology and different staging approaches.

The denouement of World War Two meant the installation of the communist regime in Romania which, in turn, brought the lifetime project of Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș to an end. In 1948, the title of the institution changed to the Museum of Folk Art of the Socialist Republic of Romania. On an ideological level, this meant a radical change in discourse: the interests of the newly established totalitarianism could only be served by the image of an impoverished

peasant, exploited by noblemen and pushed to the margins of society. The new communist working class (proletariat) was to aggregate from this very mass of people, defining the victorious figure of a new era – as Messianic as utopian – built by communists on the ruins of a past world17.

Thus, the representation of the Peasant proved to be a mould for two opposite discourses that came one after another during the 20th century. On the one hand, the nationalist discourse exalted the image of a Peasant who was at the same time an artist and an icon of moral values. Whilst idealized at the end of the 19th century, and at the beginning of the 20th, the peasant was afterwards objectified and his culture was thoroughly researched during the modernization of the Romanian village in the inter-war period. One of the leading approaches in this process was the documenting campaigns carried out by the Sociological School in Bucharest, led by Dimitrie Gusti. On the other hand, the communist discourse changed to presenting the image of a peasant enslaved by noblemen (chiaburi, in the argot of the time), and promised him salvation. Nevertheless, it actually altered their culture irreparably by means of collectivization and hasty acculturation determined by forced urbanization. Thus, as communist propaganda created an oppressed peasant as the ideal mould for the newly-formed working class, the institution was occupied by recent rulers and followed the new discourse closely under the designation of Museum of Folk Art. Practically speaking, the communist elite usurped all the posh districts from the north of Bucharest, installing their residences on the locations of the former royal bourgeoisie. The Palace on Șoseaua Kiseleff was no exception: in 1954, the ethnographic collections were moved to Știrbey Palace, on Calea Victoriei 107, the headquarters for the new folk art museum whose discourse was prone to serve the ideology of the Party. The existence of this institution, under the directorship of Tancred Bănățeanu, spanned from 1948 to 1978. The program of this new director was ethnographic, in the sense that the discourse shifted from depicting the national ideal (as in the case of the former museum) to documenting regional specificities of the country, in a patriotic approach that paid tribute to the rulers of the day. In 1978 there was a so-called fusion with the Museum of Village18. In fact, what happened then was that the folk art museum was packed up in boxes, and so, it vanished. All through this epoch, the palace on Șoseaua Kiseleff housed a propaganda museum of the communist regime, that was to last until 1989.

But beyond historic landmarks, the actual shift from the royal epoch to the communist one may sometimes take the form of a fusion rather than a rigid boundary. There were people who lived and created art during both times, having to adapt their work to the discourses which were at stake. An elucidating example in this sense is the work of photographer Aurel Bauh (1900–1964), a renowned artist in Paris and a key figure of the Sociological School in Bucharest as well. During the Dâmbovnic campaigns in 1939 he took a photograph of an old man which he then published in the 1940 April issue of the O.N.T.19 magazine, with a caption reading Moșnean from Argeș (‘Peasant from Argeș’) and a month later, on the 12th of May 1940, in România Literară magazine, bearing his signature on the cover, as well as the caption Cap de țăran (‘Peasant Portrait’)20 (see Image 12, BA-520) Fifteen years later, in 1955 (thus several years after the establishment of communism), we find him exhibiting the same negative at the photography exhibition Patria noastră (‘Our Country’), but with another title: Brazdă din brazdă (‘Furrow from Furrow’), which, as curator Viviana Iacob assumes, could be a play of words suggesting the connection between deep wrinkles and hard work21. Exhibited in the same context was another photograph which is to be found nowadays in the Image Archive: Pornirăm la prășit (‘On our way to hoeing’, BA-550, see Image 11). Though this is also thought to have been taken during the same inter-war campaigns, the different title and different context of exhibiting it, shift the focus to the idea of hard work, prone to fit the new ideology. Again, as Viviana Iacob puts it: ‘In 1955, these titles were a means to publish and exhibit works from an undesirable period reflecting a problematic intellectual history for the communist regime. Through them Bauh reinvents his work for the new political context.’22 In addition to that, I would argue that the perspective of the photographs fits the new discourse, as the low-angle shot creates statuary silhouettes. Except that these ‘statues’ do not express the meanings they were assigned during the national art period, but instead express the new working class on its way to development, between its daily labour and promising future.

But the communist representation of rurality also had its celebratory side. This had nothing to do with peasant rituals or traditional holidays, which were replaced by a newly created pantheon comprising key communist figures, together with their own purely secular rituals, depicted in an artistic and competitive way. Image 13 shows such ‘aspects from an art contest’, patronized by the oversized portrait of I.V. Stalin as the presence of a benefactor whom everyone should look up to. But there are other types of images as well, taken during the same period. For instance, Image 14, which is ambivalent. Taken in 1957, thus in the full communist period, it may be interpreted, on the one hand, as picturing symbols of hard work (let us not forget that the sickle is half of the international communist symbol) and the wealth of the country (the golden wheat). But, on the other hand, considering the close-up, one cannot but notice the free posture, the natural smile, and the sparkling youthfulness of the character – specific to a snapshot – which could escape the aims of an explicit political instrumentalization. What else could be said about a photograph such as Image 15? Taken by Tancred Bănățeanu himself in Oaș (Northern Romania) in 1964, it is as vivid as life. Such examples highlight the fact that even in the midst of totalitarianism, not each and every fieldwork enterprise followed the path of ideology.

The fall of communism in Romania, after the Revolution in December 1989, was a landmark for a new age of the museum: on the 5th of February 1990, Andrei Pleșu, the new Minister for Culture, signed the refoundation act for the former museum of Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș, in the recently recovered building, naming Horia Bernea as a director. The project for the new museum had as a main guideline to establish a continuity with the former institution, the one before the decades of communism. Nevertheless, the way to achieve this was fundamentally different from the nationalist direction adopted at the beginning of the 20th century. The painter Horia Bernea conceived of a link with Romanian traditional culture based on spiritual grounds, mostly on the Christian-Orthodox faith. But the peasant figure he was picturing was not reduced to being Romanian, as in former times, for incarnating national specificities would no longer respond to the contemporary sensibilities of the public. The traditional man pictured in the approach of Horia Bernea and his team represented the entire area of Southern Europe, in an attempt to retrieve European unity in pre-schismatic Christian values.

Besides the endeavour of establishing cultural and spiritual continuities with the past, the new museum was also being subtly militant in highlighting the failure of the former communist regime23. The means chosen to do so was to build the permanent exhibition, opened to the public on Easter Sunday 1993, around the symbol of the cross. Why the cross? Because its leitmotif, figured in the museum both as a structural and as a cultural24 principle of the traditional world, functioned as a militant symbol against half a century of atheist political regime and was thus ‘a sign of the barricade, of the fight against the ghosts of communism’25. Even though the exorcism was nothing but a metaphor – as it assailed the former regime only indirectly – its effect in the recent post-socialist context was extremely powerful, as it hoisted a cultural and spiritual symbol that had been forbidden for almost 50 years. An elucidating example in this sense is the ‘Fast’26 hall in the museum (Image 16), an installation inspired by the underground churches of early Christianity.

Starting in 1997, this ‘subtle militancy’ was increased by another enterprise, this time stemming more from a political and historical paradigm, aimed to incriminate outright the crimes of the communist regime against Romanian peasantry. The hall ‘Ciuma – instalație politică’ (‘The Pest – political installation’) was a metaphorical, still vivid setting that employed the ugly and the disonant in order to picture the communist epoch. It displayed huge portraits of the rulers Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and V.I. Stalin – typical of the propaganda of the period; small statues of Lenin reiterated ad nauseam and painted in red for diabolical connotations; copies of the Scânteia (‘The Spark’) newspaper27 glued everywhere on the walls as an interminable incantation of propaganda; the hammer and sickle painted obsessively on a tormenting red background; and fragments of counterfeited folklore or caricatures of the epoch representing the noblemen as diabolical and, in exchange, exalting the figure of a peasant working zealously on the common property of the state. All of these were intended to articulate a museological installation28, an orchestration of the hideous, sinister and diabolical, with the aim of maintaining a memory.

Considerations on landscape representation in Horia Bernea’s

museological display after 1990

As was stated before, when it comes to showcasing and representing rurality, reification played an important part during the first half of the 20th century (and in many museums of the genre it does, even up to today). Nevertheless, it is not the case with the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, as it was conceived by artist Horia Bernea and his team. Strongly aware of the fact that separating an object from its originating context would weaken its links to the evoked world and would counterfeit the entire representation, they chose another path: the assumed decontextualizing of peasant artifacts and their re-contextualizing in a brand new construct, which was mainly aesthetic and based on the expressiveness of the fragment to evoke the universe from which it had been taken. Thus, a method employed by the new museum was to highlight not just the link, but also the distance between the present remnant and its originating context in the peasant world.

This is particularly interesting when it comes to landscape, because instead of using the diorama or other classical means of representing natural scenery as contexts for the exhibits, Horia Bernea embraced suggestion. The examples of his subtlety in this approach are overwhelmingly numerous. I am only choosing two of them. One is linked to the house of Antonie Mogoș from the village of Ceauru, introduced above. Regaining the house from the Village Museum and bringing it back to the context where it was first exhibited was one of Horia Bernea’s last projects, prior to his early death in 2000. During the installation of the house according to its former display in the time of Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș, Bernea had a sudden idea: he decided to place the house on the opposite side of the hall (see Image 17) so that the suns’s rays coming through the huge windows would beautifully infuse the interstices of the wooden walls. In addition to that, he chose to pin traditional tapestries with vegetable motifs to the opposite wall, in a playful, still symbolic interpretation of nature surrounding the peasant house. The second example is somehow similar: ‘The tree with crosses’ from the hall ‘The cross – the tree of life’. This actual tree, which in the exhibition hall is displayed without leaves, depicts a custom in Gorj, a region from Southern Romania: there, when someone died, the village people used to nail a painted cross to the branches of the tree, both in the memory of the deceased and as a prayer for his or her soul. In the museum hall the dry tree has undergone a certain degree of reification. But, as religious anthropologist Anca Manolescu puts it, this has unveiled its symbolic potential, as without leaves, the tree reveals the shape of the cross. In Horia Bernea’s display the cultural symbol of the cross is identified as an omnipresent natural shape, which he identifies with a Christian spirituality preceding the historical one. Furthermore, the tree as an ascending figure would suggest an aspiration towards transcendence, mirrored by the tree on the peasant carpet set at its roots, a more mundane reflection of the same principle29.

The Museum and the Image Archive: Perspectives

However fascinating one may find Horia Bernea’s museological discourse, when speaking of it the past tense should be employed. At the time when I am writing these lines, the permanent exhibition, as it was conceived and set by the artist and his team during the 1990s, has ceased to exist. The halls of the museum are empty, for during the last three years, the building has undergone consolidation works that demanded that the exhibition bearing the signature of Horia Bernea be uninstalled. And even though the works are now complete, institutional issues that are mostly shrouded in political and administrative noise still keep the exhibition from being either re-installed or re-conceived.

As for the Archive, even though it is not exempt from the same institutional flaws, or from the lack of elementary funds for pursuing its daily activity of preserving and salvaging visual artifacts, it has nevertheless flourished during the last four years. A young and vital team has embraced the approach of opening it up for the public, designing participatory programs and cultural projects such as guided tours, performative exhibitions, screenings and workshops that go hand in hand with the slow, but steady endeavour of researching the visual collections. The most recent outcome of this enthusiastic labour is the online platform #RețelelePrivirii, an attempt to curate some of the content of the Archive by uploading it online, in order to stir a participatory experience, and even a documenting of the collections.


The Image Archive, in its intertwining with the history of the actual Museum of the Romanian Peasant, could span hundreds of pages and innumerable hours of passionate debate. Looked at carefully, each and every glass plate, slide or contact print can either speak for itself, or trace and unfold some of the context in which it was produced together with the features of the epoch, imprinted on the visual artifact in different ways, from its mere materiality to the choice of representing one facet or another of a given reality.

But as the first assumption of this exposé was that the representation of rurality cannot be separated from the political or cultural intentions behind it, one more thing must be added. Often, the mere gaze of the one who looks at a visual artifact may be influenced by his or her own ideas on the subject, which in turn may be linked either to ideological issues or personal sensibilities. Similarly, the process of archiving is particularly interesting since registering and describing visual artifacts through the lens of an archivist means the creation of a new context and thus, the nourishing of memory. The cliché CS-1026 (Image 18) depicts four characters in a rural setting, probably from the early 20th century (according to the attire, the architectural elements and the fact that technically it is a glass cliché30): a woman, a man of colour and another man holding a child in his arms. Nevertheless, the only description of this photograph that is to be found in the register reads: ‘In front of a gate, a bearded old man holds a child in his arms.’ Not a single word about the woman or about the African man, which in those times would have been an unusual appearance in Romanian villages, to say the least. Might the archivist have neglected their presence on purpose? One can never tell, because the register description was written back in the 1950s and the context of registering remains unknown. But what can be drawn from such an example is that even beyond social and political interests, the gaze itself is not innocent and the act of giving meaning is first and foremost in the eye of the beholder.


ALTHABE, Gérard, ‘Une exposition ethnographique: du plaisir esthétique, une leçon politique’, Martor 2/1997, Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant, pp. 144–165

BAUDRILLARD, Jean, Sistemul obiectelor (Romanian translation by Horia Lazăr), Echinox, Cluj, 1996.

BERNEA, Horia, Irina Nicolau, ‘L’installation. Exposer des objets au Musée du Paysan Roumain’, Martor 3/1998, Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant, pp. 223–238

LONGUET, Isabelle, ‘Le Musée du Paysan Roumain. Présentation d’une culture ou proposition de société?’, Terrain 21/1993, pp. 143–149

MANOLESCU, Anca, ‘Un musée contre la muséification’, Martor 11/2006 (Museums&Societies), Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant, pp. 51–54

MESNIL, Marianne, ‘Histoire tourmentée d’un lieu de mémoire: le Musée du Paysan Roumain avant, pendant et après le communisme’, Martor 11/2006 (Museums&Societies), Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant, pp. 33–48

NICOLAU, Irina, ‘Moi et les musées du monde’, NEC Yearbook 1994, Bucharest, New Europe College, pp. 15–42

POPESCU, Ioana, ‘Un siècle de singularité, un an d’hospitalité’, în Martor 11/2006 (Museums&Societies), Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant, pp. 9–11

POPESCU, Ioana (prints by Alice Ionescu), Iosif Berman. A photo-album, Martor 3/1998 (supplement), Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant


It should be highlighted that, whereas most of the Archive comprises images with a rural subject, its initiators did not neglect urban scenery. Thus, many of the visual artifacts picture urban aspects as well. The two complement one another, as, according to the anthropological approach of the Museum of the Romanian Peasant after the 1990s, a holistic perspective should prevail in considering peasant culture.
2 Marianne Mesnil, ‘Histoire tourmentée d’un lieu de mémoire: le Musée du Paysan Roumain avant, pendant et après le communisme’, Martor 11/2006 (Museums&Societies), Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant, pp. 33–48.

Ioana Popescu (prints by Alice Ionescu), Iosif Berman. A photo-album, Martor 3/1998 (supplement), Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant, p. 80.
4 The information is drawn from an interview with Ioana Popescu carried out in the winter of 2016. It is representative for the Archive that many aspects of its foundation and recent history are still oral, having not yet been written down.
5 It is known that Iosif Berman had been an official photographer for the Royal House of Romania, having a strong link with King Michael the 1st during his childhood and adolescence.
6 Ioana Popescu, ‘Un siècle de singularité, un an d’hospitalité’, Martor 11/2006 (Museums&Societies), Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant, pp. 9–11 (my translation, AMP).
7 Isabelle Longuet, ‘Le Musée du Paysan Roumain. Présentation d’une culture ou proposition de société?’, Terrain 21/1993, p. 148.
8 Ioana Popescu, op. cit., p. 11.
9 Derived from the name of Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu (1654–1714), a Romanian ruler during whose reign (1688–1714) the country flourished from both a cultural and an economic point of view.
10 Denomination used for noblemen during the Middle Ages in Eastern Europe. Initially it referred to the members of a Russian aristocratic order, next in rank below the ruling princes, until its abolition by Peter the Great.
11 Marianne Mesnil, op. cit., p. 36.
12 The images are reproduced in the pages of this article through the courtesy of the Image Archive of the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest.
13 Here, one has to consider the rarity of the photograph both as an object and a technique at that time. Back then, being photographed was either scary – as some thought of it in a symbolic way, considering that their appearance would be ‘stolen’ – or an exceptional event assigned to major occasions, thus it had to depict the utmost of what people thought of themselves and, consequently, wished to leave to their descendants.
14 Even though these artifacts were registered in 1954 (during the communist era of the museum), they show displays from the Museum of National Art at the time of Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș. It is a typical example of how the Museum of Folk Art has institutionally swallowed its ancestor, both in terms of documentation and discourse.
15 A key figure for this type of museology is the Swede Athur Hazelius, who created the first open-air museum at Skansen, employing as a means of exact restitution the diorama – an artificial reconstruction of original contexts.
16 Jean Baudrillard, Sistemul obiectelor (Romanian translation by Horia Lazăr), Echinox, Cluj, 1996, pp. 50–51.
17 Gérard Althabe, ‘Une exposition ethnographique: du plaisir esthétique, une leçon politique’, Martor 2/1997, Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant, pp. 144–165.
18 Another key figure of inter-war ethnography, an open-air museum whose foundation is linked to the name of sociologist Dimitrie Gusti.
19 National Office of Tourism (Oficiul Național de Turism).
20 Viviana Iacob, Looking for Bauh: Negatives and Prints from the Romanian Peasant Museum Image Archive, Martor 24/2019, Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant (to be published).
21 Ibidem.
22 Ibidem.
23 Gérard Althabe, op. cit.
24 Anca Manolescu, ‘Un musée contre la muséification’, Martor 11/2006 (Museums&Societies), Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant, pp. 52–54.
25 Irina Nicolau, ‘Moi et les musées du monde’, NEC Yearbook 1994, Bucharest, New Europe College, pp. 15–42 (my translation, AMP).
26 ‘Fast’ is an almost untranslatable word in English, having to do with the attitude occasioned by sacred or royal celebrations, which combines physical abundance and an elevation of the spirit.
27 The main propaganda vehicle in the Romanian communist press.
28 See Horia Bernea, Irina Nicolau, ‘L’installation. Exposer des objets au Musée du Paysan Roumain’, Martor 3/1998, Bucharest, Museum of the Romanian Peasant, p. 225.
29 Ibidem.
30 Glass Cliché/ Cliché verre was one of the earliest forms of reproducing images before the advent of the camera.