An Exhibition at the Balassi Institute*

In the whole word, on every map and globe, your name is transcribed today, Budapest. This word does not denote a city any more: Budapest signifies today heroism. In every language of the world, Budapest means fidelity, self-sacrifice and national honour. Everybody who loves their native town wishes it to be like Budapest. And I wish that you remain forever such as you are today, Budapest. Home of proud and courageous people, conducting the Hungarians on the right way, starlight of the human race, Budapest.

István Örkény, Prayer for Budapest

The dramatic events of the 1956 Revolution and national freedom fight were crucial in the life of nearly every Hungarian family. Some can still recall even the most minor details of those days, while others can only recollect atmospheres, feelings or fading memories. There are families who even today hardly dare to talk about events of the past; others feel bound to preserve in the family lore everything that happened in 1956.

Remembrance with all its aspects is the central theme of the exhibition Daybreak 1956–2016 organised by the Balassi Institute. Fragments of memories related to facts and emotions, individual destinies and paths of life constitute the backbone of the exhibition. Thanks to the original design of installations – in conformity with the scale of the Institute’s immense gallery – photographs, speech recordings, excerpts of private letters and literary works are presented in an ingenious way to the visitors. The study of individual stories and emotions has been more and more in focus in the historical research of recent years, an approach that the exhibition tries to incorporate by presenting not only factual elements but also the human aspects of the events.

The exhibition helps the visitor to remember, relive or feel what went on during those revolutionary days, the general enthusiasm, the thirst for freedom, the courage overcoming the fears, the hopes, the eternal combat of faith and doubt, the national unity formed amidst the fight for a common goal.

The numerous thematic units of the exhibition are related to one another by a series of subtle links, but they can also be interpreted separately. Here we have to limit ourselves to highlighting some details reflecting the general concept of the exhibition and its atmosphere.

We have to look ourselves straight int he face in order to be able to read the picture behind us: the past

When entering the exhibition hall the visitor’s eyes are immediately attracted by the wall, which looks from the distance as if it were covered with a strangely patterned wallpaper: this impression is due to thousands of open envelopes containing photographs, poems, articles, diary entries dating from the days of the Revolution.

The wall of the thousands of envelopes containing photographs, poems, articles, diary entries dating from the days of the Revolution

One pauses, assailed by a strange feeling: we are going to be privy to secrets when looking at or reading the contents of the envelopes, since private letters and photographs are normally shown only to those with whom one has relations based on mutual trust. This is a kind of initiation. Once our body has arrived in the exhibition hall, our soul is solicited by writings and pictures hidden in the envelopes and taken back in time to the days of the Revolution.

Among these envelopes recalling those opened systematically by the secret police in the 1950s, we can discover a few that have remained sealed: they are concealing untold stories, messages that never arrived to the addressee, desires condemned to silence. Their contents will perhaps remain a secret for ever.

“Time is skulking in us, and we are confused and suspicious: isn’t it amongst our memories that the future is lurking, and isn’t it the future that brings our memories to light?” These lines of the writer Miklós Mészöly show the visitor the way to the world of memories. Enlarged and projected on the wall, the photographs taken in the streets of Budapest follow one another slowly. Some of their details get blurred sometimes, while at other times they become clear, just like people’s memories. Like when someone stops for a few minutes, bringing into his or her mind a past event like a photograph, going through mentally all the details and returning occasionally to some of the fragments, before remembering crystal clear everything that had happened. Other photographs present, in continuous motion, the memories of revolutionaries.

Continuing our visit we see a wall on which matches are aligned in rows, surrounding here and there photographs of the revolutionary events and words in mirror writing. As if we had entered somebody’s aura; this wall covered with burnt matches and poetic memorabilia gives actually rise to associations to lives, families and friendships, with subtle allusions to personal destinies. As this spectacle is so full of emotions it does not let us read the words, we have to turn around: a constructive mirror composition on the opposite wall throws light upon what we can see. It means that we have to look ourselves straight in the face in order to be able to read the picture behind us: the past. And this is also true the other way round. We cannot exist without our past, without our roots. Beyond the historical events a subjective 1956 lives in each and every one of us, with heroes, models and victims, with rapturous joy and silent pain, and with ideas like thirst for freedom, love of our country, courage, determination, devotion, solidarity, hope and trust.

The numbers of refugees from Hungary after the Revolution of 1956, detailed according to the receiving countries

Further on, the text of Cardinal Mindszenty’s November 3 radio speech is displayed beside passages from the diaries of two children: a wise old man and two naïve and innocent youngsters speak about the way they live and interpret the current events.

Visitors are also presented with a succinct chronological survey of the events, posters and leaflets of the Revolution and statistical data on individual destinies. They hear everywhere the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe, one of the true protagonists of the 1956 Revolution.

Researches and experiments concerning the way people behave in certain spaces have played an important role in the conception of the exhibition. We studied the effects of the quality of the space, of the visual environment in order to be able to formulate our message in such a way that it reach the receptors and even become part of their identity. Thus the experience of the exhibition will not be limited to the time the visitor spends on the spot, but will also emerge days and weeks later, in connection with diverse associations. The durability of the experience depends also on the organisation of the space.

* Exhibition concept: graphic artist Zsolt Czakó. Curators: Zita Bodnár, Irén Simándi, Éva Tulipán. The exhibition was sponsored by the 1956 Commemorative Committee and created in the framework of the programme “Year of the Hungarian Freedom”.

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