On 25th November 1802, Count Ferenc Széchényi- father of the ‘greatest Hungarian’, Istvan Széchenyi – decided to ‘donate, deliver, and assign’ his rich collections ‘for the use and benefit of my dear homeland and people, irrevocably and forever’. The Law XXIV of 1807 states that Széchenyi ‘made over, with all rights, his extensive and choice library, along with his rare coins collected with great care and at great expense, his armorial bearings of prominent families, and likewise his maps, pictures, and manuscripts, for use by the Hungarian nation, and by so doing has, with commendable zeal, laid the foundations for a national museum to be established later’.
The donation contained 11,884 printed books, 1156 manuscripts, 142 volumes of maps and engravings, and 2019 gold coins, as well as armorial bearings, other antiquities, and a few paintings. To begin with, the material was placed in the library of the Pauline cloister in Pest; afterwards, from 1807, it was housed in the one-time university building on the far side of the Church of the Paulines, which subsequently became the University Church. In 1807 different departments were created: the Library – today in Buda Castle-, the Natural History Department, and, later, the Antiquities Department. In 1813, the Hungarian state purchased from the Batthyány family the plot on which the present-day Museum building stands today. The design was entrusted to Mihály Pollack, a significant figure in Classicist architecture in Hungary. Construction of the new building began in 1837 and ended in ten years later. The sculptural decoration on the tympanum on the facade was made by the Munich sculptor Rafael Monti.
In the middle of the tympanum is the female figure of Pannonia enthroned; in each of her hands there is a laurel wreath. The wreath in her right hand she is offering to a personification of science and art; the one in her left hand she is offering to a personification of history and fame. In the right-hand corner is a figure symbolising the River Danube, and in the left-hand corner a figure symbolising the River Drava. Since 1875, the walls and ceiling of the Museum’s main staircase have featured allegorical frescoes by Károly Lotz and Mór Than.
The Museum played a significant role in the history of the 1848–49 Revolution and War of Independence. On 15th March 1848, the square in front of the Museum was an important venue in the revolutionary events. The Upper House of the 1848 Hungarian Parliament, which was representative of the Hungarian people, sat in the Museum’s Ceremonial Hall. (Later on, in 1861 and in the period 1865–66, the Lower House met there, followed by the Upper House during the years from 1867 until 1902, up to the construction of the present-day Parliament building.) Since 1848, the National Museum building has been not simply the home of the country’s most important national collection, but also a symbol of national liberty.
Beginning in 1852, concerts were held in the Museum’s Ceremonial Hall in aid of a ‘Garden Fund’. (In the 1850s, the National Museum became the Hungarian capital’s prime venue for concerts.) From the money thus collected, the gardener’s house that we still see today was built in 1852 already, and in the following year a plan for a park-like solution was drawn up. The first trees were planted on 24th November 1855, in festive circumstances. The Museum Garden achieved the dimensions we see today in 1880.
The Museums Law of 1949 created a separate Museum of Ethnography and a separate Museum of Natural Sciences, and established the Széchényi Library as a separate institution. During the 1960s, a number of building complexes in the countryside of outstanding importance historically were brought under the National Museum’s control as affiliated institutions, thus emphasising their national significance. The complexes in question are the King Matthias Museum in Visegrád, the Rákóczi Múzeum in Sárospatak, the Kossuth Museum in Monok, and – since 1985 – the Castle Museum in Esztergom.