Terror House

Review

of an Exhibition

by Daniel Spock

Published on March 27, 2008, Modified on April 03, 2008

  • Description:

    On Andrassy Street, one of Budapest’s loveliest boulevards, stands the Terror House. The exterior begins the metaphorical journey contained inside, “terror” literally casts a dark shadow on the place. Boy does it ever. For more than 50 years over the course of two totalitarian regimes, this building served as the headquarters for the Hungarian secret police.

    The Terror House is simultaneously a museum, a historic site and a memorial, its fractured atrium is lined with portraits of the victims of 5 decades of oppression. In a chronological series of metaphorical set pieces, a story of national struggle and endurance unfolds. In the Hall of the Arrow Cross (the swastika-like symbol of the Hungarian fascists), Ferents Salashi, the leader of Hungarian Nazi puppet regime is portrayed, his motionless face projected onto a uniformed figurehead looming over a dinner table. A Nazi radio broadcast fills the room. Behind Salashi streams a river of ice. We learn here that many Budapest Jews were shot on the Danube River embankment and thrown into the icy river. The videos portray the deportation of Hungarian Jewry and the executions of political dissidents. The effect is literally chilling.

    The fascist period in Hungary was brief. The Soviets occupied Budapest in 1945. In a brilliant metaphorical vignette, the uniforms of the secret police of the fascists and the soviets revolve slowly, back to back. A video portrays men and women changing uniforms. We learn that the secret police bureaucrats served both regimes in succession without interruption. The uniform changes with the ideology but the people are the same.

    In one large hall, a floor map shows the vast system of gulags throughout the Soviet Union. Cases contain artifacts from Hungarians who were detained in the camps. Each camp is pinpointed by the related case. Videos along the walls show first-person accounts of surviving gulag detainees. In the office of Gabor Peter, chief of Political Police, the side of the office facing Peter’s desk is clad entirely in sheet lead, the vantage point of a victim. A setting evoking a kangaroo courtroom portrays the show trials of the leaders of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. All of the surfaces are clad with secret surveillance documents and dossiers recovered after the fall of the soviet client regime. A secret chamber to the right contains a concealed listening station.

    During the terror, detainees were rounded up at night by agents in black limousines. To the sounds of an automobile rolling ominously over wet streets, the room slowly darkens and lights within a hanging shroud reveal one of these black limos. Last of all the red-plush interior, festooned with soviet symbols is revealed, drawing you relentlessly inside. In another space, a replica of a torture chamber is festooned with actual truncheons recovered from the Terror House.

    In a darkened glass elevator, we slowly descend into the cellar. A video of a man whose job it was to clean the execution chamber dispassionately describes the process of execution by garroting. When he finishes, the doors open on a dungeon. The dank cells are unspeakably cramped and filthy. In a rogues gallery of victimizers birth dates and death dates reveal that many of these secret police perpetrators are still living. None were ever prosecuted.

    Returning to the central atrium, beneath the rusted steel platform on which the soviet tank stands in a shallow pool, is a low-ceilinged memorial to the thousands of Hungarians killed in the reign of terror. It feels as though the weight of the tank bears down overhead.

    Beyond scant object labels, this museum had little in the way of interpretive labeling. What they had instead was a detailed one page take-away for each room, available in a variety of languages including English. This is also the same text as contained in their richly illustrated catalog, also available in English.

    The Terror House has been controversial in Hungary. While it is an entirely homegrown effort, funded and designed by Hungarians, the chief criticism has come from those who think Hungary needs to put this dark history behind it. Like the Czech Republic, there has been no attempt to punish the perpetrators of the crimes of the past, nor has there been any formal process of reconciliation as there has been in South Africa. This shows me that the problem of willful cultural amnesia is not unique to the United States and it will always take courage to face difficult issues head on in a museum.

    The brilliant design of Terror House stands as a powerful metaphor for outrage, of opposition to forgetting. As done, it speaks beautifully for itself. It also reminds me that my sense of my own freedom is a real privilege and one that is frighteningly easy to lose.

Latest Comments (5)

Chilling

by Beth Redmond-jones - March 28, 2008

Dan—Reading your description of your visit gives me chills! This is such a powerful experience. I applaud the Hungarians for putting this together to share what happened in the past and in hope of stopping similar atrocities in the future. Beth

ecsite in Budapest

by Wendy Pollock - May 25, 2008

The European science center network’s annual meeting is in Budapest next week – an opportunity for some ExhibitFiles members to visit the House of Terror and share their own impressions here.

John

by John Fronza - May 26, 2008

As with any museum we must never forget our capabilities of committing atrocities as much as being humanitarians. If we were never reminded of issues like the Holocaust we as a society would never have a moral compass on which to base any of the worlds inhumanity to mankind. These museums are necessary in order for cultures and countries to understand that you have the capacity to make choices in either selecting the leaders you want or revolting against the leaders you have. No one ever said that obtaining freedom is pretty, but when you have it it can be joyous.

Moved and Inspired

by Wayne Labar - June 09, 2008

While Dan has given a great summary, I saw this museum myself just last week. I believe it has lessons and ideas to be learned about how to portray information in a way that is as much art as it is exhibition. It truly one of the most impressive visits I have had in a museum in quite a while.

I was struck by the music that filled each room and how it added to overall effort.

It made me wonder if an exhibition on global warming or sustainability could be taken in the same direction.

Another review

by Andrea Bandelli - July 16, 2008

I posted another review of the Terror House here on Exhibit Files – it was a bit too long to post is as a comment, and I added also some pictures: www.exhibitfiles.org/the_terror_house

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