The terror house

Review

of an Exhibition

by Andrea Bandelli

Published on July 16, 2008

  • Description:

    There are at least 3 aspects which have the potential to make the Terror House an outstanding institution: the location, which is the actual headquarters of the nazi and then communist secret police in Hungary; the museology, which is quite recent (the museum opened 6 years ago), and employs a variety of media and scenographic techniques; the topic, a highly contentious subject which remains very much a contemporary issue.

    Places like Robben Island or the District 6 museum in Cape Town are among my terms of reference in this sense: museums which have a high significance for the local community, and succeed in communicating to a wide variety of publics the history, the stories and the emotions they stand to represent.

    Unfortunately the Terror House did not deliver as it could have been. The building is authentic, but the way it is organized internally bears little or no resemblance to its original function; and the museology is rather shallow, focussing more on “theming” and staging rather than on interpretation and engagement. Which is a pity, considering the potential that this institution could have.

    The first impact with the Terror House is intriguing: it’s clear since the entrance and the first rooms that design, or better, scenography, plays a fundamental role in this museum. Several icons which I had seen on the museum’s literature are prominently exposed: a military tank in the main hall of the building; the dinner table for the Arrowcross party officers; a black AVH car etc.
    Such icons however are rarely combined with an interpretive support to make sense of them; most of the time their function is to “scare” the visitor and stimulate the sense of terror that gives the museum its name.
    On the emotional level, the Terror House works very well: it is like a rich, ever changing stage for a theatre performance. After passing the first couple of rooms, one always wonders what will be the stage and décor in the next room. But the museological endeavour stops there: in almost all rooms there’s nothing more than a one or two page English text to make sense of the setting. Media and objects are functional to the stage, the “theming” of the room, not the other way around. One could argue that the Terror House is a memorial to be enjoyed mostly by Hungarians: I disagree, and there are plenty of examples where multiple languages are used to address a variety of publics.
    Some rooms could lend themselves to a much higher degree of interpretation: the one dedicated to propaganda, for example (actually 2 contiguous rooms) contains only advertisement posters, wall to ceiling, certainly very eye catching but rather shallow in terms of how propaganda worked during the communist regime.

    To me the main disappointment after visiting the Terror House was the fact that it didn’t tackle at all the main questions of the subject it deals with: why did that happened? Why political terror, violence and fear are such a human aspect – to the point that they go across political sides, as it is clear in the first rooms and from the building itself?
    If the historical perspective can be found in books, the Terror House is more like the illustrations that come with a history book: but the museum remains weak on the narrative, the critical look at facts, and the meaningfulness of the objects it contains.

Latest Comments (1)

Interpretative support

by Michael Flynn - May 29, 2009

Thanks for the detailed critique Andrea. I think you’ve opened an important discussion about how to best add interpretative support. Text is the worst way in my opinion, even when it is presented via “interactive” touch screens. Perhaps the Terror House has tried to infer too much with symbols and emotion but how should more information be presented? I read another review of Terror House that mentioned detailed text, explaining each room and copied onto paper, for visitors to take home. If visitors actually read the text that could be a very effective extended experience. Ubiquitous cell phones are an under utilized tool with great potential for more immediate interpretive support. In this way, recorded messages can easily be made available to visitors as they experience the museum. Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center recently used this technique to present the voice of Tara Donovan explaining each of her artworks via a separate phone number.

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