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The City of Prague Museum

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The first successful efforts to establish a Prague museum date back to 1877 when on 26th October the deputy mayor, Professor Otakar Antonín Zeithammer warned the city council that many individuals and guilds were selling antiques documenting the history of Prague to agents who were exporting them abroad. He recommended that these objects should be gathered in one place, in a newly built museum.

Professor Zeithammer’s speech was initiated by two friends – antiques enthusiasts and collectors dr. Štěpán Berger and Břetislav Jelínek. The idea was soon resurrected in a memorandum of the “Czech Club”’s domestic board of 28th December 1879 conceived by the architects Josef Mocker and Antonín Baum, together with the lawyer and ardent collector JUDr. Hugo Toman, who again warned of the unrestricted export of Czech and municipal monuments abroad and asked the city council to implement a city museum project.

This time the council reacted more precisely and appointed a special commission headed by the historian Václav Vladivoj Tomek to examine the file. The result of the special commission’s work on the foundation of a Prague museum was to set up a permanent committee. The rules of the permanent committee on a Prague city museum were approved by the board of aldermen on 3rd October 1881.

Here in the first four paragraphs the purpose of the Prague city museum, its objectives and the means leading to it were declared for the first time:

§ 1. The purpose of the Prague City Museum is, through a collection of historical monuments relating to Prague and specifically monuments of art and crafts, to provide a picture of the education and tastes of Prague’s inhabitants in times past.
§ 2. It is the role of the permanent museum committee to seek out, protect from destruction and misappropriation, acquire and exhibit monuments of the types mentioned in § 1.
If monuments themselves cannot be acquired, gaps should be filled with casts and reproductions of all kinds.
§ 3. The following are to be used to achieve this objective: a) subsidies from the municipality of Prague,
b) gifts and bequests of any kind, particularly for artistic monuments provided by friends of Prague Museum, c) the loan of artistic and historical monuments, the custody and exhibition
of them in the museum’s rooms through an understanding with the owners in each individual case, and finally also
d) an admission charge.
§ 4. All collections of the city museum, unless they are only on loan, as well as the inventory shall be the property of the municipality of Prague.

The first meeting of the Permanent Committee of Prague City Museum was held in the mayor’s chamber in the Old Town Hall on 23rd November 1881 and was chaired by JUDr. Robert Nittinger. At the end of November that year the museum acquired a room next to the archives at Prague Town Hall to store collections. Throughout the first half of the following year the Committee’s meetings were dominated by discussions on obtaining new items and were also marked by attempts to acquire further premises for the museum, primarily for exhibition purposes. A number of sites were under consideration: the Powder Tower, the Old Town Bridge Tower, the America Summerhouse and the Queen Anne Summerhouse, rooms on the ground floor of the Girls’ High School on Vodičkova Street and the Saint Agnes Convent.
A definite breakthrough occurred around the middle of 1882 when the museum acquired the existing café pavilion in the city orchards in Poříčí. 

The café pavilion on the border between the New Town and Karlín was a modest and relatively new building and had been built on the site of the demolished city walls. Permission for its construction had been granted by the board of aldermen on 7th September 1875. The project had been drawn up by the Municipal Economic Authority and signed by Arnošt Jenšovský and Maxmilián Wolf.
The building was finished by July 1876 and the city council announced a tender for its use. A three-year contract was signed on 14th October 1876 with the café owner Eduard Ponec who offered the highest sum for the lease of the pavilion – 2,000 florins. Time showed that although Ponec’s proposal had won with the city council, the other parties interested in leasing the pavilion had been more prudent in their financial estimates. Ponec regularly bombarded the city council with requests to reduce the rent. In a new tender for 1879–1882 Ponec was the only one to make an offer and the city council approved the 800 florins a year that he offered for the lease of the pavilion.

The city museum finally acquired the café building in a decision made by the city council on 5th June 1882. The Committee held its first session in the new building on 19th July and the wording of the burgomaster’s memorandum of 23rd June was officially read out to the Committee members who were delighted to hear that the café pavilion premises would be fully at the city museum’s disposal from 1st November. Although for a further year after the city council’s decision Ponec continued to run his business in part of the café pavilion, from November 1884 he also vacated these premises, after which the Museum Committee expressed an interest in them because it needed further space to store its collections. The museum quickly moved into the pavilion, over the course of a few months the rooms were made ready and at the beginning of 1883 exhibits began to be installed. 

The museum was officially opened to the public on 12th May 1883.

From the middle of 1882 the Committee began seriously thinking about engaging a curator for the future museum. The initial proposal to advertise for the position of curator was abandoned and at the end of January 1883 dr. Hugo Toman suggested at a Committee meeting that the name of Břetislav Jelínek should be put forward to the city council for the position of curator. The minutes of the meeting held on 11th April 1883 are the first to contain the name Břetislav Jelínek among those present and according to the minutes of 19th May of the same year the curator continued to attend Committee meetings, except for those meetings held in secret. On this date Mr. Jelínek was also instructed to draw up an inventory of the museum’s collections by the next meeting for insurance purposes.

Břetislav Jelínek, whose original name was Josef Jelínek, was born on 16th March 1843 into the family of a Prague merchant and director of a cotton mill in Lochovice. He dropped out of the Prague Polytechnic and then for three years he took special studies at the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts where he attended lectures on archaeology, art history, Old Czech law and Slavic philology. Up until the end of the 1870’s he was probably provided for financially through his family’s assets – the mill in Lochovice, Berounsko, and the business in Prague. However, in August 1880 the family property was declared bankrupt and on 11th May 1882 the company was deleted from the trade register. Although the new owner appointed Břetislav’s brother Jaromír, previously the co-owner of the factory, as its director, Břetislav Jelínek lost the funding that he had enjoyed and which had allowed him to spend his time on his hobbies, in particular archaeology. Therefore the position of curator at the new museum was a real blessing for Jelínek: with it he acquired basic financial security and at the same time it allowed him to devote his time to his own interests.  

However, in the way he thought and felt and in his attitudes to life and work Břetislav Jelínek was stuck in the period of his youth – the 1850’s and 1860’s – and therefore sometimes his approach towards collections and the museum as a whole was too unprofessional and romantic for his time and in some cases somewhat voluntaristic. But despite these facts which have been criticised so much we can only take our hat off to Břetislav Jelínek for the work he did for the city museum. He not only significantly influenced how the first exposition in the café pavilion looked but also the exposition in the new museum building.

Jelínek spent a full thirty years (1883–1913) in charge of the museum and consequently had a lot of influence over the museum’s collecting activities. The best collections in the museum were established during this period and good care was taken of them at that time, both with regards to conservation and records. City of Prague exhibits also enjoyed success at exhibitions in 1891, 1895 and 1908. As a reward for the success of the exhibit at the Ethnographic Exhibition in 1895 he was given the title of director of Prague City Museum. Břetislav Jelínek died on 22nd May 1926 and is buried in the family vault in Olšany Cemetery.

The café pavilion premises were not ideal for the collections and soon proved to be insufficient to hold them. The subject of how to store the museum’s collections, presenting them to the public and the overall standard of the city museum with regard to representing Prague was therefore often on the agenda at meetings of the city council and the board of aldermen at Prague City Hall. After long debates in the council and the board of aldermen with input from the Museum Committee the most logical solution was eventually found: to build a new building, in historical sources called an annex.

An extension to the city museum had been considered for a number of years, the oldest planning documentation dates back to December 1889. In September 1892 the architect Antonín Wiehl was asked by the city council to draw up a proposal for an annex to the existing building. Antonín Wiehl fulfilled several roles in this matter. Not only was he an architect, he was also the head of the City Museum Committee and an alderman. On 15th January 1893 Wiehl submitted two drafts, one his own and another by the architect Jan Koula (also a memberof the Museum Committee). On 24th February 1894, on the recommendation of the city council, the board of aldermen approved the conclusions of the special commission held on 29th January 1894 that was attended by technical experts and members of the Museum Committee. The commission approved the idea of an annex to the museum, and specifically Wiehl’s proposal. There were almost constant problems with the building office regarding the delivery of detailed plans and budgets.

A real intention to build an annex existed but the actual realisation of the work was still nowhere in sight. The Ethnographic Exhibition to be held in 1895 put a certain amount of pressure on fulfilling the plan.

The preparation of the Prague pavilion by the city museum and its curator Břetislav Jelínek was such a major event that the museum had to be closed to the public for a long time. It was clear that this occasion would lead the museum to acquire a large number of excellent collection items which it would not have the space to properly store or show in the now already overfull former café pavilion. In August 1895 the city council decided to ask the architect Antonín Balšánek to draw up plans and to carry out the work. Balšánek’s plans were then approved by the board of aldermen at the very end of 1895. In the spring of 1896 construction of the new neo-Renaissance Prague City Museum according to Antonín Balšánek’s plans could finally begin. On 22nd October 1898 a kind of non-public opening of the new building was held and there then followed two years of intensive installation activity, in which Břetislav Jelínek was helped by the young art historian F.X.Harlas, who later succeeded Jelínek in charge of the museum. From the middle of March until the middle of May 1899 the building temporarily opened its doors to the inhabitants of Prague with a posthumous exhibition of works by Luděk Marold. And on 27th September 1900 the new building with its newly installed collections was finally opened to the public. The construction of Balšánek’s building in 1896–1898 and its official opening in 1900 brought to completion the process of forming the Prague City Museum which had taken more than twenty years. Until the new museum building was built and subsequently opened the museum was far from having representative and satisfactory space to show and store its collections and because of this it did not receive the full recognition and respect it deserved from many people, including important city dignitaries. From 27th September 1900 when the exhibits in the new building were made accessible to the public, we can finally talk about the Prague City Museum as being truly worthy premises to preserve the tangible memory of the history of Prague.

(Taken from an article written by Pavla Státníková for an anthology from a conference held in May 2004 in Prachatice Museum to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of Prachatice Museum.)

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