Prague National Museum, Architectural and Cultural Icon
I could tell you that it is a neo-renaissance building that opened in 1891 but as thousands of other sites will tell you the same thing wouldn’t you like to hear something new like how the museum ended up being built here, what it replaced, why in the last renovation there was a big argument about holes, how the communists almost demolished it, the famous event that took place right in front of it and why fans of the first Mission Impossible film can’t miss it?
Why Should You Visit?
Well it’s the largest museum in the country containing 14 million artefacts with a combination of Natural History, Ethno-History, Science departments and a library so anybody with those interests should visit but to put that number into perspective the Natural History Museum in London on it’s own has an inventory of 80 million artefacts. It’s the last example of the neo-renaissance building period so “grand” doesn’t even begin to describe it and architecture buffs will need extra batteries and SD cards here (Tip: you will pay an extra charge to be able to take pictures and video). And if you are into Numismatics (coins and medals) then the Prague National Museum has one of the largest and oldest collections in the world numbering around 500,000 pieces.
Where’s the Sign?
If you were expecting a big sign on the building saying Prague National Museum then you’ll be disappointed. In fact it’s not even written in Czech. If you look carefully at the main entrance, look up above the columns but below the portico (the triangular bit) and you’ll see three words in Latin “Museum Regni Bohemiae”. So that literally translates as the Royal Bohemian Museum. I guess all those Moravians that live in this country had to build their own museum!
The text is there because when the Prague National Museum opened in 1891 we were of course still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with an Emperor (Franz-Josef) and strict regional definitions. There was no “National” back then.
The Original Prague National Museum
The first location of the Royal Bohemian Collection was the Sternberg Palace (which is still there) right outside the main entry to Prague Castle and was put together by Kaspar Sternberg to be displayed in 1818 but by the 1850’s this location was being outgrown. A plan to build a new location was shelved and the whole collection was moved to the Nostic Palace in Na Prikope (that building is also still there and although it’s technically now the Sylva-Taroucca Palace you can also find it by searching for “Savarin Palace” and another reason for visiting is that it has a nice outdoor Czech restaurant). Then there was a plan to create a new building on Charles Square but again this was shelved.
The Prague National Museum Location
In the 1860’s the city of Prague was embarking on what would become the largest urban renewal project that Europe had ever seen. One of the tasks of this renewal would be to demolish the New Town defensive wall which ran across the top of Wenceslas Square. Right now to get from Vinohrady to Wenceslas Square you just walk down the road but before 1876 you had to pass through a huge wall via a gate called the “Horse Gate” because Wenceslas Square had historically been used as a horse market. So in 1876 the wall was demolished and the city allocated the necessary land, they just needed the right building. So if you go to the top of the square and if you stand in front of the doors to the museum looking back down Wenceslas Square you’d be at roughly the same height as the old city wall. The closest metro station is conveniently called “Muzeum”.
Who Designed It?
In 1883 a competition was held to build the Prague National Museum. This was won by Josef Schultz and you can see by the design that he was a classicist who favoured the neo-renaissance look (on my Prague Architecture walking tour I discuss why the classicists were battling with the modernists). From a practical point of view the plans from the 1850s showed a requirement for exhibition halls for zoology, botany, geology, graphic collections mineralogy, a lapidary, study/reading rooms and depositories. But by the time the building opened it was already too small to accommodate all of this plus the growing scientific collection. This original design also saw the steps of the Prague National Museum exiting directly onto Wenceslas Square. My favourite piece from the Royal Bohemian collection isn’t even in the Prague National Museum, it’s called Langweils Model and it’s in the Prague City Museum.
In the last renovation 2011-2019 there was a huge argument about how best to restore the facade but without losing it’s history. By that they meant that there were hundreds of bullet holes in the facade from the World War Two Prague Uprising in May 1945 and the Soviet invasion of Czech in August 1968. There had already been a facade renovation in 1971 to fix the big damage but in the recent work all the smaller holes created by bullets had to be meticulously cleaned and in some cases darker colouring was added to allow them to be seen at a distance.
You can read more about him on the Jan Palach post but on January 16th 1969, in protest at the crushing of the Prague Spring he self-immolated in front of the Prague National Museum and this point is now marked with a memorial in the form of a burned cross.
There were buildings in the city that not even the Communists could destroy and among them were the Prague National Museum and the State Opera House. But it did not stop the regime from implementing a new transport system in Prague. These new changes would mean a three-lane highway on both sides of the museum and a new metro station interchange under the road directly in front of the museum. The continual vibration and pollution is ongoing but creating the metro station caused one of the building corners to partially collapse in 1978 and this was not corrected until 1986 when the entire corner was suspended on a hydraulic platform before the foundation was rebuilt and any cracks filled with resin.
No resident of Prague could possibly have missed the fact that Mission Impossible was filmed in Prague and released in 1996 (I point out various filming locations during my Prague Walking Tours). Anybody who has visited the Prague National Museum will have recognised the scene in the film when Tom Cruise’s team is at the “American Embassy” standing on the grand staircase. This scene was filmed in the entry atrium of the museum.
During the renovation on February 12th 2016 a fire broke out on the roof of the Prague National Museum. Twenty fire engine crews battled for an hour to bring things under control with no significant internal damage although 200 square metres of roofing had to be replaced.
In May 2020 two months after the government imposed rules on covering your face it was still not possible to buy N95 masks and people were making their own so the Prague National Museum hosted an exhibition called “stick together” which exhibited 26 homemade face masks.
You can find all the details for opening hours and ticket prices on the Prague National Museum website.