Sunday, May 23, 2010


The past couple weeks I've learned about several different situations that involve return:  return to a homeland, return of collections, return or reclaiming of identity.  I'm currently in Crimea and will write more soon about the Crimean Tatars,  but wanted to share a bit about the Lobkowicz Collection in Prague, a quite amazing and complicated story about nationalism, pride, and return.   The Lobkowicz family were one of the richest and most powerful families in Bohemia, and by extension, in Central Europe for more than 300 hundred years.  They were art collectors (Brueghel and Canaletto, to name just two artists), and patrons of music (Beethoven and Hayden, to name just two composers).   Hereditary titles were abolished in 1918, with the founding of the Czech Republic,  so there were no more Prince Lobkowiczs.  However,  the last prince was active in the Czech national movement and served as an ambassador to Great Britain for the Czech government in exile during World War II.  The Nazis confiscated the family's vast collections and many castles, including the palace at Prague Castle.   After the war, the buildings and palaces were returned, but all too soon,  the family fled to American with nothing after the Communist take-over of Czechoslovakia in 1948.

But the 20th century wasn't quite done dealing the Lobkowicz family surprises.  The Velvet Revolution of 1989 included legislation to return assets taken more than 40 years before.  So, finally, the family, now fully settled in the United States, receives back more than a dozen castles and vast archival and object collections of immeasurable value. One reason for the return was (very interesting to me as I see Ukraine) rapid re-investment and revitalization of the country.   Those more than a dozen castles were too many to restore, so most were sold and the family has concentrated their efforts in the Palace at Prague Castle and at Nelahozeves,  a chateau in the country, both of which I had a chance to visit.  In addition, David Krol, Deputy Director of Visitor Services was good enough to spend time over coffee chatting with me about the projects underway.

The audio tour at the Palace is narrated by family members, including William, now living in Prague full time with his family and running what is not an NGO, but a private enterprise (but the objects were returned under an agreement with the Czech government that forbids their sale).   The audio tour, available in multiple languages, is free with your admission.   I loved hearing the family story--but absolutely the most touching part to me,  is the sole room of narration by  the family member (sorry, my notes fail me here) who remembers the palace depicted in the paintings as a child and talks about how he, now in his 80s,  never could have imagined that he would ever return, ever be able to walk those halls again.   In some ways, it's hard to imagine being the family who commissions Beethoven sonatas and purchases Canalettos,  but that one voice made the entire family seem human;  made it a story not only about Princely Collections, but a touching one about place, family, loss, and return.

Nelahozeves (above)  is different--the Palace at Prague Castle is installed as galleries;  but Nelahozeves is a series of period rooms.  I'm not a huge decorative arts fan, and we took the tour with a Czech speaking guide and an English handout,  but I loved visiting.   I'm unclear about the process used to recreate the period rooms, but they seemed lively in a way rooms often do not,  due both to the great collections, but also to a creative curatorial hand.  In Prague, you met the family through their art and patronage,  at Nelahozeves you met the family through their more domestic lives--their library, a true cabinet of curiousities,  a small family chapel, and a quite amazing gun room and hallway.

Needless to say,  all this work is an expensive undertaking.  There's a beautiful gift shop, a lively cafe, spaces are rented for events,  a daily concert outsourced to others, a small but growing membership program, a US based non-profit, and of course admissions to help support the project.  Interesting to me though, is the fact that this is a family enterprise.  In one way,  it makes me wonder about the future--what if the next generation of Lobkowiczs doesn't have the same commitment to the nation, and the collections?  But at the same time, a committed, passionate ownership, supplemented by a very small staff, gives the museums considerably more flexibility and agility than many museums, including those non-profit ones and particularly, the governmental ones that I see here in Ukraine.

This, and several other museums in Prague made me wonder about the future of the often hide-bound and stiflingly bureaucratic museums in post-Soviet nations.  Will those government museums become less and less important as they are unable to change, to respond to change, and reach out to audiences?  Will private museums (also springing up here)  become the places that visitors go to and funders support?  Does that lead to a downward spiral for museums that can't adapt and survive?   What kinds of legislation would help governmental museums compete with private museums?  In a society where corruption remains a significant issue, like Ukraine, would private museums be more or less liable to corruption?  What questions does it raise for you?

So although part of the Lobkowicz story is about the past;  the return of what once was, it is equally about the story about the future, of both the family and the Czech Republic.  It strikes me that looking forward, in a democratic society, might make the very aristocratic Max Lobkowicz (below via the museum's website),  the last prince and Czech patriot, very proud.

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