Interview: The National Museum Has the Great Kings

Interview: The National Museum Has the Great Kings

HomeWhat's NewInterview: The National Museum Has the Great Kings
Michal Lukeš took a high-profile job at the iconic National Museum in 2002 when he was only 26 years old, and has accomplished great things since then. Thanks to good organisation, he has overcome the devastating flooding with minimum damage, reconstructed the large historic building, and opened an unusual exhibition about Ancient Egypt in the second part of 2020.
How does the National Museum cope in the Covid times?
Those times are not yet over, the epidemic has not ended and it still affects our work. And when it does pass, the question is whether or not the world will go back to normal, where it was sometime near the end of 2019. I mean, above all, the principles of economy and tourism.
As far as the Covid era we are living through is concerned, I think we are coping quite well. At the beginning, the Czech National Museum was closed for two months like all the other museums. It was the first long closure since WWII. And that indicates how exceptional and peculiar these times are.
Did you manage to use that time in a fruitful way?
They say that every cloud has a silver lining and we tried to make use of that time in several areas. Last year, we prepared a strategy for a digital reconstruction after the extensive reconstructions of the buildings. It has a lot of steps and it concerns the internal and administrative operation, communication, digitalisation and visitor presentation. The Covid era has sped everything up. We have joined CESNET, which is an association of academic and university institutions in the area of IT, cloud storage, etc. We have done a lot of work in IT and we have entered a new stage thanks to that. For example, we are developing a brand new robust application for visitors that should also be a marketing resource, and should also make use of all the digital technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality. In addition to our collection items, we will offer our visitors an augmented museum experience. And Covid actually proved helpful in this way.

Modern technologies

It seems that modern technologies are inevitable for a modern museum...
Definitely, in the old days you would just put a beetle on display and people would see the beetle and a description. And you had to think really hard about whether you were going to do a simple description – Carabus coriaceus, or you added an information board where you would explain, in a complicated way, how the beetle reproduces, what it eats, where it lives, etc. Our museum has a large spectrum of visitors that can be basically divided into two large groups of people. The first group wants a quick experience, while the other group wants to learn more. It is difficult to meet everyone’s demands using standard technology. Too much text makes an exhibition seem congested, not enough text does not satisfy some people. Children do not enjoy static exhibits. Today, you can combine the beetle with modern technology and data of various types, be it texts, videos, images or 3D reality, so everyone can find something they want and need. Modern technologies expand the communication possibilities of the museum and make the museum visitor-friendly, which is what the visitor demands. However, the museum should not become some sort of virtual park, it still needs genius loci.
What else have you come up with during the Covid times?
It was obvious that the drop in the number of visitors was going to be huge. And so we decided to prepare something new. We incorporated several exhibitions into our plan. Everything was going great in June. We opened the mineralogy exposition, followed with the exhibition on the state symbols. We thought it would be a good idea to show the state symbols during such difficult times, and to show the good and bad that happened under those symbols across 100 years. Then, there were the Treasures of the Numismatic Collections, for which we made the unused basement spaces of the historic National Museum building accessible to the public. And finally, on 30 June, we launched the first international exhibition, from Slovakia, about General Rastislav Štefánik, one of the founders of former Czechoslovakia. The exhibition was very interesting because it not only showed him as a politician and a general, who died in a tragic aviation accident, but also as the Czechoslovak version of Lawrence of Arabia. A scientist, a pilot, a meteorologist, a lover of women and adventure, he was such an unusual man who managed to do a lot of things in his short life of 39 years.
We have also made the large exhibition on the Great Czech Composers available on-line, which is dedicated to the four star Czech composers, Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana, Bohuslav Martinů and Leoš Janáček.

Prague National Museum
But the great Kings of the Sun are the greatest achievement...
Yes, we worked intensely on this highlight of the year. It is the great exhibition on the Kings of the Sun, a unique collection of artefacts from the times of Ancient Egypt, from the Abusir archaeological locality where our Egyptologists have been working for 60 years. It is the very first time that the Egyptians permitted the transfer of such a large collection, the insured value is about a billion Czech crowns (approximately 37 million euros). The exhibition has two goals – to show the work of the Czech Egyptologists in Egypt, and to bring a piece of historic Egypt to the Czech Republic. The exhibition introduces an extremely interesting era of the first pyramid builders and their first Pharaohs, their lives and how the ancient empire used to work. The exhibition will adorn our historic building until February 2021.

Three Pillars

Can you give us more details about the exhibition?
It stands on three pillars. The first pillar includes the unique artefacts and collections from Egypt, which were difficult to bring to the Czech Republic. At the same time, we could not bring the entire Abusir as it is a huge site with graves, near Gizah, on the edge of Cairo. It has an amazing atmosphere and the most interesting and valuable artefacts there are the murals that decorate the individual pyramids and tombs. As such, multimedia forms the second pillar, presenting what Abusir looks like so that one can imagine the whole site. We have incorporated 3D reality, video mapping and other technologies.
So, we were definitely busy and we hope that what we do will help us get back to normal soon, bring up the visitor rate, attract Czech and later also foreign visitors.
Who are your foreign visitors actually?
We want quality visitors who love culture, who come, buy tickets and behave decently in Prague. If we all join our efforts, there might be a chance to change those visitors who come for cheap alcohol for quality paying tourists who contribute both socially and economically, not only in Prague, but also in other towns. But that has already started. As soon as the travel measures with the neighbouring countries loosened up in the summer, we could see many a tourist like that among German and Austrian visitors.
We are now focusing on the neighbouring countries. We will monitor what happens in the world, how tourism is being restored, including air traffic, and we will gradually attract more quality visitors. For that, we will also use the exhibition on the Kings of the Sun, as there isn’t such an attractive exhibition anywhere else in the autumn. And it greatly fits the World Czech Republic campaign of CzechTourism. It is not only an exhibition that will present a part of history from the world, but it shows the art, erudition and findings of Czechs in Egypt, where they have been involved in uncovering and discovering one of the crucial human civilisations for decades.
What is the ratio of domestic and foreign visitors to the National Museum?
The National Museum is not only one building, we have several different objects in Prague, but if I address this in a general way, then the complex of the historic and new building in Prague is the most frequently visited one. Last year, there were almost one million visitors, and the ratio is about 50/50. Czech visitors can be divided into two basic groups – families that come mostly on weekends, and school and other educational institution trips.

Lukes started at 26

You became the General Manager when you were 26 years old, in 2002, did you believe you could do it?
I knew the Museum as it was my first job, or part-time job, in 1993 when I had just graduated from high school and hadn’t started my university degree. It just so happened that I ended up in the Department of Modern Czech History, where I started working as an apprentice. I stayed there until 1997. It was a good experience because I learned how the museum works on the other side. I saw a lot and no-one noticed me (he laughs).
I left in the 1990s, but I had good relations there, and so my former boss once called and told me that the general manager at that time abdicated, that the Ministry announced a selective procedure and that I met all the qualification requirements. I was surprised because it was only two years after I got my master’s degree. But then I thought I would give it a try, I was prepared to write a concept and submit it to the Ministry’s committee. But the committee decided to recommend me for appointment. The Minister of Culture at that time was an interesting and inspirational person, Mr Pavel Dostál, a distinct politician, artist, enthusiast who did not like politics very much and who used to do surprising things. And that’s probably why he did not hesitate to appoint a 26-year-old boy to manage such a huge institution.
What are the main milestones of your work?
I have enjoyed it from the very beginning. Some milestones came on their own and others I had to fight for. I had a strategy and I had an idea of what to focus on in the Museum. The first milestone came with the devastating flooding in 2002. Just before that, the Museum was required to prepare evacuation plans in the case something like that would happen. We had it done within six months, and then the floods really started. And as the employees were working on the plan, they were trained, they knew where everything was and what they were supposed to do. That helped us save the collections to a large extent. And I also got closer to a lot of people in the Museum thanks to that. During the floods, we were out and about with my colleagues and they learned that I wasn’t just a protégé, but that I truly cared about the Museum.

The second milestone came with the new exposition policy. We decided to build our strategy on large high-profile exhibitions – the Mammoth Hunters, Water and Life... Until then, people went to the Museum once in their lifetime and we were trying to change that with the new content. We wanted the Museum to live, to be a good educational institution.

Another milestone concerned our collections. We have 20 million of them, they were all over the place, in unsuitable spaces, not processed and registered well. And so we started to put everything in order. Also, I inherited many of the National Museum buildings in such a bad condition that something had to be done about it, quickly. First of all, I started lobbying to raise money, and when I got it we started with the repairs.
And then it was the turn for the historic building to get reconstructed...
That was a great dream in the whole process. The historic building had never been repaired since it was built in 1891 and it was in disrepair. It was a huge investment, I had to convince politicians, raise funds, then we had to move out almost 10 million collection artefacts, 20 kilometres of books and store them somewhere safely. That’s why we built and reconstructed large depositary compounds, and then we had to time the moving perfectly.

We also managed to convince the government to give us the neighbouring modern building of the former federal assembly, later used by Radio Free Europe. At the same time, we connected both buildings below the ground and thus expanded the Museum at St. Wenceslas Square in the centre of Prague to a complex of two buildings, which made the Museum quite big.

Another milestone comes with the Covid era, which we have spoken about, as now we suddenly have to think about how the Museum operates in a brand new way.

Special museum for children

What else are you preparing?
We are building all the expositions from prehistoric times, we are working on the complete nature and historic exposition, we have started designing an exposition on the 20th century, and we will also open a special museum for children, for students. The age from 4 to 7 is amazing, children soak up information like sponges, but you have to communicate with them using their language, emotions, colours, experience, fun... Therefore, we are collaborating with teachers and artists.

And we have a very interesting project entitled The People on the table. It will be an archaeological and anthropological exposition designed by young Czech architect Petr Janda, who has become known, for example, for his revival of the Prague river embankments.

I am an optimist, when everything goes well I believe we will soon be opening new exhibitions or expositions at a regular pace. We have a broad international network, and thanks to the Kings of the Sun we have the technology to transfer other exhibitions, so we are preparing a plan of exhibitions for a longer period of time.
Are you planning anything special other than the Kings of the Sun?
We would like to bring an exhibition called The World of the Mammoths in autumn next year… It is being customised for us. We want to bring about ten to twelve frozen mammoths and other animals from that time from Siberia. It is very complicated, and we are now trying to figure out how to transport them technologically.
And what form will people see them in?
It has to be in glass freezers that people can see inside. We checked out the technology at a smaller exhibition in Japan last year.

Where will you bring them from and how do you cooperate with local experts?

From the Sakha Republic in Siberia. People there are very communicative and cooperative, and they would like to take this opportunity to present the far east of Siberia. In addition to the archaeological mammoth site, there is also a diamond deposit site and a huge amount of other things. Our palaeontologists would like to get involved in the surveys there.

Then, we are preparing a large exhibition on Baroque, in cooperation with Bavaria, which we would like to not only present as art, but also as a phenomenon of an era in the region. Intellectual, literary, social...

What about your expedition activity?
We are reopening it. We have experts in the Meroë Kingdom, another great Nile civilisation, in Sudan. During the conflict in Syria, we tried to send material help to the Syrian conservationists to protect landmarks and we received a licence to perform archaeological surveys in the locality of Tell Al Shameh- Naher-el-arab, where there are artefacts as old as from 2,500 BC. I hope that the situation with coronavirus will let us start the surveys in autumn. And we should also be performing archaeological surveys in Algeria, also from the area of antiquity.
Who is Michal Lukeš?
He studied history and Slovak studies at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University. He primarily focused on modern Czech and Slovak history, which he continued to study during his postgraduate studies. He passed internships in Germany, Austria, Italy and the USA. He started working at the National Museum in 1993 and worked as a documentalist at the Department of Modern Czech History until 1997. From 1998-2001, he was the Deputy Director of the Bez zábradlí Theatre. In 2002, when he was 26 years old, he was appointed the Director of the Museum by Pavel Dostál, Minister of Culture. Under his management, the National Museum has repaired most of its dilapidated buildings and built a modern depositary and laboratory complex. He was responsible for raising the funds and overseeing the reconstruction of the National Museum building at St. Wenceslas Square.