NJME: The Museum of Czech Literature

Culture institutions and their importance seem to be stifled by globalization and information connectedness; their position is weaker these days. Many of them exploit their own past; they keep on living though withdrawn from the outer world and eyes of the public. Others are able to reform themselves, transform and come with interesting ideas and visions.

The Museum of Czech Literature (PNP) operates since 1953. Its depository houses one the most interesting collections in Bohemia. However, the The Museum and its activities remain obscure, hard to read and understand. I was interested in the view of its director Zdeněk Freisleben of the past and future of this institution, whether they are actually willing to think about it, and if so, how and what are they doing about it now when they are opening a new permanent exposition.

Barbora Ševčíková

01 The Museum of Czech Literature (PNP)

02 Interview with Zdeněk Freisleben

What is the role of The Museum of Czech Literature today?

Our goal is to create contemporary and attractive museum of literature and at the same time let people know that it owns three collection departments (literary archive, art collections and library). Also, we would like to show what connects these collections, how are they interrelated and what are their important connotations. In the end, what ties these collections together, overlaps significantly and in its own way uniquely with many areas of Czech culture – beside literature it is also fine art, graphic and book design, ex libris, bibliophilia, photography and film, but also humanities.

How does it differ from the role it had in past?

The Museum of Czech Literature has its own history of transformation. It was conceived originally as The Museum of National Culture, but later it adopted more narrow a focus as a literary museum of letters with a goal of mapping the area. Later on, other collections were being added. It’s obvious, of course, that the form of the museum was characteristic of its time, meaning 1950s, and many authors were missing in the expositions. But even that is a part of the literary history. It was the first exposition that followed the ideas of Zdeněk Nejedlý. Not even Letohrádek Hvězda escaped the “patriotic role” and ten years later it turned into Alois Jirásek and Mikoláš Aleš Memorial. So the beginnings of the institutions are strongly tied with this role. A shift took place in 1960s when the permanent exposition was extended. On that note I’d like to say that the The Most Beautiful Book of Czechoslovakia competition was restarted.

Seen from outside you function as a big depository. How do you use the collections?

The museum has always been seen as a traditional museum. It made its name, of course, as a literary institution, which is also its message. But on the other hand, we have vast art collections presented often separately. It means that we have “a big depository” often sought out by other institutions. That’s why we co-organize many important and significant exhibitions by offering curatorial assistance. Recently it was the case of Josef Váchal show in Plzeň and in the Prague City Gallery.

But still, we are mainly a literary museum, so the shows we participated on accentuated particularly Váchal’s relationship to books. I’d like to add that the whole of Strahov Monastery including Strahov Library used to serve as a big exposition space of our museum. In 1990s, when the properties were handed over back to Premonstratensians in the process of restitution, all the expositions were discontinued with only a part remaining, the so called Winter Refectory. Thematic exhibitions were made there after the permanent exposition was closed. But even this space was returned to Premonstratensians leaving only a part of the space of Letohrádek Hvězda or the so called Little Exhibition Hall in Strahov for the purpose of our exhibitions. One of the parts of our new residency, for which we have already a project completed, will be also a new permanent exposition. We don’t want it to be permanent in the usual sense of the word, but rather changing and varied in part.

Where will be the new building situated and when will you open the new exposition?

The new building is in Bubeneč; it’s the former Petschek Villa. It is supposed to open in 2017-2018.

What will the new exposition look like? What do you plan to show from your vast collections?

Of course, we talk about this exposition all the time, but we are still only preparing it. With accordance to our preliminary plan we would like to rename it, make it interactive, interesting and attractive. As I have already mentioned, our three collection departments are interconnected, eg. the collection Jiří Karásek from Lvovice constitutes the more historical part, while the collection of Bohumila Grögerová and Josef Hiršal presents experimental poetry with ties to other areas. These wholes aren’t connected just as examples of fine art, but also literature and books and thus actually offering optional guideline to the presentation of the whole museum.

How do you want to do it?

That’s what we are working on right now and it’s not simple, of course. We know there are a lot of questions waiting to be answered. All these suggestions and librettos we consider right now demand specific preparations of the exposition. We want to make our name as an active contemporary museum with new pieces of art and parts of collections available at all times. We want to convey stories and context of both history and present day.

Does the history of the museum stigmatize and influence what you are doing? Be it positively or even negatively. Do you take up the tradition or do you rather try to turn away from it? How do you see the history of the museum?

Of course, there is a link that is suggested already by the word “památník” (Translator’s note: even though the official English name of the institution as presented here suggests otherwise, the original Czech name Památník národního písemnictví refers to what is usually translated as “memorial” or “monument.”). It has, of course, its own historical development. It was founded quite unusually in the totalitarian regime with collections that weren’t, at first, acquired the usual way. On the other hand, the institution evolved; many brilliant experts worked here; literary historians mainly. Even in the unfree times many interesting lectures, programmes and exhibitions took place here. We can say then that the museum went abreast of its time, which was evident with the liberalization in the 1960s when it was possible to transform the exposition to faithfully characterize the contemporary literature. We have to take into consideration that the museum has collections that span from 18th century to these days. Most of the older collections were returned in the process of restitution. So to answer your question – we can’t change the past; it is up to us how will the institution confront the present day and what direction shall it take in the future.

So you are saying that you build on your tradition?

We can’t omit the past, but the evolution of the museum always takes place in contemporaneity and that’s also why we are questioning its collection activities, ideas and options.

What would The Museum of Czech Literature be like in the future? I am asking about your idea concerning its future in some twenty years…

My wish is that both experts and laymen would see we can organize interesting projects and present our collections in an attractive way. We must not forget that the museum isn’t just the collection, but also an institution that should actively enter the public space. It means it should present itself to the audience and even proceed didactically as a museum that has something important to say about the present day. Last year we have founded a methodical center for book culture and literary museums. Not many museums focus on these issues, but on the other hand, there is a lot of institutions dealing with these areas, and its them who would we like to collaborate with.

What will the museum explore in the new exposition?

As I have already mentioned, this has been an important question for us for a few years now. We organize, for example, the competition The Most Beautiful Czech Book of the Year. In that regard we ask ourselves what does it actually mean – the most beautiful book? What are its traits? What do we imagine by that? All these questions can be asked also when considering the significance of the literary and art personalities in our time. We often realize that, for example, the aforementioned Josef Váchal or Karel Teige have many timeless traits and are still important today.

One of the museum’s roles lies in acquisitions. How do you do the acquisitions now? What do you buy?

Most of the collections we have are generally gifts and then there are also the purchases. We received some of the collection wholes as estates. Currently we need, for example, to fill the gaps in our Karel Teige collection that our institution received in its larger part in 1960s. Last year we bought a selection of prints by Vladimír Boudník. I’d like to highlight also the acquisition of a set of artworks by Dalibor Chatrný whose big show we produced in 1990s though we didn’t have any of his works in our collection back then. Recently we managed to put our hands on a big collection of works by František Listopad that will be transported from Portugal where the poet lives. We treasure this acquisition very much because we don’t have much of his works, and it is great that as The Museum of Czech Literature we acquired his whole collection.

And the purchase tips? How and by whom are you tipped to purchase the collections?

In this case it was to a great credit of the ambassador in Lisbon who knows the poet personally and who called me that Mr. Listopad would like to offer his works as a gift to our institution. We acquired in the process a big collection related not just to him but also to other distinguished literary and cultural personalities in the form of correspondence, which is very important to us. In this way you get through one person to other authors who are creatively productive or are otherwise related to different forms of art. Of course, a lot of credit for supplying the collections goes to many acquisition employees of the individual departments.

Note: After talking with Mrs. Vilma Hubáčková, head of the fine art collections, I decided to publish only a part of the interview with the director of the Museum. The answers often overlapped or were too general. (BŠ)

03 Zdeněk Freisleben: “My colleagues and I would like to offer a different, contemporary image of a museum, and I believe we will succeed.”

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Books from monastery libraries in temporary custody of PNP.

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Catalogue of the permanent exposition and listing of its individual parts, PNP, Prague, 1953, 1st edition

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Scenes from the original permanent exposition: John Huss Room, The Origins of Printing, Božena Němcová, Karel Jaromír, erben. Towards Socialism was installed in the summer refectory on the ground floor, dominated by Karel Pokorný´s Brotherhood sculptural group.

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Scenes from the original permanent exposition: John Huss Room, The Origins of Printing, Božena Němcová, Karel Jaromír, erben. Towards Socialism was installed in the summer refectory on the ground floor, dominated by Karel Pokorný´s Brotherhood sculptural group.

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Vojtěch Preissig Collection: František Kupka – Lady Acrobat, undated, etching

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Josef Váchal Collection: Hymn to St. Ludvík Vondráček Nuselský, manuscript from 1913

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Konstantin Biebl – Break, Odeon, Prague 1928, typography by Karel Teige

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Karel Teige Collection: letter by F. T. Marinetti

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Karel Teige Collection: Neon, no. 2, February 1948

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Bohuslav Brouk – Psychoanalysis (A. Srdce, Prague, 1932), collage by Jindřich Štýrský

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Franz Kafka Collection: postcard to parents from 20 November 1923

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Heinrich Mann Collection: passport from 1940

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Charles Baudelaire – The Woman, translated by Vladimír Holan (Jaroslav Podroužek, Prague, 1946); dedicated to Vladimir Justl

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Ota Pavel Collection: manuscript of A Tale about Raška

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In 1992staff of the archive ounted an interesting exhibition comprising curiosities of the archive´s collections.

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T. R. Field Collection: Lomikel, Krhá, from a set of picture cards by T. R. Field with scenes from Krhut mythology, 1996

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Taken exhibition of Austrian children´s books (thanks to contacts with cultural institutions in related fields)

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To mark the event „Prague – European City of Culture in 2000“ the PNP held an exhibition of archive materials that documented contacts between Czech authors and many artists elsewhere in Europe.

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In cooperation with the French Institute in Prague and the Aude Brunel publishing house the PNP presented the comics of leading French artist Nicolas de Crécyin 2001.

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From the exhibition of Vladimír Holan centenary, 2005, Hvězda summer pavilion

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Libuše Moníková Exhibition / My books are expensive, PNP, 2008

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The publication The Library of the Karásek Gallery and Its Worlds, PNP, 2011

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The most beautiful Czech books, 2012

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The Face from the Shadows exhibition was dedicated to the writer Zdeněk Kalista, PNP, 1995

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Scene from the exhibition Anatomy of a Library (Library of Karásek Gallery), Hvězda Summer pavilion, 2012

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The exhibition Zdeněk Dvořák (1897–1943): Forgotten Abstractionist, Hvězda summer pavilion, 2013

04 NJME: Not Just Marginal Entertainments

“Not Just Marginal Entertainments” (NJME) present the situation and standing of various cultural organizations. Beside the big institutions Artyčok deals with intensively and critically, the attention shifts to places that difference in their functioning, activities and financing in common. NJME explore the roles of contemporary institutions, their visions or the lack of them, and the reasons for their operation. They look for changes or, conversely, stagnations and the reasons for them; a stigmatization by past as much as following tradition and history.

The original project by Barbora Ševčíková will focus, for example, on a private museum of radios, a graphic design show or an independent gallery. It shall take a closer look at the situation they find themselves in, the ways of their financing, as much as the approaches to the management of a cultural organization. The selection of videos and photographs is left to the individuals in the question and their judgment in presentation of their work.

05 Exhibition credits

Author of the Project / Curator: Barbora Ševčíková
Author of Texts: Barbora Ševčíková
Online Presentation Concept, Editing and Realization: Lenka Střeláková
Translated into English: Palo Fabuš
Published: 1. 4. 2015