Was pretty lame when we first visited it. The museum had moved into its current location, the repurposed and renovated Ludovika Military Academy, in 1996, and it seemed ill-at-ease in its new space.
There were small displays of moth-eaten specimens from around the world – a handful of antelope heads hung on the wall above a snarling leopard in the ‘Africa’ section; next to it, ‘North America’ had a few of its most common species and a sun bear from South-east Asia mislabeled as a black bear. All in all, pretty shoddy. It was like one of those restaurants that tries to do multiple ethnic cuisines – sure, the menu might have Pad Thai and Wiener Schnitzel and Coq au Vin, but chances are it’s all going to taste like CaCa-PuPu.
Recently, though, the museum seems to have found its identity, and instead of its previous carpet bombing approach to exhibition, it now precisely targets the natural history of Hungary and the larger Carpathian Basin. Sure, there are still animals from around the world, housed primarily in an ‘Ark’ exhibit, but the tighter focus and significant changes in the past two years have improved the place substantially.
The ground floor consists of a central atrium space devoted to an African diorama arranged around a small pond, as well as specimens collected by Hungarian scientists and explorers around the world. (The museum’s entire African collection was wiped out by a Soviet shell during the 1956 revolution – many specimens were housed in alcohol, so you can imagine the conflagration.) This central space also hosts photo exhibitions, the current one being the marvelous “NaturArt – The Nature Photographer of the Year 2012.” A temporary exhibition space is reached via a glass-floored passageway where a coral reef swims beneath your feet. The exhibition hall is currently showing “Hexapod Empire,” presenting the mysterious world of insects.
The first floor is home to a children’s Discovery Room, a playroom and age-graded learning rooms, a massive selection of rocks and minerals, and a recently-completed exhibit detailing the prehistory of the Carpathian Basin, with a a heavy dose of kid-pleasing dinosaurs, all from Hungary.
The top floor is given over almost completely to updated and interactive displays of the anthropology and biodiversity of the Carpathian Basin. There are lots of caves to explore and tunnels to crawl through, perfect for entertaining (and educating) the kids.
Outside you’ll find the rather underwhelming Dinosaur Garden, with life-sized examples of eight or so species. The kids like it, though, and as it’s only 300 Forint (1.50 USD) there’s little reason not to have a peek.
Which brings me to my last point: The museum is surprisingly affordable. A couple of years ago, we took the family to the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. A wonderful museum, but tickets are a gouging $29.95 for adults and $19.95 for kids 4-11. That meant that our two-hour stint at the Academy emptied my wallet of almost $80. Ouch.
Access to everything at the Hungarian Natural History Museum (you can buy separate tickets to different exhibitions) is 2200 Hungarian Forint (10 USD) for adults and 1100 forint (5 USD) for ages 6-26 and seniors. For whatever reason, the young lady at the ticket counter yesterday decided not to charge our six year-old anything, and gave us a 50% discount, so our most recent visit only set the family finances back about 10 USD.
If you’re in Budapest for only a short visit, you may not make the Natural History Museum a high priority. But if you do have a rainy day, it’s a great place to take the kids. If you’re here for a longer period or live here in Budapest, definitely put it on your to-do list. And by the way, if you have a bit of extra time, the Füvészkert Botanical Gardens are right around the corner, and make for a lovely and peaceful side trip.
Take the Blue Line Metro (M3) to the Klinikak stop. Exit the building and go straight until you see a park in front of you. Turn left, go a hundred or so meters, and the museum will be on your right.