The National Museum was ahead of its time in the 1950s

20.10.2016 | The Prehistory of Czechoslovakia exhibition in 1958 captivated not only visitors but also the media. The museological solution designed by the archaeologist Jiří Neustupný was revolutionary for its time, even outside Czechoslovakia. His design was innovative not only in its interpretation of prehistory, but also in the revolutionary idea of an automatic guide and the use of technology in the exhibition.

The Prehistory of Czechoslovakia exhibition opened on 28 February 1958 in the presence of the Minister of Education and Culture, František Kahuda, and other important representatives of political and cultural life; and the newly opened exhibition inspired great interest on the side of the public.  The National Museum was promising a unique experience. Besides the new concept of the chronology of prehistory, which had been discussed two years previously at the meeting of archaeological scientists, the exhibition brought new and so-far unseen sound and visual technical elements. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that within 14 days, 16 thousand people came to see the exhibition; and in the first month of its running, there were an unbelievable 25 thousand visitors.

The viewing of the Prehistory of Czechoslovakia makes great visual demands of the visitors. This is why we tried to make it a bit easier visually, while also involving an audio element.  Jiří Neustupný

The exhibition involved a "streaming showcase” which took the viewer without a break through prehistory in Czechoslovakia. This concept was to present the continuous flow of history and to highlight the continuity of settlement on the territory of Czechoslovakia. Thanks to the ingenious division of one long showcase, the prehistoric cultures unfolded gradually in front of the viewers.

Automatic guide

What technological advances did the museum offer to its visitors? A great novelty – the automatic guide: sound, light and motion effects that were to guide visitors through the exhibition. Commentary for the individual parts of the exhibition was recorded on tapes. The audio recording was switched on at short intervals and offered expert commentary on the exhibited objects. The spoken word was prepared in several versions - from the professional version, in which the whole viewing lasted around seventy minutes, to the forty-minute popular version. The contemporary press also mentions a version for school children. During normal operation, the automatic guide ran four times a day at pre-set times.

The tape recordings were connected with other technological novelties. Light and movement also accompanied the visitors throughout the exhibition. The part of the showcase to which the tape commentary related was gradually lit with both mirror floodlights and spotlights, illuminating individual exhibits. For the most important objects, another element was involved – movement. The exhibits were placed on special turning plates which started to turn at the moment they were mentioned so that the visitors could see them from all sides.

Positive reactions came not only from the visitors, but resonated in the contemporary press. Mladá fronta, for example, referred to the exhibition as unique worldwide. The Slovakian press stated that thanks to this concept, soon no guides will be needed; and they used the neologism “excurson” for this unique technological system.

The whole system of the automatic guide consisted of 3 tape-players, 57 speakers, 114 mirror floodlights, 16 spotlight projectors and 17 slides. The automatic guide was put together by Jiří Hadraba and Jiří Hradecký. The texts, prepared by the archaeologist Neustupný and other experts, were read by the radio presenters Richard Honzovič and Ladislav Vít.

Problems arose too

However, the automatic guide did not function as smoothly as originally planned. Of course, visitors gathers around the places with the commentary. There was also an opposite problem – not all the visitors endured the exhaustive commentary until its end, rather leaving while it was still playing. This played into the hands of opponents of this revolutionary exhibition’s design. For example, the archaeologist Jaroslav Böhm not only criticized the automatic guide as being not very useful, but also likened the turning exhibits to a shop window in the pre-Christmas bustle.

When the exhibition was rebuilt as a permanent exhibition in 1966, the automatic guide was used again. Gradually, technical problems mounted, until the guide ceased to be used in the 1970s. However, some of its elements remained embedded in the walls of the stream case until its complete dismantling in 2013 for the reconstruction of the Historical Building.

Written based on the article by Ivana Kocichová: The Prehistory of Czechoslovakia exhibition (1958) at the National Museum: Light, sound and movement in the role of a guide, published in the magazine Muzeum: Muzejní a vlastivědná práce in 2015.

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