History of the Hungarian Heritage Museum in Cleveland, Ohio
Hungarian immigrants have been coming here to Cleveland in great numbers for both, political and economic reasons since the 1880's. In fact, for many years, Cleveland was the second largest Hungarian city in the world, right after Budapest. The immigrants built churches, social halls, established organizations, and Hungarian-language schools. Numerous Hungarians were prominent in the religious, political and artistic life of the city; others established businesses, employing many of their compatriots. Even today, there are over 100,000 Hungarians in Cleveland and, although the Hungarian sections of town no longer exist, many Hungarian-Americans have not forgotten their origins and are not only proud of their heritage, but are also trying to retain and promote their culture and traditions.
In 1985, a small, but very enthusiastic group of Hungarians realized the significant role that a Hungarian Heritage Museum would have in safeguarding this history, and established the Cleveland Hungarian Heritage Society. They spelled out the goals and mission of the museum: to present Hungarian culture in general, with a very special emphasis on the contributions of Cleveland Hungarians; to represent the entire Cleveland Hungarian community and to reach out to the Greater Cleveland community to acquaint it with Hungarian culture and traditions. The founders wrote bylaws, obtained tax-exempt status, and decided that both English and Hungarian would be official languages of the organization. It was also decided that officers, board members and workers would volunteer their time without financial remuneration. To this day, the museum is operated entirely by volunteers. It does not have, and never had, any paid employees.
The museum received enthusiastic support from the Hungarian community. The Inaugural Exhibit at the oldest Hungarian church drew a huge crowd and was welcomed by proclamations by the bishop and the mayor of Cleveland. At the second exhibition, in 1987, the museum was able to display the cope of King Mátyás, on loan from a local university's museum. The museum had to leave the church in 1991 because of on-going renovations. During this time, its collections went into storage; however, the museum itself stayed active by mounting exhibitions in various local museums. Lectures and discussions were organized at local universities. Among the highlights of the museum's activities is the continuous publication of its newsletter, called the Review. The museum also produced a video about Hungarian embroidery, entitled Flowers in the Snow, which won second price in a competition organized by the Ohio Museums Association. Around this time, we also started an Endowment Fund to ensure the future of the Museum.
In the meantime, the board members were continuously looking for a suitable space for the museum. This was no easy task, because we needed a large area that was easily accessible, and that did not cost much, because our budget was practically non-existent. A suitable space was found in a local shopping mall, and the museum re-opened in September 1996. While it was an unconventional solution to have a museum in a shopping center, it worked out very well. Proof of this is that we are now in the third shopping center since then. Our present home is a wonderful space on the second level of an elegant downtown shopping center. We moved in on March 15, 2003 and hope to stay there for many years to come.
When we moved into the shopping center spaces, we mapped out four distinct areas for the Museum: the permanent galleries, the revolving galleries, the library and a gift shop. We opened the Gift Shop to promote Hungarian artisans in the Cleveland area, and to give visitors the convenience of being able to buy Hungarian items not available elsewhere in the Cleveland area. Of course, the income from the Gift Shop was also necessary to help pay for the upkeep of the museum. In the permanent exhibits, we showcase our extensive folk costume collection, also the court costumes worn by the aristocracy. We also have fine- and folk-art porcelain and ceramics, and a large display about the Cleveland Hungarians, including the ecclesiastical collection from the original Hungarian churches. The revolving gallery, which is changed about every three months, is where special temporary exhibits on various themes are mounted, such as: embroidery, porcelain, pottery, contemporary Cleveland artists, historical periods, etc. Our library boasts close to 3,000 volumes, many in Hungarian, but also some in English on Hungarian subjects. We also have periodicals, newspapers, videos, computer presentations and maps.
Many lectures and presentations are held in the Museum by local experts, as well as by visitors from Hungary, including statesmen, artists, religious groups and many others. For example, the Museum was the place, where the then Hungarian Secretary of Education presented the late Mr. William Koteles with the highest order of the Republic of Hungary, for his many charitable activities. This was also where U.S. Senator Voinovich greeted the youth bicycle group from Budapest, who made a 1000 mile tour around Lake Erie in honor of the Hungarian Millicentennial. Many Cleveland groups, from Retirees' Clubs to school children, also tour the museum, and it also serves as a meeting place for other Hungarian organizations. A dedicated group of volunteers makes it possible to keep the museum open during regular hours.
At the festive Opening Reception in our present home, which drew 450 visitors, the Mayor of Cleveland performed the ribbon cutting ceremony. At this ideal location, easily accessible from all parts of the city, the Museum has ample space for its exhibition galleries, gift shop and library. Here we started a new tradition: a monthly lecture series about Hungarian subjects which are held every year from October to June. We have had lecture series on Hungarian history, prominent Hungarians, the geography of Hungary, and a series entitled Hungarian Food for Body and Mind, that alternated monthly cooking classes with book discussions. This season, our lecture series explores the history of the Hungarian Immigrants in Cleveland.
During the 2003 fall semester, the Museum was also proud to host, in partnership with the Cleveland State University Library, Judit Gerencser, a Fulbright student from Szombathely, who catalogued our archives. She also helped set up the Hungarian portion of a website at Cleveland State University, called Cleveland Memories, and gave many lectures on different Hungarian subjects, in particular on the consequences of Hungary's joining the European Union.
Recent visitors from Hungary have included, among others, Mr. Victor Orban, Dr. Otto von Habsburg, Dr. Sandor Szakaly, Dr. Judit Havas, Valeria Kormos, who have all provided important insights into present day Hungary or given us beautiful artistic experiences.
In July 2004, the Museum, along with many other Cleveland Hungarian Organizations, co-hosted the Hungarian delegation to the International Children's Games. We held a reception for the entire delegation in the Museum, and also hosted a meeting where the official representatives of the various cities had an opportunity to describe their respective home towns to the city leaders and businessmen of Cleveland.
In May 2004, a delegation from the committee called the “Friends of the American Revolutionary War Hero Colonel Michael Kovats de Fabricy of Hungary” of the Hungarian Museum, traveled to Karcag to celebrate Colonel Michael Kovats Days in the town of his birth. It is through the efforts of the Museum's above Kovats Committee, chaired by Mrs.Margaret Kotnik, and guided by Dr. August Pust, that Col. Kovats, known as the father of the American cavalry, had been officially declared a foreign-born hero of the American War of Independence.
The delegation presented the town with a small replica of the life-sized Kovats statue that had been erected in the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, DC. The statue is unique in that it does not depict a military figure posed erect and motionless on a horse; rather, it shows the drama of the moment of death, which cannot but evoke emotion in the viewer. The delegation also presented a proclamation from U.S. Senator George Voinovich, commemorating the life and deeds of Col. Kovats, as well as a letter from Warren Miller of the U.S. Commission on the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, of which Dr. Pust is also a member. Hungarians and Hungarian-Americans can be justifiably proud that one of their own has now officially been recognized by the U.S. Congress as a true hero of the American Revolutionary War.
The Museum wants to become one of the centers of information about Col. Kovats. For this reason, we have a small permanent Kovats exhibition in the Museum and are also collecting documents and pictures pertaining to his life and deeds. While there had been several groups in the U.S. in the past who tried to bring the Colonel to public attention, their activities are not well documented and it is surprisingly difficult to obtain information about them. That is why we were very happy to hear about the Vasvary Collection in the Somogyi Library of Szeged. Rev. Vasvary collected information on many Hungarian-Americans, including Col. Kovats. In all, members of our group have made two short visits to the Somogyi Library, where they were received most cordially and were shown the pertinent information in the Vasvary Collection. While we obtained some important leads, we hope to make more extensive visits to Szeged in the future. We are also keeping in contact with Karcag, which has a very active Kovats Committee. Mrs. Kotnik has made Col. Kovats her special mission. She has lectured extensively on the subject, most recently at the American-Hungarian Educators' Association Meeting in Budapest in June 2005.
The Kovats connection is a good example of our efforts to build bridges between Cleveland and Hungary. For example, in the past, we have had exhibitions on Herend porcelain, the famous lace of Kiskunhalas, and the creations of Szeged artists, Mihaly Fritz, Anna Laszlo and Gizella Torok. We have forged beautiful friendships in all of these places, and members of the Museum make it a point to visit these friends whenever they are in Hungary.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Museum has truly become the intellectual home of the Cleveland Hungarian community. We are very proud of the fact that we have been able to bring together the different Hungarian organizations active in Cleveland to work for worthwhile Hungarian causes. We have also tried to make the Museum a place where everyone is welcome, from a recent immigrant, to a 3rd or 4th generation Hungarian-American who may not even speak the language any more, but is proud of his Hungarian roots. This year, we are celebrating our 20th anniversary, and are looking forward to many anniversaries to come.