Bethlen Foundation Collection
Târgu Mureș Strada Mihai Viteazul 54, Romania
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Name of collection
- Bethlen Foundation Collection
Provenance and cultural activities
Anikó Bethlen started to collect ethnographic pieces in the late 1960s, once she realised the importance of safeguarding the diverse cultural heritage of Transylvania that was about to be lost due to the gradual emigration of those belonging to non-Romanian communities, in particular of the Germans and the Hungarians.
The “reunification” of the Romanian German families was a constant dispute in the postwar period. After the flew of over one hundred thousand persons at the end of the Second World War, the emigration of the German community in Transylvania continued steadily and intensified after the bilateral treaty signed between Romania and the Federal Republic of Germany in 1967. The systematic buyout of the German community was carried on until December 1989 under the strict supervision of the Romanian Securitate (Dobre et al. 2011; Hüsch 2013; Budeancă 2015, Baier 2014). The majority of the pieces conserved in the Bethlen Foundation Collection come from those Saxons who moved to West Germany. The Romanian authorities did not allow the emigrants to leave the country but with a limited amount of luggage. Thus, the famous 2.5-3.5 m long chests (Truhen) and the community cultural objects kept in them could not be taken away to the new homes in the Federal Republic. “Every Saxon leaving his village, also has left behind a small museum,” comments Countess Bethlen in the interview of 11 November 2016. The objects belonging to the German families about to emigrate usually passed first to the nearby Roma population by purchase, exchange or barter. Consequently, the Roma community, which acted as intermediaries, played a crucial role in the setting up of the Bethlen Foundation Collection, since the countess bought most of the objects she owns today from them.
Countess Bethlen enjoyed medical treatment abroad every five years and knew about the commonly used practices of petty smuggling that were linked to the cash need of Romanian citizens travelling to the West from a country plagued by strict regulations on foreign currency. She saw that most people were carrying with them small valuable objects (stoneware, cake forms, etc.), unobtrusive objects that were not “visible” at the baggage screening and could fit into the “gift” category, but could also be sold in exchange for some money once abroad. She also noticed that the Eastern Europeans whom were granted a visa to the West were usually passing through Vienna, where a well-established multilingual circle of professional smugglers used to approach these tourists coming from beyond the Iron Curtain and ask them if they have something to sell.
She came to the conclusion that this informal practice would contribute to the cultural impoverishment of her native region due to the gradual disappearance of the material traces of the Transylvanian diverse cultures. She feared that, when future tourists would finally come to Romania (out of interests for everyday life issues, local architecture or ethnographic craftsmanship), they would no longer be able to see any physical evidence of the authentic local cultures. Thus, the countess decided to collect as many objects as possible “to preserve here [in Transylvania] something from what was made and produced here.” In short, her activity of collecting cultural artifacts in order to assure their preservation in situ represented a quiet criticism of the communist policies in Romania and an instinctive type of protest against the practice of extorting money for any emigration visa granted to those who expressed their disapproval by leaving their native country behind. Although by the 1980s, any university graduate, regardless of ethnic origin, had to pay a fee amounting to the costs of education, if willing to emigrate, the practice of “selling” visas referred to the members of the German and Jewish minorities in Romania, whose exit visas were paid by the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel, respectively. The direct result of this policy was the implicit ethnic homogenisation of the country in general, and of Transylvania in particular, which was the most heterogeneous region of post-WWI Romania.
Given that the provenance area of the items in this collection was mostly Transylvania, it is not surprising that the German-speaking Saxon population, which historically inhabited this region but left it in almost their entirety until 1989, played the key role in the development of the Bethlen Foundation Collection. The acquisition of the objects did not follow any plans, but developed rather spontaneously, pending on the offer of the large Roma network and the financial situation of the collector at a given time. For instance, if an item was considered “important,” but it was too expensive, Countess Bethlen offered in exchange pieces from her collection. She managed to buy more expensive items by selling in barter duplicates or copies of objects she had previously purchased. After 1989, the municipal museum of Târgu Mureș began purchasing items from her collection, which she sold in order to make other acquisitions, and became one of her steady customers.
It is difficult to assess the social reception of the collection. The material informally stored into the private home of Countess Bethlen is generally unknown. The only exception can be considered the Roma community, who were directly involved in the development of the collection, whom were given money for searching and acquiring art objects. Securitate knew about Countess Bethlen’s activity of preserving traces of a vanishing past, but did not take her seriously because of her disability which hampered her to drive a car and pursue herself researches for acquiring these objects. As she put it in her interview on 10 January 2017: “The state security didn’t care about the good things, they only cared about acts of civil disobedience or things that appeared as such acts of disobedience.”
From the late 1960s to the present day, Countess Bethlen’s solitary effort made it possible the creation of a huge collection of Hungarian, Romanian, Saxon, Roma folk costumes, tableware, textiles, bronze and iron mortars, flatirons, grinders, objects from copper, glassworks and stoneware. All this happened without any support from the state, but resulted from a skillful exploitation of the informal tolerance allowed by the authorities. The cultural value of the collection is increased by the fact that a substantial part of its more than 3,000 pieces dates back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and includes objects which were crafted with materials and techniques which are no longer in use. The story of these pieces is also the story of the everyday life and cultural traditions of the people who used to live in Transylvania.Although the collection is still publicly unknown, some hundred visitors show up every year at Countess Bethlen’s home to visit the collection. They are mostly private persons belonging to different generations, who usually enter in contact with her through old acquaintances or former students. The countess future intention is to move the collection to the returned Bethlen Castle in Criș, the most beautiful Renaissance castle in Transylvania, built between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, as a fortified small-scale noble residence.
Description of content
The collection of the Bethlen Foundation is a collection of ethnographic objects. It includes artifacts for public use and private decoration, mainly belonging to the nineteenth century Hungarian folk art. Currently, the collection comprises more than one hundred folk costumes: Hungarian (from the ethnographic areas of Câmpia Transilvaniei/Mezőség, Szeklerland, and from the Ceangău/Csángó region in Moldavia), Romanian (from Maramureș), Saxon (from the region of Sibiu/Hermannstadt) and Roma. The costumes include accessories, such as brooches, embroidered leather strap etc. Besides folk costumes, especially remarkable items are the Saxon blankets and bed linen (in particular the pillow cases embroidered with wool, which represent a rarity), needlework and other textiles. The collection also includes over five hundred stoneware (Steingut) pieces. In addition, finely worked hand-painted bowls, plates, jugs, pitchers, and other objects of Transylvanian pottery workshops, porcelain manufactories and Hungarian stoneware factories can be found, as well as handicraft products from Zalău and Gurghiu (Romania), Hollóháza and Miskolc (Hungary), Prešov/Eperjes (Slovakia), or Wilhelmsburg (Austria). The more than 100 pieces of copper cake forms and tube pans, which are used exclusively in clay lined bake oven also hold a significant role in the collection, as well as glassworks from Glăjărie, bronze and iron mortars, flatirons, Baroque and Biedermeier candlesticks, different functional cupper objects, table lamps and several paintings. According to a rough estimate, the entire collection might contain more than 3,000 pieces, being the second largest Hungarian collection in Transylvania after the collection gathered by ethnographer Zoltán Kallós and preserved in the village of Răscruci, Cluj county, Romania.
- applied arts objects (folk art, decorative arts, etc.): 1000-
- clothing: 100-499
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
Târgu Mureș, Marosvásárhely, Romania
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Important events in the history of the collection
- visits by appointments
Author(s) of this page
- Jánosi, Csongor
Budeancă, Cosmin. 2015. “The Merchants of Human Beings: The Securitate’s Role in the Emigration of Romania’s Germans (1978-1989).” Transylvanian Review 1: 59–77.
Dobre, Florica, Florian Banu, Luminița Banu, and Laura Stancu, eds. 2011. Acțiunea “Recuperarea:” Securitatea și emigrarea germanilor din România, 1962-1989 (Action "Recovery:" The Securitate and the emigration of the Germans from Romania, 1962-1989). București: Editura Enciclopedică.
Hüsch, Heinz-Günter. 2013. Kauf von Freiheit, Aussiedlung von Deutschen aus Rumänien 1968-1989. Hermannstadt: Honterus.Baier, Hannelore, Heinz-Günter Hüsch, and Ernst Meinhradt. 2014. Cumpărarea libertății: Dr. Heinz-Günter Hüsch în interviuri cu Hannelore Baier și Ernst Meinhardt (The purchase of liberty: Dr. Heinz-Günter Hüsch interviewed by Hannelore Baier and Ernst Meinhardt). Translated from original by Nadia Badrus. Sibiu: Honterus.
Bethlen, Anikó , interview by Jánosi, Csongor , January 10, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection