Great Museums – Muzeul National de Istorie

Visitors to Bucharest’s National History Museum should not be put off by the appalling statue on the front steps. This abomination purportedly shows the emperor Trajan holding a wolf. It should be ignored, unless one takes the view that, like some cult films, it is so awful that it is, paradoxically, good.

Wolf-free version

Wolf-free version

Behind the ghastly statue sits the magnificent Neo-Classical building that houses the museum. It was completed in 1900 and was, until 1970, the home of the Romanian postal service, Poşta Romană. There are sixty or so rooms, though not all tend to be open at the same time.

Some critics might suggest that the museum is something of a one-trick pony. This, however, would be unfair, and in any case, the pony in question is a particularly impressive one and worth the admission money on its own. That pony is the replica of Trajan’s Column. Not just any replica – this is a full-scale affair.

Detail from Trajan's Column

Detail from Trajan’s Column

There are two significant and impressive collections. One is the Lapidarium, which displays some magnificent statues from a Bronze Age necropolis. This is where the visitor can follow, along the frieze of the column, the progress of the Dacian Wars (there were two in rapid succession) and the eventual and inevitable victory of the Romans – under Trajan, naturally – over the heroic Dacians. The extraordinary carved work shows around 2,500 figures, mostly soldiers, of course, but also statesmen and priests. Naturally, Trajan appears at very regular intervals.

Pietroasele dish

Pietroasele dish

The other superb collection is known as the Romanian Treasury. This includes Dacian jewellery and the Romanian Crown Jewels. The Pietroasele Treasure is a glorious collection of Gothic art, with gold dishes, cups and jewellery. Don’t be fooled by black-clad modern day Goths; fourth century Goths liked a bit of flashy colour.

Dacian bling

Dacian bling

The Crown Jewels comprise various crowns, swords, sceptres and jewellery. The Kingdom of Romania was a rather short-lived affair, lasting from 1881 until 1947, with only four kings, though one was to reign on two separate occasions. The collection is not, therefore, huge, but is impressive nonetheless. Top place in over-the-top jewel overload is probably the sword of King Carol I, Romania’s first king, encrusted with around 1,200 jewels.

Crown of Maria

Crown of Maria

The museum holds various exhibitions, often of an international nature. There is almost inevitably some kind of building work going on, but the museum always tries to keep its star attractions available for viewing.

Bucharest may not be everyone’s idea of a picturesque place and indeed there are some awful monstrosities (see the Presidential Palace). Many fine buildings were lost during the Ceaușescu period in particular, but thankfully the lovely National History Museum remains. But please do something with that statue…

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