“We Tell Stories”
At the age of 26, Michal Lukeš was the youngest director of a national cultural institution in Europe, and after over 15 years in the position he is one of the longest-serving museum directors. Under his management, the National Museum has repaired most of its dilapidated buildings, such as the National Monument at Vítkov, the Czech Museum of Music and the Ethnographic Museum. He pushed through the renovation of the National Museum building on Wenceslas Square and secured funding for it, and acquired the former Federal Assembly building for the National Museum. He has managed to repair the National Museum building in an incredibly short time – just 42 months – and open it for celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia on 28 October 2018.
What feelings did you have as an individual – as a husband, as a father to two daughters – when celebrating the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia, coincidentally also the first day of standard operations after the official re-opening of the National Museum?
I did not have much time to celebrate for myself during the 100th anniversary celebrations since I had a lot of work and official duties. My wife and daughters symbolically baked me some gingerbread with icing in the colours of our national flag. I try to educate my children about history, and ever since they were small I have brought them up in a traditional spirit and with love for our country. My feelings on 28 October were celebratory, and I’m glad our celebrations went well and people commemorated the 100th anniversary of our Republic spontaneously and on their own initiatives. I’m glad we have the good fortune to live in a prosperous, safe and, above all, democratic republic.
Do you remember the first time you visited the National Museum? How do you attract your youngest generation of visitors? What about the oldest? And what would you suggest foreigners visit?
Probably like everyone else I remember the whale skeleton and loads of animals. We attract the youngest generation with a whole range of special programmes for schools and families, and all our exhibitions have kids’ and educational features. We try to make the museum intelligible and fun for them. We attract adults through unique experiences and exhibits which they won’t find anywhere else. I’d invite everyone to visit our New Building to see our Celts exhibition, or our fascinating Noah’s Ark zoological exhibition. In our Historical Building, besides our renovated interiors you can admire the 200 rarest exhibits of our museum at our 2x100exhibition.Buttherearealsofascinating exhibitions at the Czech Museum of Music and the Náprstek Museum. Anyone who wants to learn more about modern Czech history should visit the National Monument at Vítkov, where they can combine a museum visit with admiring a fantastic view over Prague from the roof of the monument.
You’re well known for often using your sense of humour in your role. Were there any times during the renovation when you lost your sense of humour?
I haven’t yet lost my sense of humour, not even during the renovation, and even in the most serious of moments I have always tried to encourage colleagues with humour. Although I am a fan of black humour, so I don’t know whether I’ve always succeeded 🙂
You ́ve had the honour of being first in two areas – at the age of 26 you were the youngest director of a large national cultural institution in Europe, and now after over 15 years in your position you are one of the longest-serving museum directors. In terms of leadership, what stage is the most difficult?
I can’t say what stage was most difficult. When I took on the role at a very young age, I had the task of shaking up and modernising a somewhat dusty institution. And we did a pretty good job. We managed to push on with loads of innovative projects and investments, both in museum infrastructure and buildings. The museum is growing dynamically, but running these projects requires a lot more management work and responsibilities. Each stage of my leadership here has had its pros and cons, but together I think they form one of the most coherent and positive stages in the history of the institution.
What museums in Europe / in the world do you like visiting? What museums could be a model for the National Museum?
We visit, find inspiration in, and above all co- operate with, a wide range of worldwide institutions such as the British Museum, the Natural History museums in New York and London, the Smithsonian Institute in the USA, the National Museum of Scotland, and also museums in smaller countries such as the Estonian National Museum. Polish museums are very inspiring, such as the Warsaw Rising Museum. Naturally, our closest partner museum is the Slovak National Museum. But it’s not about which specific museums can be a model for us; we endeavour to find inspiration from the best of them, while also learning from errors others have made.
I had the opportunity to visit the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem in October, and this is at the absolute cutting edge in terms of using modern technologies, appealing to visitors, working with stories, emotions and literally drawing visitors into the story. On the other hand the museum has no real exhibits or collections. Probably little will remain of our generation except in the digital world. How do you see the future of museums and collections?
The job of a museum is to look after the cultural heritage of our ancestors, document our era and preserve as objective an image of it as possible for the future. Museums’ collections and original objects will always remain at the core of their purpose. Naturally, in today’s modern era we store a lot more digital information besides objects. In our exhibitions, we don’t just showcase individual objects, but rather aim to tell stories. Our exhibitions also include multimedia technologies, both to expand the information they provide, and for fun and to interest visitors. Methods of presentation have changed, but the meaning of museums has remained the same for centuries, and I think it will continue to do so.
I’d also like to ask about the much-debated Pantheon of leading Czech figures. I feel a lack of women there. Which women would you like to see there?
You’re right; there aren’t many women in the Pantheon. But the Pantheon represents the intellectual and social legacy of the 19th century. It’s not about which women I would like to see there. The Pantheon is essentially a kind of museum document showing how our ancestors saw the world.
What future career/personal challenges have you got in store?
I definitely want to build a complete new National Museum exhibition. We’ve managed to repair the beautiful Historical Building, and open a number of exhibitions within it, but it is the museum’s permanent exhibitions which give it its spirit. That is currently my greatest challenge.
By Linda Štucbartová