Standing on an elevated position at the top of Wenceslas Square in Prague is the impressive neoclassical National Museum, designed by Josef Schultz as an architectural symbol of the Czech National Revival, built from 1885 – 1891 to allow expansion of the Museum then housed in the Nostitz Palace, and recently reopened after major refurbishment. Next door is a building which could not be more different, with its brutal glass and concrete modernist architecture clashing with the elegance of the neoclassical building. Today it too is part of the National Museum, providing (yet again) much-needed space for expansion and helping to erase its previous history as the Parliament of the communist regime, while the two houses of the modern Czech Republic’s government are now housed across the river in the Nostitz and Wallenstein Palaces in the Malá Strana district.
At its heart of the building is the Stock Exchange of 1938, which was then enveloped to create the Parliament building in 1973. Later it became the home Radio Free Europe and, more recently, was allocated to the National Museum as is now known as the New Museum. The building has an historic importance as the location where the terms of the Velvet Revolution were agreed and it is said that there are till two nuclear shelters beneath it.
The great volume of the top floor, which looks as if it was the debating chamber of the Parliament, is home an exhibition on Natural History entitled Noah’s Ark. With curved timber walls that envelope the displays, reminiscent of the shape of an ark, the exhibition covers many aspects of natural history over two levels, with a focus not only on the diversity and beauty of the natural world, but on risks to the future of habitats and species.
On the middle level, the Natural History theme continues with an exploration of the role of sunlight in the natural world and, conversely, how species have adapted to environments of darkness, including the different strata which exist in the tropical forests, as light is filtered out through the canopy of the tall trees at the upper layer.
The ground floor’s exhibition focusses on the tribes which we collectively call the Celts, based to a great extent on the various archaeological finds that have been discovered from graves and other excavations within the Czech Republic and what that tells us about how they lived, their beliefs, their art, how they traded using gold coins and how they were organised as communities. Its one failing is that it tells a story that looks a little too calm and organised; whereas life was pretty tough and there were frequent fights and battles between different tribes.
On visiting the Museum, it is fascinating to catch glimpses of the architecture of both the 1938 building and the 1973 building and the connections between the two.