Located in the Letná neighborhood of Prague, the National Museum of Agriculture seeks to bring a slice of country life into the Czech capital. City children and adults alike can gain insight into how wood is farmed, see some of the tools and machinery used in agriculture and even see some real-life farm animals in the museum’s peaceful courtyard.
A cock crowing is certainly not a sound you would expect to hear in the middle of Prague – but a few farm animals are part of the outdoor exhibit of Prague’ Museum of Agriculture, where city dwellers can learn all about farming and the country’s rich history of work on the land. Its director, Zdeněk Novák, showed me around the museum a bit on a recent visit.
“This is quite new, a new activity of our museum. We want to show people some farm animals. So we have two sheep, we have some rabbits, and we have this cock here. And we would like to show Prague’s residents, especially children, animals that live on farms and that they might not get to see in a zoo. I suppose it can be quite surprising to meet sheep in Prague or hear a cock cock-a-doodle-doo.”
The museum was established in 1891, on the initiative of the organizers of the Jubilee Exhibition held in Prague that year. The Museum of Agriculture was a part of the Ethnographic Museum until it became an independent institution in 1918. Antonín Švehla, an important figure in Czechoslovakian politics and the leader of the Agrarian Party, was its first director. But as the role of agriculture in society underwent a sweeping change, so did the mission of the museum. I asked Mr. Novák to talk about some of the changes.
“The original mission was to research and improve the country-side and the agricultural sphere. Today, it is more complicated. When the museum was established, the farmer was a very important part of the nation’s social life, because farmers had their own political party, which was the most important and influential one between the two world wars. Nowadays, people who live in cities don’t understand how important the work of farmers, forest workers, those who take care of ponds, etc. So we would like to, especially in our Prague branch, show our visitors how beautiful the Czech countryside is and that it was created over thousands of years, by farmers and foresters, and despite the fact that we are a country in the center of Europe with lots of industry, it is still beautiful and rich in forests.”
In addition to the Prague branch, the museum also has satellite locations across the country, among them two chateaus. One of them is the Chateau Kačina, where the Museum of the Czech Countryside is located, the second the Chateau Ohrada in South Bohemia, where the Museum of Forestry, Game-Keeping and Fisheries has its home. There are two other locations that are part of the National Agricultural Museum.
“The third branch is in Central Bohemia, in Čáslav, it has a very large area and covers the machinery used in agriculture. And finally, we have a branch in Lednice-Valtice, a cultural landscape that is on the world heritage list, and this branch concentrates on wine production, horticulture, landscape architecture and such.”
While the satellite branches of the museum focus on specialized areas of agriculture, the permanent exhibition at the Prague location tries to provide a fundamental overview of tools, and practices used.
“We now have only one permanent exhibition, it is a window to the Čáslav collection, our large collection of items related to mechanization and agricultural techniques. We have about 20 tractors, and we show their production not only in the Czech Republic, we also have engines produced by Ford and some German products. Then we have another exhibition that focuses on wood and forestry, because 2011 is the International Year of Forests, declared by the United Nations.”
The permanent exhibit also features some interactive elements, such as games, quizzes, and children can even borrow small pedal tractors. Along with the live animals in the back yard, it makes the museum a very child-friendly destination.
Adults will most likely find it fascinating how the history of agriculture in this country mirrors the broader happenings. Mr. Novák explains that the role of the farmer in Czech society has undergone massive changes, and differs greatly from the situation in other countries.
“The tradition of the farmer as a very important group in society was destroyed during communism. The regime’s goal was to assimilate the city and the village. So the people who lived in villages started to adopt the habits of people living in cities, such as having eight-hour per-day jobs, not like the farmers who lived in the United States, Germany, and Switzerland – in Western countries. They really take care of their animals, fields and meadows from morning to sunset. And that is a very important change in the mentality of our farmers. After 1989, some, who felt that their family had roots in agriculture, took back their fields and animals and some of them are trying to start a new tradition of Czech agriculture. But it is very complicated. There are some tendencies to create big farms, others are advocating private farming. And so the situation is more complicated than in countries where the development was not so massively interrupted as in the Czech Republic due to the Second World War and the Communist Revolution in 1948.”
Mr. Novák says that in the future, the museum would like to expand its approach to multi-media, especially video, to better communicate its message and show in a vivid way how the landscape of the Czech Republic changed over time.
“We would like to improve the way we communicate our message to our guests with some modern techniques. What is very important, in my opinion, to understand the procedures that shaped the landscape over time, which are hard to understand for us, because we cannot see it happening in real time. We would like to use some PC and touch-screen applications that demonstrate how seeds grow into a forest. We would like to show our guests how landscape has changed over the course of centuries, because you can visit Moravia and visit a fish-pond or forest, but you won’t get the full picture, so we would like to use a movie to show how a landscape developed over time. How fields, meadows and so on were created, houses and castles were built. And I think such a program would improve the understanding of people how important it is to take care of our landscape in a responsible way.”
But even without such a display having been added to the permanent exhibit, the Prague branch of the National Museum of Agriculture is well worth a visit – and it is probably the only place in the city where you can hear a very active cock crow not just in the early morning hours.