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Outcry over plan to move Hungarian natural-history museum to remote town

Scientists say the government’s plan to relocate the Budapest collection will disrupt research.

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Outside view of the Natural History Museum in Budapest

The Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest is in a nineteenth-century building called the Ludovica Academy.Credit: Julian Pottage/Alamy

A battle is under way between scientists in Hungary and the nation’s government over Budapest’s 200-year-old natural-history museum.

The government wants to move the valuable collection, which contains more than 10 million items that are important for evolutionary-biology and palaeontology research, to a small town called Debrecen in the country’s east. The collection will have to move from a historic building, known as the Ludovica academy. But researchers say that this would risk damaging specimens, disrupt research projects for years to come and make future projects logistically difficult because the proposed location, some 200 kilometres away, is so remote.

The move “would imperil one of the most important research collections in the world”, says István Mikó, an entomologist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Among its most valuable items are specimens from Mongolia, Southeast Asia and the Balkans.

The move is part of a broader push begun ten years ago by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government to decentralize some of Budapest’s cultural treasures. The nineteenth-century Ludovica academy would become a newly accredited National University of Public Service.

But researchers were taken aback by a 2018 government decree that said the museum would move out of the capital.

Researchers push back

Scientists have since been campaigning against that decision. Last week, they sent a public petition with 14,000 signatures to the ministry of human capacities — one of the ministries overseeing the move — calling for the museum to stay in Budapest. The petition commended the government plan to try to develop rural areas, but it noted that a survey of museum staff members conducted last summer found that 87% of them would not be prepared to move to Debrecen. The museum has about 140 staff members, around one-third of whom are scientists.

“There would be a devastating loss of expertise,” says evolutionary biologist János Podani from Eötvös University in Budapest, who is also a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) and leads a group that uses the museum’s collections in their research.

The protest seems to have won the museum a concession. In a tweet on 12 February, Balázs Fürjes, minister of state for Budapest development, said that the museum can remain in its historic building until a new home is ready. That overturned an edict the government made last month, stating that the museum must move its collections into temporary storage and vacate the building this year.

But scientists continue to protest against the move to Debrecen, where there has been little progress in building a new museum. A mood of anger, depression and uncertainty reigns in the museum, according to one employee who spoke to Nature on the condition of anonymity because staff have been instructed not to speak about the events publicly.

Other scientific societies are supporting their cause. Last March, the European Consortium of Taxonomic Facilities, a network of natural-history museums and botanical gardens, wrote a statement of support for the Budapest museum, saying that “museums play a central part in historical, cultural and scientific patrimony of any particular country and disruptions to those relationships can be detrimental”.

Two years ago, the HAS requested that the government consult with the scientific community and other experts about the museum’s relocation, but the academy says that didn’t happen. “The government is neither consulting the scientific community about how best to handle the museum’s move, nor making its decisions and decision-making processes public,” says Podani. The HAS issued a statement of grave concern on 28 January that calls on the government to reconsider the decision to move the museum out of Budapest.

The ministry of human capacities and the museum director did not respond to Nature’s request for comments.

Podani adds that the affair is reminiscent of the government’s takeover last year of the HAS’s network of 40 or so research institutes, which do the bulk of Hungary’s basic research. That evoked criticism from the international scientific community, which saw it as a threat to the autonomy and effectiveness of basic research. “That also happened because they disregarded our views and suggestions,” Podani says.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00490-x

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