The Museum of Decorative Arts – a must-see destination for fans of Czech design


Lovers of Czech applied arts and design will find a veritable treasure trove of interesting items, ranging from glass wares to clocks and metal works, in Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts. Located right across the street from the well-known Rudolfinum palace, the museum is housed in a stunning Neo-Renaissance building. It was one of the last in Prague to be designed in that style. The architect was Josef Schulz, who also was behind the Czech National Museum.

On the inside of the museum, visitors are welcomed by an impressive staircase that features ornately decorated ceilings and leads up to the permanent collection. Among the museum’s attractions – though strictly speaking not a part of the exhibition – is a very elaborate set of stained glass windows located on the mezzanine level. Museum director Helena Koenigsmarková, who has been the head of the organization for over 20 years, says she still marvels at them every time she walks past.

“It’s also one of my favorite stained glass windows. It was a donation from one of the founders of our museum, Adalbert of Lanna, and it is from 1900. It is an allegory of collecting arts, because he was a big collector, not just an entrepreneur, who really left his mark around Prague. His donation of the main part of his glass collection, some 6000 pieces, is the core of our glass collection today.”

So now we are going up to the permanent collection?

“Yes, this is the first level of our permanent collection. It is called The Story of Materials. It’s in five galleries; each room focuses on collections of different materials. Glass and ceramics, prints and photography, metalwork, textile and fashion, a special gallery for clocks, and the entry hall, for special collections of our history.”

The collection was not always organized in this way, but after the end of communism, Mrs. Koenigsmarková decided it was time to show visitors more of the museum’s vast collection.

“After 1990, when I became the director of the museum, we decided to change the permanent collection, to make it more modern and show more of our collection, because the permanent exhibit previously only showed items from the 16th up until the 19th century. So we decided to organize our collection according to the different materials used.”

Currently, a special exhibition titled Prague Fashion Houses 1900 – 1948 shows the rise and fall of the city’s fashion houses, from the turn of the century up until the Communist takeover in February of 1948. Some eighty items of clothing are on display, says the museum director.

“The exhibition is on display almost until the end of April, and it really shows the best of our fashion collection. As part of the permanent collection, we have a huge glass display case, and Prague Fashion Houses starts here. It shows the fashion created especially in Prague between 1900 and 1948. In the second part of the exhibition, the focus is on the strong period between the wars, with all the famous garments from fashion houses like Podolská, Rosenbaum and so on.”

In another room, the museum displays its collection of clocks – in a very unusual and sophisticated way.

“When we started creating our new permanent collection, we wanted to combine traditional and contemporary not just in our artwork, but also in our display cases. So we are using the original ones from when our museum was opened, which were designed by the architect, Josef Schulz. And we also wanted something new, and one of the creations was this pater noster display case, so we can use the space for more objects and the visitors can push a button to bring the clocks they want to see up close down to their eye level.”

The museum focuses especially on Czech works of applied arts – the country’s most interesting design, photography and crafts objects. Often, it has brought attention to artwork that had been completely forgotten about, says Mrs. Koenigsmarková.

“In the last 20 years, I think we have done a lot for the Czech applied arts. Not only in our museum here in Prague, but also we prepared a lot of exhibitions that were shown abroad, about Czech art that had almost been forgotten. Especially the 20th century periods like Art Nouveau, Czech cubism, which is very special because we have three-dimensional cubist objects which don’t exist in any other countries. And we did a lot for Czech photography because we have the largest collection of Czech photography from the 19th century. And our glass collection ranks among the most important ones in this country.”

The Museum of Decorative Arts also has a gallery in the capital, the Josef Sudek Gallery in Prague 5. Here, in the former flat of the eponymous photographer, visitors can see his work, as well as photos by other modern Czech photographers.

In addition, the museum, in Czech often nicknamed Umprum after its official Czech name Uměleckoprůmyslové muzeum, has three locations outside the Czech capital. One of them is located in the Chateau Kamenice nad Lipou, near Pelhřimov, in the westernmost tips of the Czech-Moravian highlands. In the summer, this quaint museum in a former Renaissance castle is well worth a visit. It focuses on toys and furniture. The other branch of the Prague decorative arts museum centers on textiles and is located in a former Ursulines Monastery in Česká Skalice, in the country’s Hradec Kralové region. There, lovers of fabrics and those interested in how cotton and other common textiles are produced will find plenty to explore.

However, despite having multiple locations, the museum is running out of space and sadly can only show a part of its great collection, explains Mrs. Koenigsmarková.

“We focus on Czech and Bohemian applied arts and contemporary design, and unfortunately in all these years, our problem has been that we can only show a small part of our collection, so our aim is to find more space for our collections.”

For this reason, the year 2012 is shaping up to be an important one for the Museum of Decorative Arts, says director Helena Koenigsmarková.

“Our museum’s life is unfortunately not all about the fun part with the exhibitions, but also about solving the problem with the space. We have been working on two big projects: Building a new depository building in Prague, for our collections, and this historical will be reconstructed. So 2012 seems to be quite an important year for the future of our museum.”

But even though right now, due to its ongoing space limitations, we may not be able to see all that it has to offer, the museum is well worth a visit for lovers of design and those curious about the Czech contribution to it.