Outside of the capitols and major western cities, in sleepy towns with strange names, some of the most interesting things lie tucked away in abandoned, dusty rooms. Visiting museums in places like Košice, in the iron-mining east of Slovakia, the experience is as much about the feeling of being alone amongst a forgotten trove as it is about the things displayed there. We visited two interesting museums here - the East Slovakia Museum and the Košice Technicke Muzeum - and were practically the only people in either place.
The buildings themselves are disused enough to have become museums - old mansions and institutional buildings that have outlived their owners and function and survive because of volunteers and a pittance from the city. Locals never bother to visit and there aren't enough tourists to fill them up, but the collections need a home and can't be thrown out. In these places there is always a pervasive sense of basic maintenance and emptiness - the smells of mildew, floorwax and decay, the glare of fluorescent lights, the creak of ancient parquet, white walls hung with poorly-printed placards. Often, we have to fumble around for a lightswitch or guess at the direction to take. I love the old hallways, padded with drab carpeting and strung with poorly done electrical wiring. Also, the old ladies who sit quietly in corners, dozing or scratching at crosswords, keeping an eye on things as we move through the hushed rooms.
There is sense, in places like this, that the items are being displayed less than they are being held on to. In an awkwardly located corner of the East Slovakia Museum, the interior of an old apothecary had been preserved, with rows of narrow drawers and a marble countertop. Another room was bright with folk arts and Slovak weavings draped between dressed up, faceless mannequins. Neither exhibit was especially impressive, despite feeling the most cohesive and planned - there are similar collections in scads of museums in many countries.
The bulk of the collection was more impressive, but was also more haphazardly set up. A woman unlocked a door at the top of a staircase (we were accompanied by an old man and a younger fellow who spoke Slovak, but had nearly accentless English when he talked to us) and let us into the first of many rooms. Košice has a long and rich history, and the regional woodcarving artisans were renowned throughout central Europe during the middle ages. Carvings and paintings from the 13th through the 17th century were set up in long, crowded halls. The pieces were lit harshly and looked pretty bad against smudged white paint - but were still impressive and intricate. The fragility of wood as organic matter seems to convey the gravity of the centuries more heavily than works in stone.
The technical museum was actually one of the more interesting places I've been to on this trip - despite infrequent English translation and the somewhat ramshackle displays. A huge collection of radios - some antique and some simply dusty - was set out on pieces of plywood. Here, there were rooms devoted to seemingly every obsolete appliance and gadget, all of them jumbled up and set out en mass.
Three rooms dedicated to typewriters took up a big chunk of the creaky third floor. I would guess that they had close to one hundred and fifty examples in the exhibit. It's hard to imagine any museum in any city having more typewriters than Košice does, and it's hard to fathom exactly what the impetus behind the collection would have been.
A few rooms were given over to phonographs and gramophones, a large hall was filled with surveying equipment, there was a gallery of telephones, one of microscopes and scattered display cases chock full of lightbulbs, video cameras, remote controls and calculators. The most space was given to the various equipments and tools of the area's steel industry; smelting pots and cast-iron molds abounded, set in large rooms with great wood and leather bellows. It was interesting, but overwhelming.
We were alone here, even more than in the East Slovakia Museum, and passed through some curious spaces - a sitting room, a long hall with chairs and a battered piano, stairways that curved around and let out in unexpected places. It feels like real exploring, being in places like this. We leave museums like these sensing not that we've been taught something, or that we've been presented with a well-trodden idea, but that a discovery has been made, a strange place experienced. It's one of the real joys of traveling - sensing that something important and impressive has been glimpsed, and that you alone have seen it.