History of the Hungarian Heritage Museum in Cleveland, Ohio

Hungarian immigrants have been arriving in Cleveland in great numbers for both political and economic reasons since the 1880’s. In fact, for many years, Cleveland was considered a significant Hungarian city in its own right because it had a large and very vibrant Hungarian population. The immigrants built churches, social halls, established organizations, and Hungarian-language schools. Numerous Hungarians were prominent in the religious, political and artistic life of the city; others established businesses, employing many of their compatriots. Even today, there are many thousands of Hungarians in Cleveland and, although the Hungarian sections of town no longer exist, many Hungarian-Americans have not forgotten their origins and are not only proud of their heritage, but are also trying to retain and promote their culture and traditions.

In 1985, a small, but very enthusiastic group of Hungarians, realized the significant role that a Hungarian Heritage Museum would have in safeguarding this history, and established the Cleveland Hungarian Heritage Society. They spelled out the goals and mission of the Museum: to present Hungarian culture in general, with a very special emphasis on the contributions of Cleveland Hungarians; to represent the entire Cleveland Hungarian community and to reach out to the Greater Cleveland community to acquaint it with Hungarian culture and traditions. The founders wrote bylaws, obtained tax-exempt status, and decided that both English and Hungarian would be official languages of the organization. They also decided that officers, board members and workers would volunteer their time without financial remuneration. To this day, the Museum is operated entirely by volunteers.

The Museum received enthusiastic support from the Hungarian community. The Inaugural Exhibit at the oldest Hungarian church, St. Elizabeth Catholic Church on Buckeye Rd. on the east side of Cleveland, drew a huge crowd and was welcomed by proclamations from the bishop and the mayor of Cleveland. At the second exhibition in 1987, the Museum was able to display the cope of King Mátyás, on loan from a local university’s museum. The Museum had to leave St. Elizabeth Church in 1991 because of on-going renovations. During this time, its collection went into storage; however, it stayed active by mounting exhibits in various local museums. Lectures and discussions were organized at local universities. Among the highlights of the Museum’s activities is the continuous publication of its newsletter, called the Review. The Museum also produced a video about Hungarian embroidery, entitled Flowers in the Snow, which won second prize in a competition organized by the Ohio Museums Association. Around this time, an Endowment Fund was created to ensure the future of the Museum

In the meantime, the board members continued to look  for a suitable space for the Museum. This was no easy task, because it needed a large area that was easily accessible, and that did not cost much, because the budget was practically non-existent. Due to diligent efforts by Otto Friedrich, then executive director of the Museum, a suitable space was found in Richmond Mall, on the east side of Cleveland, and the Museum reopened in September 1996. While it was an unconventional solution to have a museum in a shopping center, it worked out very well. Unfortunately the Mall management began a massive renovation in 1998, and the Museum could not afford to stay there at the new rental rates. Storage was the destination once more until a similar opportunity at the Euclid Square Mall arose and the Museum opened its doors once again on May 15th of 1999.

This new place was more spacious, more open and the permanent and temporary exhibits gained appreciably in their color, variety and grand beauty. Andrew Lázár, the curator and master of exhibits, did a superb job of creating a wonderful Hungarian cultural atmosphere. The library was given a larger space, and the gift shop also increased in size and selection of its offerings. But most importantly, a large enough area was available, called the gallery, where up to a hundred people could sit comfortably for events, talks and presentations. The Museum’s popularity and recognition grew in these years and it began to receive more and more donations of cultural artifacts and books, as well as valuable consignment items for sale in the gift shop.

Our annual “Vintner Dinner” was first held at Richmond Mall, and has since become a tradition that survives up until today. At the time, the mall’s concourse in front of the Museum proved to be a prefect place to set up tables and decorations and create a lovely venue. This arrangement continued into the future, and by the time the Museum was located at Euclid Square Mall, over one hundred guests attended the “Taste of Hungary” dinner, and enjoyed Hungarian cuisine and wines.

In 2003, it was time to leave the mall in Euclid and to establish a new home. The Galleria at Erieview, in downtown Cleveland, became the new site for the Museum . We moved in on March 15, 2003 to a wonderful space located on the second level of an elegant shopping center.

The festive Opening Reception in our present home drew 450 visitors. The Mayor of Cleveland performed the ribbon cutting ceremony. At this ideal location, easily accessible from all parts of the city, the Museum has ample space for its exhibition galleries, gift shop and library.

In the permanent exhibits, we have showcased our extensive folk costume collection as well as the court costumes worn by the aristocracy. We also have exhibited fine and folk-art porcelain and ceramics, and a large display about the Cleveland’s Hungarian-Americans, including an ecclesiastical collection from the original Hungarian churches. The revolving gallery serves as the space for special exhibits on various themes throughout the year.  The many exhibits have featured embroidery, porcelain, pottery, contemporary Cleveland artists, historical periods, etc. Our library boasts close to 9,000 volumes, many in Hungarian, but also some in English on Hungarian subjects. We also have periodicals, newspapers, videos, computer presentations and maps.

The Galleria venue proved ideal for the organization of  monthly lecture series about Hungarian subjects. They are held every year from October to June. Topics for these series included  Hungarian history, prominent Hungarians, the geography of Hungary, and a series entitled Hungarian Food for Body and Mind, that alternated monthly cooking classes with book discussions.

During the 2003 fall semester, the Museum was also proud to host, in partnership with the Cleveland State University Library, Judit Gerencsér, a Fulbright student from Szombathely, Hungary, who cataloged our archives. She also helped set up the Hungarian portion of a website at Cleveland State University, called Cleveland Memories, and gave many lectures on different Hungarian subjects, in particular on the consequences of Hungary’s joining the European Union.

In July 2004, the Museum, along with many other Cleveland Hungarian Organizations, co-hosted the Hungarian delegation to the International Children’s Games. We held a reception for the entire delegation in the Museum, and also hosted a meeting where the official representatives of the various cities had an opportunity to describe their respective home towns to the city leaders and businessmen of Cleveland.

We also reached out to other ethnic communities through our exhibit about the 1000-year Polish-Hungarian historic connection and friendship. This exhibit was then shown in the Polish Cultural Hall in Cleveland, and later traveled to Chicago and New York.

In May 2004, a delegation from the Museum’s committee called the “Friends of the American Revolutionary War Hero Colonel Michael Kovats de Fabricy of Hungary” traveled to Karcag, Hungary, to join in the celebration of  Colonel Michael Kovats Days in the town of his birth. It is through the efforts of the Museum’s  Kovats Committee, chaired by Mrs. Margaret Kotnik, and guided by Dr. August Pust, that Col. Kovats, known as the father of the American cavalry, was officially declared a foreign-born hero of the American War of Independence.

The delegation, consisting of Maria Friedrich president, Steve Szappanos vice-president, and Margaret Kotnik committee chair, presented the town with a small replica of the life-sized Kovats statue that was erected in the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, DC a year before. The delegation also presented a proclamation from U.S. Senator George Voinovich, commemorating the life and deeds of Col. Kovats, as well as a letter from Warren Miller of the U.S. Commission on the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

Today, the Museum is recognized as a center of Hungarian -American life in  Cleveland. As a result, many lectures and presentations are held in the Museum by local experts, as well as by visitors from Hungary, including statesmen, artists, religious groups and many others. For example the late Mr. William Koteles was presented with the highest order of the Republic of Hungary by the then Hungarian Secretary of Education, for his many charitable activities. The Museum also served as the site where U.S. Senator Voinovich greeted the youth bicycle group from Budapest, after they made a 1000 mile tour around Lake Erie in honor of the Hungarian Millicentennial. Many Cleveland groups, from Retirees’ Clubs to school children, also tour the Museum, and it serves as a meeting place for other Hungarian organizations.

Many dignitaries and statesmen have visited the Museum,  among others, Mr. Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary;  Hungary’s Ambassadors to Washington, including  the Hon. György Bánlaky, Géza Jeszenszky, András Simonyi, and György Szapáry. The Museum also welcomed  the late Dr. Otto von Habsburg, member of the European Parliament and the Hon. George Herbert Walker, US Ambassador to Budapest. Visitors also included  notable personalities of Hungary’s public life, in arts and sciences and politics, such as Dr. Sándor Szakály, Dr. Judit Havas, Valéria Kormos, and many others. They have all provided important insights into present day Hungary or gifted us with beautiful artistic performances.

In 2012, the Cleveland Hungarian Heritage Society became a member of the Diaspora Council. We were represented by Board member Edith Lauer at its 2012 meeting in Budapest and in 2013 by then President Eva Szabo.

The subject of the Diaspora is in the recent Strategic Plan of the Hungarian State. One of its main goals is to strengthen the Hungarian nation through offering citizenship to those in the Diaspora – that is in countries surrounding Hungary, Western Europe, the Americas and Australia – thereby reinforcing the Hungarian identity of these people. In other words, according to the new Hungarian Constitution enacted in 2010, all those Hungarians who live outside the borders of Hungary are considered to be part of National Hungary.

There are several areas within the Diaspora Council in which the Museum participates.  Please look here for further information.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Museum has truly become “the heartbeat of Hungarian culture in northeast Ohio”.