Museum of Romani Culture

Gallery of Czech Roma life from 1945 to the present in the permanent exhibition hall.
Gallery of Czech Roma life after the Second World War.

On the Long Road

The Roma, or gypsies as some people call them, are without a doubt the most well known ethnic minority group in the Czech Republic. Most travel guide books about the country will make some mention of them and visitors to the Czech lands will most certainly hear much said about the Roma after arriving in the country. Lamentably, much of what does get said about them tends to be quite uncomplimentary and often born of stereotypes and centuries of persecution which started nearly as soon as the ancestors of the Roma set foot in Europe sometime in the 14th century.

The subject of Roma in not just Czech but other European societies is a difficult and complicated one to approach that is much more than could be handled appropriately in a simple blog post.

Thankfully, the fascinating and insightful Museum of Romani Culture in Brno was brought into existence in the early 1990s as a way to bridge the cultural gap between the Roma and Czech people and create a greater understanding between them.

The museum has both permanent and temporary exhibition halls. The permanent exhibition is a very easy to follow chronologically arranged walk through with around 70 points that are expanded upon through the audio guide which you receive upon entering.

A diorama showing the historical nomadic lifestyle of the Roma ancestors.
A diorama showing the historical nomadic lifestyle of the Roma ancestors.

Unclear Origins

The first of six galleries which make up the museum’s permanent exhibition is dedicated to the geographic and ethnic origins of the Roma.

The arrival of the ancestors of the Roma in Europe is generally accepted to have taken place in the 14th century, though an exact year is elusive. For centuries even after they arrived, their exact point of origin was a mystery and a point of great debate. It was not until the 1760s, when a chance encounter in the Netherlands between a Hungarian theology student and medical students from India occured, that the mystery of Roma origins began to unfold.

The Hungarian theology student noted many physical and linguistic similarities between the Indian students and the Roma in his homeland and began in depth research of them upon his return to Hungary. Through this research, the origins of the Roma people could be, with certainty, traced back to India.

Based on linguistic development, it is estimated that the Roma began to leave India sometime in the 8th century; however, the exact reasons why they left remain a point of conjecture today.

A traditional Roma blouse and skirt.
A traditional Roma blouse and skirt.

Finding a Home

The second and third galleries of the permanent exhibition focus on the arrival and reception of the first Roma in Europe and their transition from a migratory to more settled way of life.

Here we see traditional Roma crafts such as metal smithing, which they developed a very good reputation for soon after arriving in Europe. Many examples of Roma metal work, ranging from cookware to weapons, can be seen on display in the second gallery.

The second gallery also shows some of the early persecution the Roma faced, primarily from the church at first, as a result of their migratory lifestyle as well as the use of magic which aroused the suspicions of the church, authorities and the populace.

A display of musical instruments typically associated with Roma music
A display of musical instruments typically associated with Roma music

The focus of the third gallery is the settlement, often forced, of the Roma in many European countries; their highly mobile way of life was frowned upon and several countries created laws to force the Roma to settle permanently.

This gallery also highlights the importance of music in Roma society and the rise to prominence in the early 20th century of many Roma musicians.

The Holocaust Room

A wood carving, by a Roma artist, in remembrance of the Roma Holocaust victims.
A wood carving, by a Roma artist, in remembrance of the Roma Holocaust victims.

The fourth gallery is dedicated to the Roma who perished in the Holocaust.

Sterility and emptiness fills this particular room. It’s design echoes the shower rooms of concentration camps. Large sections of the walls are covered in white ceramic tile and there is not a noise you can make, no matter how quiet, that doesn’t reverberate extensively. It is effectively haunting.

Many photos and documents are on display here. particularly with regards to the two Roma specific camps; Lety in South Bohemia and Hodonín in South Moravia. There is also a short video documentary made in the early 2000s available to view which features interviews with survivors of the Lety and Hodonín camps.

The Holocaust was a critical turning point for Roma in the Czech lands as over 90% of Czech Roma had died in the camps. In the early post war years, many Slovak Roma were forcibly relocated to Bohemia and Moravia. As such, from an ethnographic standpoint, the Czech Roma of the post war period were rather different than the Czech Roma of the pre war era.

Roma in popular culture.
Roma in popular culture.

Post War to the Present

The final two galleries in the permanent exhibition focus on contemporary aspects of Roma life. Persecution and marginalization under the Socialist regime and the formation of various national and international Roma cultural organizations is well covered.

Also covered is the presentation of the Roma people in popular culture at home and abroad as well as Roma contributions to the arts.

The final gallery is quite small and focuses on Roma life from the fall of Socialism in 1989 to the present day. The walls are covered with newspaper articles reflecting contemporary media and social attitudes toward the Roma.

A display dedicated to Roma in sport in the temporary exhibition hall.
A display dedicated to Roma in sport in the temporary exhibition hall.

Visiting the Museum and Learning More

Visiting this museum is not difficult at all as it’s quite close to Brno’s city centre and a quick walk from the closest public transit stop.

It is, however, located in a run down district of the city and on a street that many guide books will warn you against entering. Don’t let that stop you from visiting this museum. The location is quite appropriate given the high Roma population in that area and during daylight hours, when the museum operates, the district is not as dangerous as some guide books would have you believe. As long as a bit of caution and good sense is exercised, you should have no problems in the area during the daytime.

This link will take you to the museum’s web site where you can find more information about its history, exhibits and operating hours:

http://www.rommuz.cz/en

To learn more about the Roma, their culture and history in general; this web site carries a wealth of information:

http://romove.radio.cz/en

As the museum is not on a main street, this map link will help you locate it:

https://goo.gl/maps/uXRwL

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