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The First Museum of Alba Iulia

Among the earliest cultural societies to support the establishment of museums in Transylvania was the one established in Alba Iulia in 1886. The local museum opened its gates in 1888 offering to the public rich collections of Roman archaeology, natural sciences, ethnography and numismatics. The collections were in the custody of Adalbert Cserni, custodian and director of the museum. The museum earned an undeniable role of pillar of local cultural life during the three decades of existence. Cserni’s death and then the transfer of the museum to the Romanian authorities after 1918 have reoriented according to completely different historical demands.

In the cultural atmosphere of the second half of the nineteenth century there was a strong drive for establishing associations for supporting the opening of local museums. Such a society was established in Alba Iulia in 1886, with the name The Society of History, Archaeology, and Natural Sciences. The foundation of a museum was justified at least in part by the richness and beauty of the Roman monuments spread all over the city. The desire was commended by the imminent danger of destruction of the vestiges preserved in the soil of the city represented by the frenzy of the local population, which sold archaeological objects found in the soil, ranging from coins that were melted to simple bricks recycled as pavement for modern buildings or construction material for baking ovens in various bakeries. The mission of establishing the first museum was given to Adalbert Cserni (1842-1916). He was appointed curator of the museum in 1887 and in 1910 he was director.

According to the approved statutes, the museum of the society included a library, the sections of archives, belles arts, industrial (applied) arts, archaeology, numismatics, ethnography, and natural sciences. The new institution was opened in 1888 and functioned at the beginning in two rather inadequate rooms of a building from Lipoveni neighborhood. This situation changed in 1900, when the city authorities conceded the request made by Cserni and allocated a different building, in Maieri neighborhood (currently “Avram Iancu” General School), which had five rooms: a large hall for the exposition, two rooms for deposits (opened for the public as well), a library, and an office. In 1905, a spacious room for the exterior lapidarium was added. The large number of Roman stone objects required the enlargement of the protected space by the construction of a timber terrace for sheltering the exterior lapidarium spreading like a true field of ruins in the spacious courtyard.

The most important objects of the museum were the monuments of sculpture, the inscriptions and artifacts discovered in Apulum and the Roman wax tablets originating in the gold mines of Alburnus Maior (today Roșia Montană). There were prehistoric, post-Roman, and medieval objects as well. After its rearrangement in 1905-1906, the museum reached its desired form. The collections on display, together with the rich exposition of natural sciences, were exposed in a modern fashion and were organized chronologically and thematically. In order to provide a fit environment, the exposition halls were painted in Pompeian purple red, imitating Roman interiors. The inventory of the first museum registered 622 archaeological objects, 1000 coins, and a library containing 1000 books. The collections developed through donations provided mostly by the members of the association, amateur archaeologists or institutions, such as Batthyaneum Library.

The visit time was on Saturdays only, from 15.00 to 18.00, however, the people willing to visit could also arrange visits on different days. From its inauguration in 1888 to its transfer under the Romanian administration, in about three decades, the museum had garnered around 10.000 visitors. Most of them were pupils coming from schools in Alba Iulia, Aiud, Târgu Mureș, Deva, Cluj, Arad, and Orăștie, who visited in groups, accompanied by teachers. Gradually, the professional profile of the visitors diversified and came to see various professionals, including rural population from the vicinity of Alba Iulia. It should be emphasized that personalities of science and public figures coming from Germany, England or Italy have visited the museum as well.

The activity of the old museum and of the society supporting it was not confined to these aspects, but it also initiated the publication of one of the earliest scientific journals of Transylvania, between 1888 and 1917. The journal published studies of archaeology, history, natural sciences, and philology. One of the authors publishing almost without interruption was Adalbert Cserni, the custodian of the local museum, who published in the journal the results of his archaeological excavations in the Roman cities of Apulum.

The first stage in the existence of the museum of Alba Iulia finished as a result of major events whose unfortunate combination threatened its very existence: the outbreak of World War One in 1914, followed by the death Adalbert Cserni in 1916. The shutdown of the institution was imminent. Starting from 1916, part of the patrimony was transferred to Budapest and on 22 January 1919, the museum was closed. On 8 August 1920, the museum was reopened by the Romanian administration, However, its functioning during the interwar period depended on new political and historical conditions. The appointment of Ion Berciu as director of the museum, in 1938, inaugurated a new stage of development of the institution at local and even international level.

The museum of Alba Iulia, one of the first established in Transylvania, is heavily indebted to the efforts made by Adalbert Cserni, its first custodian and director. One century after his death, the specialist still honor and cherish one of the most beautiful and praised cultural initiatives taking place at local level. The values set forth by Cserni are still valid today. Unfortunately, the issues confronting the tireless naturalist and archaeologist are still around. (C.I.P.)