Technology Toyland visits newly reopened National Technical Museum

Michael Franco

Written by Michael Franco Published on 22.02.2011 16:39:15 (updated on 22.02.2011) Reading time: 6 minutes

The National Technical Museum has just reopened after its first revamp in over 60 years. Michael Franco checked out the new-and-improved space.

OK. I suppose I should come clean at the beginning of this review: I’m a geek. Not so much the kind that makes billions of dollars by writing code or building super-duper firewalls for governments. Just the kind that gets really turned on by seeing old technology. All that brass and wood, all those flywheels, the romantic shapes of old cars, the sexy lines of … OK, I’ll stop. You get the idea.

So attending the grand opening of the newly revamped National Technical Museum (Národní Technické Museum) was, for me, akin to visiting a peep show. I came home and told my wife all about it however (something that maybe it wouldn’t have done if it was a real peep show), and she didn’t seem very enthused as I went on and on about astronomy, steam engines and box cameras.

So, if you are inclined to be interested in the history of science as mostly told through machines, the NTM will seem like heaven to you. In fact, I think if you even have a passing interest in things that spun, shook and shimmied from days of old, you’ll really enjoy a few hours here. If planes, trains and automobiles don’t get your motor running though, you might want to pass.

Assuming you’re of the former school, you’ll want to give yourself about four hours to spend in the clean, fresh, revamped spaces of the museum. My advice is to start on the fourth floor with the Architecture Room and then work your way down. That’s because, for me, this was probably the least stimulating of all the exhibits, so the rest of the museum only gets more fascinating afterwards. That’s not to say it isn’t well done–just that I prefer iron and steam to scale models and drawings. However, someone with finer sensibilities could no doubt spend a good chunk of time here.

The room features many scale models of famous Czech buildings such as the Bat´a building in Brno, the Czechoslovak pavilion at the ’58 world EXPO, and the villa of film director Věra Chytilová. These models are encased in glass on top of tables that often feature a series of drawers down their sides. Once I realized that I was allowed to open these drawers without one of the many Museum Watchers smacking my wrist with an architect’s ruler, I had a good time viewing the sketches, drawings and paintings they contained – each of which had a lose relation to the model above them.  

Because I don’t really know my balustrade from my buttress, I soon left this room to visit the Astronomy exhibit. This room was (in one not-very-sophisticated word) cool. The lighting is dim and not only sets the perfect mood, it also allows dramatic use of small spotlights to make some of the equipment on display shine like the stars they are.

The entryway has a curved timeline of astronomy beaming out of the wall in a purplish light, as well as a small nook where an excellent short film explaining the history of telescopes shows on a loop. I ducked in for a second and stayed until the end. But then again, I’m a geek.

To the left of the entry is what I think constitutes the most beautiful collection in the museum. There is a dazzling array of astronomical clocks, telescopes, and even an astrological tellurium (a type of zodiac clock) from the mid-1800s. Everything is polished to a degree that makes the equipment look like it just came out of the workshop, yet some of the items date to the 16th century and were in fact used by Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe. Beyond this is a series of suspended wood, metal and even plastic telescopes that spans the centuries. The tall glass cases throughout the room also contain surveyors’ tools, rudimentary adding machines and navigational equipment. There are also a few interactive exhibits that let you try your hand at amateur astronomy.

The interactivity in this room is one of the few such examples in the museum. NTM representative Jiří Zeman explained: “The main attraction of this museum is its unique collections. It’s not a playground though. We are trying to be very open to people who come to the museum and we try our best with their wishes. But we are not a science center. We are the keepers of the European heritage of how technology came to be. Here you may find some things you may never find anywhere around the world, so that is the main difference between us and science centers.”

That’s not to say that you can’t get close to the exhibits. In the Printing Exhibit room, where the history of printing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is on display, I had to constantly resist the urge to push buttons and pull levers because I was in touching distance of everything–I was even able to stick my head inside a huge web printing press. You can view machines that made type out of molten metal, offset press machines, and, of course, the giant web press. The museum plans to run the presses on occasion to literally bring history to life so I may return to pull a lever or two (if they’ll let me).

From printing words to printing images–next up is a visit to the Photography Exhibit. The long room is arranged to depict the history of the recorded static image from the earliest dauggerotypes (they apparently have one of the first ever made in the world) to digital photography. Along the way you’ll see a large box camera, a nice array of accordion cameras, and a good selection of modern film cameras. This is the smallest exhibit in the museum, but it makes a big impression.

Hopefully you’ve saved enough fuel by this point, because working your way from top to bottom at the NTM saves the biggest and most impressive room for last–the Transport Exhibit.

In the museum’s revamp, this room was redesigned to allow a generous amount of filtered natural light to flood the gigantic space, which has two locomotive cars among the vehicles on the floor. You’ll also find vintage Tatras and BMWs and an assortment of other muscle cars, convertibles and sport coupes. Arranged around the edges of the room and accessible by a series of balconies (which I could see getting pretty crowded during peak visiting times), is a collection of classic motorbikes, scooters and bicycles. And, if you can take your eyes off all of the great wheeled wonders that fill the room and look up, you’re treated to a sky full of hanging planes–including a 1945 Spitfire.

All in all, it’s an impressive assemblage of technical history that now, thanks to the revamp, has an equally impressive home.
National Technical Museum
Kostelní 42/1320
Praha 7 – Holešovice

English language website

Monday: closed; Tues-Sun: 10.00 – 18.00; Every fourth Thursday in the month: 10.00 – 20.00.

Full fee: CZK 170. Reduced rates of CZK 90 for senior citizens (over 70), holders of ZTP, ISIC and ITIC cards, Staff Cards, children aged between 6 and 15, and secondary school and university students upon presentation of a student card. Three-day passes also available.

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