In the last decades of the 19th century Subotica was swept by a wave of cultural enthusiasm, which had actually started a few decades earlier on the territory of the Monarchy and historical Hungary. It is quite natural that the first collection-assembling efforts were made in educational institutions, namely grammar schools, and this is also where the first collections were compiled. In the beginning these were primarily numismatic collections. Subotica was no exception to this: in the academic year of 1874/75 Imre Balás, a Latin and History teacher at the Subotica Main Grammar School (Szabadkai Főgimnázium), in the local papers called citizens on collecting “coins made of any kind of metal”, and donating them to the Grammar School collection.
István Iványi, another enthusiastic teacher also took part in expanding the numismatic collection. He created further collections and among other things he assembled the antiquities, that is to say ‘antique findigs’.
This exceptional teacher also published the first archaeological review related to Subotica in 1883, which appeared in the Main Grammar School Annual Report (István Iványi: Antiquities of Subotica and the Prehistory of our Region. The Main Grammar School Annual Report. Academic Year 1882/83. Subotica, 1883). With some pride we must note that this was the first review of its kind in Bácska.
One of the reasons why Iványi wrote this study could have been the fact that in 1882, behind the cemetery in Senta, on the territory of the brickyard owned by Titusz Mácskovits, the first major archaeological findings were discovered: ancient bronze objects in a clay pot weighing about fifty kilograms. Even though only a small number of these became part of the Grammar School collection, this was considered the largest and most significant Bronze Age finding in Bácska for a long time. Around this time, a project that was initiated to celebrate a historic event boosted historical research all over Hungary. For the millenarian celebration to be held in 1896 – which was the thousandth anniversary of the settlement of the Árpádian Magyars on the territory of Hungary – most major towns endeavoured to make a record of their own past. István Iványi therefore compiled the history of the town, the only monograph ever written so far, which was first published in 1886.
The Grammar School collection was then supervised by Ödön Góhl, who became a well-known numismatic researcher a few years later, and was appointed by the Hungarian Ministry the Hungarian National Museum Coin and Antiquity Archive Assistant in Budapest. Not long after that, he became Head of the Antiquity Archive, and was elected regular member of the National Antiquity and Anthropological Association some time later.
Then, in 1892, the Public Library Association was established in Subotica, which was actually the Municipal Library. This institution among others dealt with collecting objects of historical and other importance – this might have been the reason why, only three years after its establishment, these parallel activities were joined, and the Association was renamed Public Library and Museum Association of Subotica.
The first president of the Association was attorney György Guln, the chairman of the first bank in Subotica; in 1893 he was followed by attorney Zsigmond Farkas, the president of the National Casino. The directorate of the Association consisted of litterateur Izidor Milkó as vice-president, grammar school teacher István Iványi as librarian, and Chief Archivist Károly Varga as librarian assistant.
In the mid-90s of the 19th century György Bibó-Bige, a new and very talented teacher succeeded István Iványi, who gradually went completely blind as a result of an incurable eye disease. Even though Bibó-Bige originally graduated in Hungarian and Latin languages, he was also familiar with the Greek language, as well as history and geography. In a very short time he began playing a significant role in the cultural life of Subotica. Among others, in 1901 he published a writing titled Prehistory – Mankind Until the Beginning of History. He was also the first to open a quasi-archaeological exhibition in Subotica in the years after the turn of the century.
Meanwhile, in 1894, a unique set of artifacts was discovered on the territory of the above mentioned Mácskovits brickyard, on a spot that is today unknown. In a so called hive-shaped grain cellar there were 18 pots of different type, size and quality. These were mostly large pots from the Sarmatian age, and were completely intact. Miraculously, these easy to damage large pots somehow survived the two World Wars of the 20th century, and today the public can view them in a number of Serbian museums.
By 1906, when the activities of the Association ceased, a remarkable amount of museum- and library material had been accumulated. The activities ceased for several reasons: the enthusiasm of the members had decreased, municipal and state subsidies had been cut, there was no appropriate room and trained staff, and what is more, several items had disappeared from the collection. Despite this not too glorious past, Oszkár Vojnich donated several hundreds of ethnographic items he collected on his trips through Asia and Africa to the symbolically existing museum of Subotica in 1913.
In accordance with current practices, that same year György Bibó-Bige conducted a regular archaeological excavation in the Kelebia-puszta, at an existing medieval site.
Despite the above mentioned reasons it is still not quite clear why the activities of the museum actually ceased. Massive confusion arose when the final decision was made on building the new town hall designed by Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab – which was actually planned to replace the old building – regarding the placement of the various offices, services and other activities which had to leave the location temporarily. In our opinion this is what happened to the collection of the Subotica Museum as well; this is the reason why contemporary reports refer to packing and temporary placement on various locations, because everyone believed that, once the new town hall is built in a few years’ time, everything will get back to its place – including the museum. Today we know that historical circumstances interfered.
The end of World War I brought changes that affected the whole empire, including these fields. Within the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the competencies of Hungarian Ministries, and thus tasks related to antiquities as well, were taken over by institutions of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (former Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, renamed in 1929 the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and in 1943 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia).
As a result of cultural politics of the time the activities of the museum were terminated. Luckily, owing to a few enthusiastic people, part of the items belonging to the inventory of the former museum (the exact number is unknown), survived the decades of neglect and World War II in the Grammar School – as part of the collection – and in various rooms of the town hall. Mijo Mandić, appointed to look after the assets of the former public library and museum association in 1918, played a crucial role in preserving these Later he became director of the museum.
During World War II (1941–1944), when Subotica was temporarily annexed to Hungary, the staff of the Archaeological Institute of Szeged University attempted to revive the activities of the museum, but without success.
Even though there were several private collections of national significance in the town, such as those of Dr. Mihály Prokesch or Dr. Jovan (Joca) Milekić, it was only later that they played an important role, after the Municipal Museum had been established. The latter presented his rich collection of artistic and historical materials on several occasions during the 1930s, but the fine art collection in Palić opened in 1949 under the name of Gallery of Bácska (Bácskai Galéria) is the most important one related to him. The items of this exceptional collection are kept in the gallery of the Matica Srpska, in the Museum of Vojvodina (Vajdasági Múzeum), and in the Fine Art- and History Department of the Municipal Museum.