This Is the Whole City

24 September 2021

We talk to Michał Niezabitowski about the museum which remembers and which looks towards the future.

The Historical Museum of the City of Kraków was renamed the Museum of Krakow a few years ago. Do you see this change as symbolic?
The Historical Museum of the City of Kraków was founded in 1899, a few years before Poland regained independence – at a time when being Polish was something of a throwback to the past. It’s true that Kraków was relatively independent within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, falling under the so-called Galician autonomy, but instances of truly Polish lifestyles were few and far between. This is why people commonly looked at history: it carried memories of freedom and independence, of a time when their lives weren’t controlled by external factors.
After many years – even though of course the 120 years since the museum’s foundation haven’t been exactly easy for our nation and society – the time came when we felt the institution must no longer just reach for the past, but it must be an active participant in shaping our present reality. Of course we are always linked to the past in one way or another: without a clear interpretation of history, we have no chance of building a future. As museum curators, we are responsible for the culture of remembrance and we have no intention of policing how people think about the past – but we are here and now, and the Museum of Krakow exists to shape our city today. The change has had a positive effect on how we work.

Kraków Nativity Scene Contest, photo by Andrzej Janikowski

The exhibition Co-Existence is a living commentary on our everyday reality.
The exhibition aims to examine how we are coping with the pandemic and considers how the city and its residents are handling these difficult, unpredictable times. However, we refer to our “here and now” in myriad ways. For example, the Lajkonik tradition involves contemporary activities which shape the custom together with the residents of the Zwierzyniec district. We have always worked closely with nativity-scene makers. One of the most important elements in the nativity scene tradition is not to ritually repeat what has been done by past generations of artists, but to think about how we perceive our city today and how we continue to forge its “golden legend” anew. The communities of local artisans are constantly evolving and developing in terms of their relationship with the city.

Co-Exisetnce exhibition at the Podgórze Musuem, photo by Kamil Karski

Is the Cross House the perfect venue for this kind of exploration of Kraków’s traditions?
It is going to serve as our Centre of Interpretation of Non-material Heritage, not just as a space for documenting past practices but as a depository of non-material heritage where all contributors will feel at home. We are mainly aiming to provide a space for creative energy. Nativity-scene makers don’t create their constructions for profit, which in any case would be pitiful given the materials and work that goes into them; if they see themselves as winners, it is because they feel fulfilled. Sometimes this fulfilment spans generations, as is the case for the Markowski, Malik, Czyż and Gillert families. Every year we are sorry to have to say goodbye to any of these eminent creators, but we are also delighted that new ones continue to emerge. The Cross House aims to be a space for all these threads of emotions and energies to intertwine.
We should work to preserve the depository of Cracovian traditions, and provide a home for their custodians to share with local residents. A city cannot exist without ties and connections. As a museum, we want to participate in creating a community and supporting its inner relationships, because – as the pandemic has reminded us – they tend to fade away unless they are cultivated. And what better space than a common home?

The Cross House, 1958, photo by Jerzy Kłysik

On one hand, the Cross House is an intimate venue, but on the other, the museum has numerous branches and attendance was around 1.5 million before the pandemic. How does the museum bring together treasures of history with some of its most difficult themes?
The key element is diversity. We can define heritage in myriad ways. Heritage can be joyful and laudable, but it can also be problematic and painful. Such is the process of legacy and we cannot break it down. Alongside the traditions mentioned above and antique treasures such as the Royal Sigismund Bell, recalling Poland’s heyday, Kraków was also the site to the tragedy of the Plaszow concentration camp during the Second World War. All these things happened, and they comprise our city’s past; we cannot and must not deny any of those parts. If the Museum of Krakow is the largest municipal institution of its kind in Poland and one of the main ones in Europe, it is the result of an experiment: instead of building new museums focused on heritage, we are creating a common denominator for all these elements in the Museum of Krakow. We now have more than 20 branches, all under the motto “One museum, thousands of stories”.

We are talking at the Krzysztofory Palace which has recently opened its doors to visitors following renovation works. What do you think about the improvements?
First and foremost, I am incredibly impressed with the quality of the renovations. I should mention Marek Cempla who was the first architect to start planning the work. The palace is no less palatial, and enfilade suites were restored on the first and second floors. Where possible, polychromes have been refurbished to showcase the architectural themes typical of the building’s 13th century origins. We also found surprises, such as the polychrome with a motif of Apollo’s muses – an unexpected discovery in a room formerly serving as the director’s office. The office has been renamed the Muse Room, and we were reminded that the word “museum” (museion) originally described the “seat of muses”. Another notable element is the return of St Christopher to the building’s façade – perhaps the largest statue on Kraków’s tenement houses, which symbolises the way we think about this section of the Main Market Square. Without realising, the little boy St Christopher carries across the river is Jesus Himself. This is something of a symbol for us, because museums are institutions which carry positive values across the turbulent waters of history. Additionally, we have developed state-of-the-art museum spaces in the building which will serve a range of functions.

Krzysztofory Palace, Apollo’s muses, photo by Magdalena Rusek-Karska

Such as..?
The Krzysztofory Palace will no longer be defined by permanent exhibitions. While from December the entire first floor will host a new exhibition telling stories of Kraków, it will not be the only or even the most important axis of our vision. The Krzysztofory Palace has many spaces which have become venues for meetings, as we have come to realise how important these are, especially since people come to museums not just to see exhibitions but also to talk. We need large and small rooms, an educational space for children, we have a special room for the jury of the nativity scene competition to provide them with a parliamentary aura… We have a beautiful library and reading room. We have also opened the entire passage from the Main Market Square to the palace’s arcaded courtyard where visitors can stop for coffee and delicious Cracovian snacks. Open between 8am and 11pm, the passage is also home to the booking office and museum shop. We were keen to open these spaces in July to return the palace to the city before it becomes “shrouded” with the latest exhibition.

Krzysztofory Palace, Baltazar Fontana’s room, photo by Magdalena Rusek-Karska

So what can we expect from the exhibition in December?
Its key element is stories. We believe strongly that the city is maintained by community, and community is maintained by stories. It will not be a chronological narrative – we want to present Kraków through individual people and episodes. An element of this intricate structure of Kraków was Dzidzianna – a fortune-teller who was a steadfast presence at the Main Market Square for decades. The exhibition will also feature a reversed nativity scene: as visitors enter the room, they will feel like tiny figurines… There will be stories of various professors – Kraków is a university city, after all. We will explore the history of Cracovian costume, and of course there will be space for local legends, starting from the Wawel Dragon… Olga Tokarczuk once said that the contemporary world needs a “tender narrator”, and we want to be a “tender museum” of Kraków: this is how we want to talk about our city.

Dr. Michał Niezabitowski
Historian, museologist, cultural manager, director of the Museum of Krakow, researcher at the Pedagogical University in Kraków and president of the Polish Museologist Association. Historian of Kraków, and promoter and interpreter of the city’s material and non-material heritage.

A version of this article appears in Autumn edition of “Kraków Culture” magazine.

Photos courtesy of the Museum of Krakow.

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