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Ethnological Museum in Krakow


                   The Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum of Krakow   Muzeum Etnograficzne im. Seweryna Udzieli w Krakowie) was established in 1902.

Identity crisis of a museum

The Ethnology museum within the HERMES project presented a chance to all participants of the project to reflect the impact upon a museum once the framework conditions have changed. After the Iron curtain fell and the Communist regime no longer in power, more pronounced market forces came into play. All of a sudden, there was no longer a central polibureau and a powerful Ministry of Culture dictating in which direction to develop in and how to organize exhibitions. The museum was simply obliged to uphold a certain myth and narrative about the Polish peasant which would fit in with the terms as dictated by the Socialist scheme of things. Interesting enough its vice director Andrzej Rataj reflects upon still other and not only recent upheavals which have made Poland into what it is today. Naturally museums and the persons working for them struggle all the time not to give in completely to this or other demand especially if it comes from above and outside the scope of the museum and its obligation towards visitors and scholars. Many well known and respected scholars have worked in conjunction with this museum to bring out a truer narrative about the ethnological roots of Polish rural life and culture. They did so with an enormous dedication to their work, but once these framework conditions changed, a new and enormous upheaval had to be faced. Thus the two presentations by Andrzej Rataj, one at the Hermes Symposium and the other at a workshop about museums in Volos, and the visit to the museum itself reflect a part of what changes this museum has been going through  to go through and is still going through. It appears as if all these changes amount to an identity crisis. It is something all museums face in this challenging modern world also known as the digital age.

- Hatto Fischer


The Ethnographic Museum "Seweryn Udziela" in Krakow and the HERMES Project

by Andrzej Rataj



                             Andrzej Rataj speaking at HERMES 2nd Symposium

                             held in Krakow 2005

The Ethnographic Museum named after Seweryn Udziela in Krakow is one of three Polish partners participating in the HERMES project. Of the three, it has the smallest project budget, although this does not necessarily reflect its needs. On the contrary, the use of new media in our work is very necessary and desired on a much greater scale than the current budget might suggest. The simple reason why our budget is so small is because we cannot afford higher financial participation through the museum. We have therefore had to be very selective in our choices and limit ourselves only to the most reasonable plan of action.

Our museum is about 100 years old. Its official opening dates back to 1911, however, the beginnings of the collection, the idea of an institution that would document and popularise folk culture, are much older and are rooted in the 19th century.

As with many other Polish cultural institutions, our museum has had to struggle with enormous obstacles. As similar institutions were being founded in other European countries, Poland did not exist as an independent country – it was partitioned by its three neighbours, Russia, Prussia and Austria who, for obvious reasons, were not interested in promoting Polish science and culture. This political situation is the root cause of many limitations and delays in the development of Polish cultural institutions. The short twenty year period of national independence between the First and Second World War was not sufficient to correct this situation. The Second World War, the enormous losses it caused and the ensuing totalitarian communist regime were likewise not conductive to the development of Poland's own culture. Our possessions and achievements should be udged in the light of this historical perspective.


                                Cultural artefact in Ethnographical museum

Our collection consists of some 80,000 artefacts and although this may not be much in comparison with similarly-sized Western European museums, it is one of the largest and most valuable ethnographic collections in Poland. Our specialist library of over 30,000 volumes is very important for both scientific and educational purposes. The veritable treasure chest of materials documenting Polish folk culture and art is compiled in our archives where over 300,000 varied objects such as handwritten notes, photographs, glass negatives, drawings etc. are accumulated. These materials were utilised in the work of many researchers, not only those associated with our museum. Recently, interest in these materials has broaded to include not only professionals but also lay people, for example, those intrested in genealogy, the forgotten, local culinary specialities and the like. In the last ten years the demand for making these materials more accessible to the public in general has increased dramatically.

This increased demand places our museum in a very different position. The materials described above are unique and fragile; they need to be treated with the utmost care and their physical handling needs to be minimised. At the same time, it is our task as a museum to popularise our collection and to meet growing public interest. For a long time, limited finances had made a solution to this problem impossible. The possibilities offered by the HERMES project, although limited, have helped us start the process of modernising our archives. The main elements of the process are:

  1. The reorganisation of our archive and improvement of the storage conditions

  2. Improved working conditions for the personnel in the archive and the expansion of their duties to include digitalisation of the collection.

  3. Purchase of the equipment necessary for the digitalisation.

  4. Improved conditions under which the public can access the archives by computerising the reading room and equipping it with ergonomic workstations.

The plan outlined above covers the basic necessities. However, without the project HERMES, a significant part of our work would still be performed in the 19th century fashion which, although not devoid of a certain charm, would put our collection in serious jeopardy not to mention the discomfort of our users. Our participation in HERMES is, therefore, less about employing cutting edge media in our work with heritage, and instead focuses on the practical improvement and modernisation of our working conditions through the use of the new media. HERMES has allowed us to start the modernisation process and I do not doubt that is but the first of many steps towards further modernisation, possibly with the help of similar projects.

Source: Andrzej Rataj, “The Ethnographic Museum „Seweryn Udziela“ in Krakow and the HERMES project” in: Heritage and Media in Europe – Contributing towards Integration and Regional Development, editors: Dieter Hassenpflug, Burkhardt Kolbmüller, Sebastian Schröder-Esch. Weimar: Bauhaus University Press, 2006, p. 59 - 60



Digitalization of Cultural Heritage - Museum workshop Volos 2005

Andrzej Rataj, Vice Director of Ethnographic Museum Krakow




Andrjez Rataj revealed at the museum workshop held in Volos in what precarious situation the museum finds itself, at best in a phase of transition, at worst a kind of unresolved identity crisis. He stated following points:


Discussion points:

Vasilis Sgouris: what happens to museums if the framework conditions change? The museum must adapt, however, to what the public wants if it is to continue to survive as an institution. Obviously there is a kind of supply / demand relationship in need of being understood as basis for museum policy.

Jorgios Gangas: certainly the revenue from entry ticket is too little if only 1 Euro but as Andrzej Rataj replied the Polish society is not very rich and in particular those who tend to go to museums will not have much money to spend.

Carol Becker: the museum offers a rich experience from what can be seen on the slides, therefore, it would be important not to polarize the discussion into here traditional, there modern ways of representation; clearly some management decisions will have to be taken to secure a viable basis for the museum.

Hatto Fischer: the identity crisis of the museum to which Andrej Rataj refers to is a spill over effect of the former times when under Communist rule everything had to be accessible to the worker, so the standard phrase, while culture was really a matter of the elite and still legitimized as something like an extra educational system for the masses of workers. Nowadays the worker has been replaced by the ‘citizen’ even though we know that those who go to museums for different reasons do so out of numerous reasons, curiosity being but one motivation.

Carol Becker: Interesting is if a museum succeeds in being ‘seductive’ and thereby speaks to something deeper and more unconscious than what ordinary media languages are aiming at. If the visual effect is seductive, people will wonder why they were affected by that item or this document of the past. If this motivates them to inquire further, then the museum experience will have been worthwhile.

General comment: about ICOM stipulating any museum must have at least one day entry free and the problems it creates. For instance, in Zakopane, a famous ski resort, one could expect the people who go there, that they would spend some money; but when it comes to the museum, it is only crowded on the day when entrance is free. And not only that, for they have even the problem of crowd control i.e. the situation can get easily out of hand and turn nasty especially when people have to be turned away at the entrance.



Visit to and reception at Ethnographical Museum Krakow - 28th October 2005



      Hatto Fischer, Jan Brüggemeier, Svetlana Dicheva and Andrzej Rataj 

The participants of the Second Symposium of the HERMES project visited the Ethnographical Museum on 28th of October 2005, first to see the collection and then to enjoy a reception made graciously possible by the museum.

Vice director Dr. Andrzej Rataj gave an introduction to the museum filled with many wood carved figures depicting not only rural life, but showing what rich imagination made up rural life, and this in part to express a strong sense of humanity with humour.



                                   The significance of long beards

 Types of costumes, uniforms and official clothes worn by religious figures


                             Religion depicted as a thorny issue

The role of religion in rural life can leave one wondering how religious people were really in those times, and what was always another mark of the Polish countryside until recently, namely the drunken farmer being taken home by his horse pulling the cart all alone while his master, so to speak, was slumped into a bundle of fatigue, obsession and innocence. This tone was struck naturally much more by the so called naive painters and artists as shown by a collection in Warszawa.


                            A cross illustrated horizontally and vertically

Andrzej Rataj stressed one point over and again while showing participants around: the need of museums for advisory groups. He thinks that this need is often not seen or recognized but still of great importance. If museums are to carry on with their mission of telling a different story differently from the usual media language, then there is a need for deeper going concepts and an understanding for the value of the objects presented.


                                                Andrzej Rataj 


                                     Georgios Gangas, Vasilis Sgouris


 Any visit to a museum should also include some fun, afterall this makes sense when memories thereof are build on unforgetable moments which count when not everything is taken over serious and at the same time there is interest in learning how such a museum manages to operate under changed framework conditions. The discussions proved to be but the beginning of a growing curiousity as to how even a museum with modest means can make its exhibition be attractive to visitors and researchers alike, and still realize where are its short comings given a past which imposes not only over time, but as well structurally speaking, multiple constraints. That concerns above all in which direction should such a museum develop in. In the case of the Ethnological museum it seemed two different strands existed after the fall of Communism and the Berlin wall in 1989 to mark a regime change of a special kind. One was the need to adapt to new financial conditions and the costs involved when seeking to digitalize the collection in order to make especially the archive more accessible. The other is reflected in the organization of the museum for it seems that there was no longer such a thing as a cohesive whole but instead sections of the museum split up into semi or full autonomous units with people working in them no longer in touch or in communication with the people in the other departments. For the inner communication process of the museum that spells a special problem.


 Svetla from Sofia, Bulgaria                      Vasilis Sgouris from Volos, Greece



 Some reflections are possible when seeing such a man with a large hat. Where did he get this idea to wear such a hat? What was the thought when the artist carved out of wood such a figure? The combination of the two encompasses a poetic reality with even the arms and hands entailing a definite gesture. There are stances taken and the position within rural society assumed due to status. The wearing of the hat may suffice to indicate having a broad influence while suggesting so much light shines upon him that he needs to protect his head in the shade. His eyes are not down cast but where does his glance go to? There seems some puzzle, a kind of negative wonder, whether now looking back or not, it can mean a stark statement needs to be made in so many words, but then future begs to be more precise. For afterall everyone knows wealth does not last if not taken care of wisely.



       Svetlana, Vid, Katarzyna and Pawel taking a rest on the tilestove bench



                               Black smith

The role of a museum is to preserve things which no one could remember if they disappear forever. In the post war years until the coming of the car, and especially in Poland much longer, many used horses to draw carriages, waggons and agricultural vehicles. These horses required shoes made out of iron. The black smith was an integral part of every village life. When the red hot iron came out of the fire and was put on the ambross, then with extended tongues to hold them stead fast so that the hammer could come down hard to give it shape. This world of direct sense impressions for every child growing up is all but gone. And so children and youth no longer see in their immediate surroundings work being done. It was Valery who said working with fire is the highest art, so therefore everyone could stand to learn to see how the horse shoe took shape under the hammer. Also holding the horse still while the shoe was exchanged, that required a double skill if nature and this art were to be linked in such a way, that useful work could be done in the fields and on the roads already build to ease transportation. A black smith made naturally not only horse shoes. His skills to handle iron and copper including the making of fences, gates, door handles etc. It is a world now nearly gone and only to be experienced when visiting a museum like the Ethnological one in Krakow.

This example can be linked as to what Thomas Kuhn observed in his book called 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions'. Innovation takes place by making observations in daily life. Parmenides in his fragment of poem left behind observes how the man is taken by the goddess out of the city, and as the axe begins to turn faster the moment the horses start pulling the chariot, then smoke rises out of the hole through which the axe is turning. Alone this observation allows for conclusions about friction and what needs to be done to solve this problem. Likewise Thomas Kuhn says we used to observe the transmission of energy when watching a steam locomotive come slowly into motion. Heat would rise up out of the chimney and the the wheels begin to turn slowly as the extended petal like links would turn increasingly faster. Energy translated into motion could be seen and observed. All that changes, so Thomas Kuhn, when a modern intercity train rushes past, for then the only transmission of energy is a small spark when the iron touches the over head wires.

 Spirits of the countryside

Rural life was very rich in the imagination. At the same time, there were ghosts with time depicted with a sicle used to cut the grass or wheat but also time. Hence this transfigured naturally into a figure representing death, and resonated with drawings by Dürer about the apocalypical rider. And not only war tore through villages. It could be as well natural disasters or the pest. Fear was often higher than all fences. The people sought refuge in all kinds of beliefs and in distinctions between evil and holy spirits then were haunted by their own superstitions evoked or deployed not by all, but by those who had something 'evil' in mind, may it be out of revenge or as any cunning person would do to undermine the social structure if felt to be directed against one. People can take revenge in many forms. That needs to be explored further when seeking to understand what rich phantasy filled the evening hours when it was dark outside and inside only the fire crackled. And it should be remembered when someone would walk at night through a dark forest, he or she had to be brave for the slightest sound, such as the crack of a branch underneath some heavy step, could make the imagination fly to the worst conceivable image and make that danger appear larger than what it was in reality. For could have been spotted the source of the sound, then it would be possible to ascertain it was made by a squirrel rather than by a big monster like elephant or something worse. The fact that the senses were uncontrolled especially at night, they could race ahead and out of bounds from any kind of perception possible during broad daylight. This is why Jean Amery in his essay about 'how much home does a person need' concluded you need only so much home - a sense of feeling secure - as you don't need it, because you can still talk with reality as based on sense perception and validation possibilities of what is seen within a common language shared with the others. By touching upon common meanings and trusting the same is meant, then this common feeling and meaning would allow for a sense of being at home i.e. at ease in such a natural surrounding. Thus many of the relicts created in the rural countryside resonate with this search for a common meaning to be trusted both as meaning to be shared with all and meaning to be ascertained by own sense perception. For what counts is this trust in the dialectic between seeing and how we name things as belonging to the same universe, namely nature being outside the social world, and inside the common ground which begins by sitting around the fire and telling stories.


                        Part of the collection: icons, religious relics

The multiple objects seen during a short visit require a return over and again in order to relate them to the real stories about the Polish peasantry and what occurred in that realm over time.


                                              Jan Brüggemeier, coordinator of HRN

Jan Brüggemeier coordinated heritageradio, and in this capacity he developed together with the others as well online journals, one of which was about museums and which had the significant title: "are museums only digging in the past?" He posed that question in reflection of the HERMES orientation towards cultural heritage retaining as well 'memories of the future' as made explicit by the philosopher Ernst Bloch.





Geza Valyi from Hungarian Radio together with his wife - a reflection of how visitors may enjoy the collection of the museum together.



Finally a reception in the museum




Instytucja kultury województwa małopolskiego

Plac Wolnica 1, 31-066 Kraków

tel. 012 430 55 75 (recepcja Ratusz)  

      012 430 63 42 (recepcja Dom Esterki)  

ul. Krakowska 46, 31-066 Kraków
tel: 012 430 60 23 fax: 012 430 63 30
e-mail: sekretariat@etnomuzeum.eu



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