Łucja Piekarska

Kraków’s museums: from objects to meanings

Reading time: approx. 19 minutes

Time is perhaps the most important building block of Kraków. It means the here-and-now and the long-term which shapes the context of the present; it means the fleeting and the enduring. With time, it becomes bound with memory whose natural domain in the public sphere is heritage. Kraków is a city where heritage plays a key role and museums are at the forefront, revealing the multidimensionality of time and measuring it in their own way.

The vast diversity of Kraków’s museums shows how the city has developed its identity over the ages by describing itself through collections and exhibitions. The Museum of Archaeology tells tales of prehistoric times; the Museum of Photography encourages us to reflect on the captured moment; the Ethnographic Museum explores the rhythm of time, reaching back to ancient and often forgotten days. The mythical timelessness of symbols can be found in many art museums, while local time – measured by the natural world, technological progress and lives of individual Cracovians – reveals itself in myriad forms in regional branches in districts such as Podgórze and Nowa Huta.

The city aims to tell its stories through its museums and bolster its unique appeal. MOCAK, Bunkier Sztuki and other galleries in Kraków present myriad forms of expression. We have museums dedicated to specific locations; we have museums exploring themes of technology, science and the natural world. Our collections include historic trams and aeroplanes, skeletons of prehistoric animals and rare curiosities. Why do we believe these things are important?

Kraków has unusually strong ties to the past. We don’t see history as something which has lost its relevance because it is in the past; it is an important element of our present reality and our raison d’être. We see it everywhere, in all our monuments and museums; its traces are celebrated and preserved, and remain a source of inspiration. Our museums are the domain of the present; they are spaces which document official history and which present memories of people. We can think of it as a passing memory of past neighbours, even if we weren’t close friends. The stories, focused around exhibits, help us feel like we belong to a place and a community which intertwines the past with the present. We understand heritage as a multitude of voices, interpretations and participants.

We are Kraków!

The Museum of Krakow marks the latest chapter of its activities (following the recent name change) with the motto “I am Kraków”, reflecting its mission and stressing the continuity between the past and the present.


Kraków’s museums present ways of understanding our unique city through their objects and exhibitions, helping us elucidate the processes in which Kraków has played a leading role.

We are Kraków!

The city’s European character is showcased at the Museum of Krakow’s underground exhibition below the Main Market Square, where visitors literally step into the past. The Museum of Municipal Engineering presents how technology has changed life in the city by revealing its invisible aspects. Elements of the urban environment – trams, plumbing, electricity, running water – take on a greater meaning when we see them in context of real lives and the evolution the city continues to undergo. Abstract concepts take on shape and meaning, and visitors take part in experiments intertwining objects and stories.


Olga Boznańska’s melancholy portrait of a girl with chrysanthemums, on display at the National Museum, perfectly captures the intimacy of emotions. The girl’s gaze makes it absolutely clear that childhood can be far from carefree.


“Szymborska’s Drawer” reveals a universe comprising trinkets belonging to the late Nobelist. By including them in her poems, she elevated the mundane into the epic – as she wrote, even in our daily lives “nothing can ever happen twice”.


This subtle way of commemorating the author explores that which is simple and familiar, yet no less important. The drawer inspires us to ask ourselves what made Szymborska such a wonderful poet.


People and their stories are the most important part of our heritage and their faces remain with us long after leaving the museum.


Many of Kraków’s museums aren’t afraid of asking difficult questions, even when (or perhaps especially when?) there are no simple answers. The Ethnographic Museum continues to ask about folk culture – who are its creators and recipients? It leaves the visitors to decide for themselves by displaying its exhibits in an unusual setting: the main building (the former Kazimierz Town Hall) is filled with arrangements of traditional homesteads creating a fascinating juxtaposition.


Other museum rooms reveal more changes, and the permanent exhibition certainly isn’t constant. The room presenting springtime rites explores the very concept of time through traditions.

The custom of asking meaningful questions does away with the rather banal traditional museum presentations where tales of the past don’t encourage visitors to reflect upon it.


If there’s one thing that can be said about Kraków is that we’ve got plenty of time. The past, the future, lost time, found time, time marked by the rhythm of holidays, everyday time… It’s no wonder, then, that our museums also concern themselves with it.


Collections of items found in urban apartments tell a very different story to that shown by ethnographic presentations. Visitors to the Hipolit Tenement House have a choice: they can see the collection as a presentation of anachronistic memorabilia, or strive to find a deeper sense in it.


In the past, clocks marked the passing time to the same rhythm as today, comfortable beds were as important as they are now, but… what did people actually talk about? How did fashions change over the years, decades, centuries? What were young ladies from wealthy households interested in? Collections of knick-knacks offer a fascinating insight into past lives – what kinds of trinkets did people enjoy? What could be given as a present to one’s fiancé? Or grandmother? What was good to have handy? Something to catch the eye?


All museum collections, and Kraków’s entire history, are based on human stories – those of ordinary people and their famous counterparts. The Józef Czapski Pavilion, presenting a reconstruction of this artist and intellectualist’s studio in Paris, is a good example of how one man was inspirational to many.


The concept of importing the authentic interiors, created by Krystyna Zachwatowicz and Andrzej Wajda, may seem eccentric at first. But it can also be seen as a way of reflecting on the presence of people who are no longer with us; on their ideas, sensitivities, views.


Czapski led a fascinating life: an aristocrat, exile and artist, he treated his work very seriously and presented history through the lens of his passions, choices, joys and setbacks. One of his great skills was seeing things for what they really are… Visitors to the Czapski Pavilion have an opportunity to test their own skill by exploring artist’s written and sketched memoirs, admiring his paintings, reading his thoughts expressed through essays and books, and tracing the relationship between reality (the truth) and how he perceived and depicted it.


Feliks “Manggha” Jasieński’s main motivation for creating his extraordinary collection was exploring different ways of looking at the world, in particular the conventions in which art is presented. The globetrotter and aesthete who chose Kraków as his home is largely responsible for popularising Oriental art, in particular Japanese woodcuts, in late 19th-century Poland. A part of his collection is presented at the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology. But these fascinating objects only start to make sense when we consider their meaning and value, and ask why they were chosen to be included. The precision which goes into crafting samurai swords is simply captivating, so it is terrific to have the opportunity to examine them up close. There are many good reasons why each object is (or isn’t) included in the collection, and they create a unique whole to be viewed together.


I should add here that every item which finds its way to a museum loses its original context and application; it becomes something significant but no longer practical. Exhibits are mute unless they are given an interpretation, which steps beyond the standards of conservation. However, they remain fragments of the past encouraging us to stretch our imaginations without promising we will ever fully understand them. The Museum of Photography in Kraków presents fragments of the past captivated in images, providing an excellent opportunity for us to ask questions about the choices behind each photo. Why was it taken? What’s happening beyond the lens? Why was this particular moment chosen?

Everything has been done before

The Main Building of the National Museum in Krakow presents an excellent example illustrating our complex relationship with the past. A simple video shows a discussion between (somewhat blasé) artists. They name different trends from art history, eventually reaching the conclusion that “everything has been done before”. While we broadly agree with the self-mocking joke by the Grupa Ładnie collective, in Kraków the past is frequently still present. The past is always being considered, and our museums are always ready to play with it – even at the risk of not looking entirely serious.

We appreciate that everything has already happened and that much is yet to happen.

Kraków doesn’t forget about its difficult past, although it would also prefer to say “these things are gone never to return”. It can be difficult to take a light-hearted look at past tragedies, and in museums the past takes a different meaning than it has in history textbooks. The Route of Remembrance, comprising the Pomorska Street, the Eagle Pharmacy and the Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory branches of the Museum of Krakow, has a mission to present an honest account of events which completely changed the city. Original graffiti on the walls of the former prison at Pomorska Street require no commentary. The Schindler Factory is visited by tourists who have learned about it from Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film, hoping to hear stories reaching far beyond the script.

We want it to be a story about us, about the city under occupation, because this is the framework and reference point for the extraordinary man portrayed by Liam Neeson. The tragic story of the Kraków ghetto culminated with the Nazis murdering more than a thousand Jews and transporting almost ten thousand to death camps; these events are honoured at the Eagle Pharmacy and on commemorative plaques in different places in the city.


Kraków has never been the same in the wake of the Holocaust and the murder of the vast majority of its Jewish residents, so let us seek out and remember their traces.

Interpretation, or everything in-between

Kraków is in constant dialogue with itself through exhibits. The valuable, frequently unusual items help us interpret our heritage since they are found “in-between”. The most fascinating encounters are between artworks and their viewers; between descriptions and personal experiences; between history as a whole and individual experience, as proclaimed by the single word presented by one of the installations at a MOCAK exhibition.


The many voices of the past explored at museums allows us to look at history as an important source of information about ourselves. Which elements form the meanings which shape Kraków?

Between “Frenzy” and enchantment

If you’ve ever visited the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) branch of the National Museum in Krakow, you’re bound to have seen Władysław Podkowiński’s (in?)famous painting “Frenzy of Exultation”. The naked woman riding the frenetic horse out of an apparent abyss captivates some viewers and repels others. The painting is one of the most important items in the collection and stands out from among other symbolic depictions of Polish national mythology. The author himself was so affected by it, he slashed it with a knife a month after it first went on show.


While in the majority of Europe the 19th century was an era of inventions and rapid development, in Poland it is mainly remembered for its powerful national spirit with no foundations in state structures. The aim of creating a collection of Polish art was to provide a mythological framework which would construct and maintain Polishness. Studying it today helps us make sense of the famous Polish Romanticism, fantasies and tendencies to irrational elation, and learn more about historic events we keep returning to time and again. Henryk Siemiradzki’s monumental “Nero’s Torches” is a good example of the Polish perception of the nation and country’s martyrdom. Major historic events, many of which took place in Kraków (such as the Prussian homage, painted by Jan Matejko), continue to inspire reflection and, for many people, remain the very foundations of patriotism. Many paintings at the Cloth Hall gallery reveal artists’ fascination with landscapes (the countryside was seen as the essence of Polishness for centuries) presented alongside moving portraits. This collection explores many universal themes in the context of a mid-sized city in Central Europe, widely regarded as Poland’s spiritual capital.

Between “Frenzy” and enchantment

Kraków’s most famous painting is Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine”. Displayed in the imposing interiors of the Princes Czartoryski Museum, it continues to attract crowds of visitors yearning to catch a glimpse of the beautiful stranger. The masterpiece has always inspired questions and enchantment.

It is this enchantment which is ever-present in the extraordinary collections documenting the spirit of the Renaissance. Collections of unusual objects, known as cabinets of curiosities, are an example of a passion for discovery. Exotic taxidermies, beautiful shells, crystals with healing properties and other unimaginably fascinating objects reveal that their owners were interested in more than just collecting and displaying such items (the Museum of Pharmacy at the Jagiellonian University is a perfect example).


Contemporary museums in Kraków no longer focus on curiosities, but they continue to enchant their visitors with older collections.

The cosmos of Copernicus vs. Hermaszewski

Leaving aside Pan Twardowski – who, according to legend, now lives on the Moon anyway – Kraków is home to far more serious evidence of Poland’s exploration of space. Memorabilia of Nicolaus Copernicus from his time at the Jagiellonian University are on display at the university’s museum. Astronomical instruments once used by professors at the Kraków Academy provide invaluable – and often moving – evidence of the drive to pursue science and research regardless of the views of others. They also captivate with their intricate design – the working tools are as beautiful as they are practical.

The cosmos of Copernicus vs. Hermaszewski

The Polish Aviation Museum presents a wholly different dimension of Poland’s attempt to conquer space. Here, great history is also told through personal objects, often bearing surprising significance. Memorabilia of Mirosław Hermaszewski, Poland’s only cosmonaut, serve as something of a reflection of our ambitions and nostalgia for conquering space. The impressive collection of aircraft is an illustration of the development of aviation and technology; it also reveals the continuation of the ideas of Polishness whose symbolism is something of an extension of the collection at Sukiennice. The assorted aircraft from the Cracovian (formerly Austrian) airfield, converted into a museum, also tell the tale of how Poland hoped to build its power and its border-spanning heroism. What is it today? What can it be?

Between presence and interpretation

True heroes are surely those who see customers and neighbours as fellow humans above all else. Kraków’s museums present heroic stories such as that preserved and presented at the Eagle Pharmacy. At the building at the Bohaterów Getta Square, visitors search for information they believe to be important and useful in understanding this place where the pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz worked with his assistants. Someone wrote in the visitors’ book, “Tadeusz, thank you for your humanity!” The museum tells the story of the ghetto; of life before the Holocaust; of Jewish Kraków; of the silence on the wartime atrocities in communist Poland; on the challenges of commemorating history sensitively.


One of the walls displays the Torah scroll which was concealed at the pharmacy from Nazi invaders. The scroll is sometimes on display, while at others it is hidden behind an invisible curtain. This alternating presence and absence of the exhibit is an important way of marking memory, as expressive as the shaky voice on the phone relaying a terrifying experience. But first the visitor must dial the number of the witness of those events…

Positive stories

In many of Kraków’s museums, the visitors play a key role by bringing together the presented fragments into their very own, personal wholes dependent on expectations, views and needs. Interpretation is gradually replacing the once-dominant model of museums transmitting information through narrative. After all, who doesn’t love a good story? Kraków abounds with them, and museums are doing all they can to make them relevant today.


The Ethnographic Museum, whose motto is “My museum”, dedicates an entire floor of its permanent exhibitions at the former Kazimierz Town Hall to amateur or primitive art.

Positive stories

To say that each artwork is a unique world with a whole, moving history would be an understatement. The museum allows visitors to explore and interpret the works for themselves, as well as presenting a unique, subjective trail of excerpts from Czesław Miłosz’s works. The title of the exhibition, recalling the title of his collection “Unattainable Earth”, is more than just a biblical quote. Here, “attaining” Earth follows different rules than scientific classification while losing none of its importance; what makes this exhibition stand out from among others is the wealth of images and meanings arising among themselves, among themselves and texts, among themselves and the public. Let us search AMONG.

Between love and death

One of Kraków’s greatest treasures is Rembrandt’s “Landscape with the Good Samaritan” – an extraordinary retelling of this biblical parable. Rembrandt depicts the multiple dimensions of the event, yet instead of placing the Samaritan and wounded traveller at the forefront, he focuses on the drama of the natural world and the passers-by. The Dutch master presents a situation where the setting is key, but it is the responses of those who aren’t the main participants in the scene that are the most captivating.

Between love and death

Over the ages, Cracovians have been witnesses and participants in great history, which doesn’t change the fact that their own lives are at least as important as official documents signed behind the scenes. The bustle of mediaeval Main Market Square, once seen as the centre of the world, can be heard at the underground exhibition of the Museum of Kraków. It also presents everyday objects whose role was once as important as it is today in how they refer to the past by representing its fragments.

Kraków’s museums present many objects whose value is rooted in how they are perceived – in fact they have become so significant that we discuss them as important cultural artefacts.

The Museum of Archaeology presents myriad exhibits of mysterious origins and significance. Just ask the seemingly innocent question “How did Egyptian mummies get there?” The item with the most mysterious significance is the Zbruch Idol (a sculpture of Svetovid), the symbol of the museum. A replica stands nearby, by Wawel Hill, casting its eye in all directions of the past and reminding us of Poland’s Slavic past.


Kraków’s museums hold many paintings (and items) revealing different takes on the same tale. And we love good tales, especially if their tellers show their different aspects and witnesses.

Happily ever after

Kraków stands out from among other cities filled with stories with its legends: the Wawel Dragon, the proud maiden and the sorcerer who signed a deal with the devil are the perfect reflection of the city’s unique atmosphere, although they are also repeated in different versions all over the globe. Tales which truly make Kraków stand out are those which blend important events shaping the past with everyday heritage. The intertwining of the public and the private, sacred and secular, tragedy with comedy means that history abounding with tales of ordinary people fascinates generations.


Museums allow us to treat the past as a source of inspiration. It’s not just about exhibits which preserve and present history; it’s about the meanings they convey. It’s about the relationships these significant objects allow us to make with other people and with the city as a whole.

Happily ever after

This is another reason to see Kraków as a city of museums. It’s true to say that we likely have the most important collections of paintings which have shaped our nation as a community expressed through clear symbols. We have beautiful historic buildings converted into museums where “every stone is Poland” and every item tells a story. We also have myriad curios and rarities bound to captivate all. Kraków’s museums preserve evidence for passion of discovering the world and telling stories about it. Given the widespread view is that the role of museums is not simply to preserve traces of the future but to encourage discussion by creating situations which can be interpreted in myriad ways, museum stories are becoming ever more powerful. Even more so, they frequently encourage visitors to become a part of the story, giving rise to hope that although “everything has been done before”, there is still a brand-new “everything” to discover.

Łucja Piekarska

A scholar of contemporary cultural movements and author of numerous publications. She specialises in social anthropology and European cultural heritage. She is an assistant professor of sociology at the Institute of European Studies at the Jagiellonian University and works with museums and cultural institutions.

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