The Ethnographic Museum of Kraków first opened February 19th, 1911, thanks to the unflagging efforts of Seweryn Udziela. This pedagogue, community volunteer, member of the Anthropological, Physiographical and Ethnographical Polish Academy of Learning, and author of many ethnographic works, was a one-man institution. Before the formal establishment of the museum, he defined his mission thus: “Ethnographic museums help us understand what kinds of peoples inhabit God’s earth, how they live, how they dress, what they concern themselves with, what their habits and traditions look like. Here some of our visitors will sate their curiosity, others will learn, still others will get down to work and study the history and current state of national cultures”.
At first Udziela tried to form an ethnographic department in the National Museum in the Sukiennice (1904). However, it turned out that there was no space for ethnographic collections in this museum. Part of the collection remained in storage, and part of it Udziela stored near the chapel of the Folk High School in Podgórze, as well as in his own apartment at ul. Lwowska 52. And he never gave up.
In 1911, he created the Ethnographic Museum Society. Together with the professors from Jagiellonian University who shared his ideas (Julian Talko-Hryncewicz and Franciszek Bujak), he wrote the statue and agenda for the institution’s activities. The first exhibition was shown in three rooms facing the courtyard at ul. Studencka 12. In 1913 the collections were moved to a building that housed the former St. Michael’s seminary in Wawel. From that point, each subsequent year saw the addition of more exhibition halls.
Taking advantage of the climate of the preparations for the patriotic anniversaries in Kraków and appealing to the community for donations, the Museum announced that it was collecting any objects connected to the life and artistry of rural populations on Polish and neighbouring lands, as well as collections from more distant countries “as long as they are donated by Polish travellers or collectors”. Amongst those who responded to this appeal were doctors, teachers, and school-age youths – volunteers who organised the collection of valuable items for the Museum in local communities, from Zakopane to Vilnius and Kołomyja. It was a collectors’ epoch. Many of them decided to donate their private collections to the nascent, but good and government-supported institution. Among the donors were Helena Dąbczańska (1863-1956), a Lvovian who created a private museum in her apartment from objects acquired during her many travels around Poland and Europe. MEK is indebted to her for the most valuable Hutsul collection in Poland (over 400 pieces).
Acquired through such enthusiasm and engagement, the collections of the Museum at the moment of the eruption of the Second World War numbered 30,000 objects. The Nazi invasion threatened the export of part of the collection back to the Reich. The Museum’s employees performed miracles of dedication and quick-thinking in order to save it, and in crucial moments took advantage of in-fighting in the ranks of the occupier (the history of the collections’ rescue recall moments in an action film). In the end, the collections withstood the occupation almost intact, losing only a few hundred pieces.
In 1945 the Ethnographic Museum Society handed over its collections to the state. Just three years later it managed to secure a new office in the former Town Hall in Krakowian Kazimierz. Tadeusz Seweryn, Udziela’s successor (and an artist, ethnographer, art historian, museologist, teacher, archivist, activist, politician, legionnaire, soldier, and holder of the title “Righteous Amongst Nations”), accomplished this through great effort. He began working in MEK in 1930, and was its director from 1938 to 1965. He led the Museum during its postwar wanderings, conveying its collections to the new location and undertaking many renovations. In 1951 he oversaw the first permanent exhibition (part of it, holding much historical value today, you can still see in MEK). All of the Museum’s employees were involved in the projects accompanying these changes – not only organisationally and intellectually, but also physically. Janusz Kamocki, who for many years directed the non-European collections, recalls that he was hired by MEK in 1952 “because of his muscles”. Those were the times. Times of rebuilding.
It was also a time of the strengthening ideology of the new state – The Polish People’s Republic. Folk culture had a very specific significance for the new government. The permanent exhibition in MEK became part of the official trend of condemning the past system and establishing a model of national culture in support of rural culture (understood superficially). At the same time this exhibition was an answer to the authentic social need to change the narrative on peasant culture and history, a full-throated declaration of humiliation and exploitation, of the stigma of centuries-old serfdom. About the touring exhibition “The History of the Countryside”, organised in 1951 by the Museum and in a similar vein, one of the visitors declared that it was “ a document of peasant injustice and peasant strength”.
The historical dynamic of MEK was also dictated by the development of technologies, specifically those applied in service of ethnography. In 1946 the Museum bought its first 16mm camera. The initiator and executioner of the purchase, Roman Reinfuss, was fascinated with the potential of film. “Educational ethnographic film, despite its documentary character, does not have to be boring or unpalatable [...] Quite the opposite. In the hand of a talented director rests limitless technical innovations [..] which allow the audience to experience ethnographically authentic material in an interesting fashion”– he wrote. The cycle “Easter Traditions” was the first to be filmed. One can still see part of it, the film “Pucheroki”, in the MEK exhibition dedicated to spring rituals.
In the 1960s MEK opened an exhibit on the art of national minorities in Poland (the author of the exhibit was Maria Woleńska, and the artistic concept was designed by prof. Marian Sigmund) – an endeavour which revealed the convergences of Belarussian, Lithuanian, Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish cultures with Polish culture, its connections. Among the objects presented were the Russian rosaries of Old Believers, Jewish paper-cutting, Slovakian glass paintings, and Nikifor’s paintings (signed for the first time with his Lemko name – Epifan Drowniak).
This was also the period in which Krzysztof Wolski made his first expedition to “The East”. A researcher and expert on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, he worked in the Museum from 1963 to 1990, although he had long been associated with MEK as a friend and a collector – the near-thousand objects he collected compose almost one fourth of MEK’s collection from Asia. In the second half of the decade the first pieces acquired by Boris Malkin (1917–2009) made their way into the Museum. Malkin was already a well-known entomologist and anthropologist, ethnographer and traveller, and also an attentive photographer and documentarian. Thanks to his cooperation, MEK boasts the largest collection representing the cultures of South American Indians of the rainforests in Poland.
In 1965, Edward Waligóra became the director of the Museum (1934–1991), the next art historian to hold that position. He described his vision for the Museum as such: “Fieldwork will come to the forefront and each employee should dedicate at least two months to living in the field”. He managed to arrange a dispensation for a car – a grey Nysa van – for ethnographers. One of the effects of this purchase by the Museum was academic summer camps, run by Dr. Jerzy Czajkowski. Thanks to Waligóra, MEK not only gained a car but also a collection of money-substitutes, unique archival materials, papercuttings and colouring books from the former Society of Polish Applied Art at the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. The third director carried out a thorough renovation of the Museum and opened a new permanent exhibition in 1969 (the exhibition was prepared by both curators such as Zbigniew Szewczyk, Halina Bittner-Szewczykowa, Zofia Cieślak-Reinfussowa, Jerzy Czajkowski and designers including Adam Młodzianowski , Mirosław Dzikiewicz, Roman Banaszewski).
In 1970, MEK organised the international Biennale of Graphic Design. In addition to panels with experts (Tadeusz Seweryn, Józef Grabowski, Ksawery Piwocki, Ignacy Trybowski, among others, participated in the discussions), the Biennale also included an exhibition titled “Polish Folk Graphic Art”, curated by Aleksandra Jacher-Tyszko, a longtime MEK collaborator. The exhibition was the effect of thorough research and the detailed classification of exhibits – the catalogue prepared on that occasion remains a major work on the subject until this day. During that period, MEK collaborated with Andrzej Wajda on Wesele, a film adaptation of Stanisław Wyspiański’s drama. Zdzisław Szewczyk, a long-serving MEK employee, became an ethnographic consultant for the film crew; after the shooting, some film props were incorporated into the MEK collection. (On a side note: this was not Wajda’s first encounter with ethnography – soon after the Second World War, Wajda worked with Roman Reinfuss on documenting villages near Kraków and Zakopane). Another event which attracted the attention of wider audiences was an exhibit of Katarzyna Gawłowa’s paintings (1977). The opening reception for the event is still deep in the participants’ memories: tables decorated with tissue-paper flowers, heaps of doughnuts, baskets filled with candies and cookies, colourful beverages in carafes and bottles, iced gingerbreads adorned with Gawłowa’s likeness, and a band that played dance music. Jacek Łoziński, an art collector, was the manager of the exhibit and the author of the catalogue. He was fascinated by Gawłowa’s art, which he first saw painted directly on the walls of her house in Zielonki – this is how Gawłowa’s artistic career started; she was seventy-seven years old. At the end of the 1970s, MEK participated in the celebration of The Year of the Child, announced by the United Nations. The Museum organised an exhibit called “The Village Child” as well as national symposium on the subject. Halina Bittner-Szewczykowa was the author of the exhibit and its publication (IX Volume of MEK Annals).
In the early 1980s, Poland experienced martial law, the crackdowns of the regime and the struggles with a scarcity of products and with grey reality. Meanwhile in MEK… in 1982 (ten months after the implementation of martial law) a famous exhibition opened – “The Black Madonna of Częstochowa in Polish Folk Art”, which became not only an important artistic and scientific event but also a social event. Aleksandra Jacher-Tyszko was the exhibition’s author, Maciej Beiersdorf its curator, while Anna Mściwujewska-Wajda and Leszek Wajda designed it. The authorities did not look favourably on the project, as it was created at a time when every sheet of paper and every litre of paint (rationed by the state) were rare finds. The exhibition was the effect of the enthusiasm shared by the organisers and many anonymous people. Despite the government’s antipathy, the exhibition was later shown in Warsaw, Wrocław, Trieste, Bari, and Rome. A year later, the Museum experienced another success – crowds of people visited MEK to see the collection of the world’s biggest Toy Museum in Nuremberg. People would wait for two hours in over one-hundred people-long queues outside the Museum. This lasted for four months. To be sure, the toys were fantastic. Many visitors, however, recollect today that the reason it was worth repeatedly waiting in the queue was the fact that each child visiting the Museum received a pack of gingerbread cookies in a colourful bag. It seems that never before and never again the Museum ticket would (quite literally) be such a passport to a better world.
In 1986 the Museum was given, in perpetuity, the use of a second historic building on the Krakowska Street 46 known as “Esther’s House”. The Museum’s library, in operation since Udziela’s time, was moved there. The plate with the name of MEK’s founder – absent for forty years – was also placed there. In the following year, Edward Pietraszek (1928-2004) became the Museum’s director. He was a valued researcher and teacher, the author of about two hundred publications, and associated with University of Wrocław, where he served as the head of Department of Ethnography for several years.
The 1990s began with MEK’s celebration of its first female director in its history: Maria Zachorowska. She dedicated her professional career entirely to MEK – starting in 1969 as an intern and retiring as the Museum’s director in 2008. Thanks to her, MEK owns a collection of objects from Peru’s coast and the north and south Andes (close to one hundred objects). Her knowledge and interests meant that she personally oversaw the South American collection, even after becoming MEK’s director. In 1997, during her term of office, MEK acquired materials from the Workshop for Folk Art Research in the Institute of Art of PAN, founded and directed by professor Roman Reinfuss. This collection was the result of extensive field research conducted in all Polish regions at a time when industrialisation rapidly began impacting the lives of Polish villagers (starting in 1946). The collection includes 823 files with drawings, descriptions, transcribed interviews, 70,000 photographs, 2,000 fabric samples… This unique collection is supplemented by materials from Roman Reinfuss’s private collection, including documents related to his research as well as satirical texts and drawings he created for his friends and loved ones.
Since its founding, the Museum has expanded its collection by adding over 80,000 objects, displayed in the permanent exhibition and numerous temporary exhibitions. The Museum undertakes research as well as publishing and educational activities. For the past few years, it has increased its field research on contemporary phenomena (owners of allotment gardens as urban gardeners, family photography, contemporary weddings, new dimensions of craftsmanship) as well as the significance of historical collections (woodcuts, the Siberian collection, Krakovian costumes). MEK also returned to the idea of Kraków Workshops, initiated at the turn of the 20th century; this idea encourages the creation of everyday-use objects inspired by traditional culture (ethnodesign). Lastly, the Museum has launched new ways of communicating with the public by exploring contemporary relevant subjects. All these activities, created in accordance with the slogan “my museum, a museum about me”, aim at bringing the essence of ethnography, and its benefits, to contemporary visitors. They also encourage personal dialogue with the values offered by tradition and attentive observation of the world in which we live. This agenda was promulgated by Antoni Bartosz, director of the MEK from 2008 to 2022.
In 2017, the Museum entered a new phase, as it acquired one of the historic buildings of the former manor estate at Babiński Street 29 in Kraków. The building is located within the park by Dr J. Babiński Hospital in Kraków-Kobierzyn. The aim of acquiring the building is its renovation and adoption to new functions, especially creating the Studio Warehouse that would grant access to MEK’s collection in entirely new ways. The building would also house parts of the collection now located on Wolnica Square, while the town hall on Wolnica would be adjusted to contemporary standards of reception and exhibition.
(All the events mentioned above – and additional events no less interesting – are described in the book Sto i pół. Opowieści z Muzeum Etnograficznego w Krakowie (One hundred and a half: Tales from the Ethnographic Museum of Kraków) published on MEK’s centenary, MEK 2011).