Seweryn Udziela


“I sit eternally in my little room, I read and I write, I write and I read” – Seweryn Udziela confided in a letter to a friend on March 4th, 1879. He was then twenty-two years old, working as a teacher in Gorlice Country. During this period, a certain way of looking at the world had begun to take shape in his mind, a broad-minded approach that had been shaped by his extensive reading. This is evidenced by a small excerpt of Udziela’s reading list from that period:


Joanna Kuczyńska, Myśli o edukacji kobiet [Thoughts on the education of women] (1874)

Juliusz Słowacki, O potrzebie idei [On the need for ideas] (1869)

Głos przeciwko dręczeniu zwierząt [In protest of the torture of animals] (1871)

Dr. prof. Blumenstock, Uwagi nad niektórymi kwestiami sądowo-psychiatrycznemi [Notes 

on legal-psychiatric matters] (1874)

Torquato Tasso, Jerozolima wyzwolona [Jerusalem delivered] (1856)

Baron Feuchtersleben, Higiena duszy [The dietetics of the soul] (1857)

Biali i czarni. Obrazy życia północnej Ameryki [Whites and blacks: depictions of North  

America] (1858)

Obraz europejskiego społeczeństwa w drugiej połowie XIX wieku [A picture of European

society in the latter half of the 19th century] (1869)

H.T. Buckle, Wpływ kobiet na postęp wiedzy [The influence of women on the progress of      

knowledge] (1867)


Don’t let this intensely intellectual task (close to a thousand pages a month – we know this from the contents of Udziela’s notes) confuse you – it is not a bookworm who hides behind this list, but a man of action. Already Udziela was in possession of hundreds of records and data from his own fieldwork, which he conducted mostly in the world where he taught children – a rural, small-town world in which people found themselves in an unusually difficult position.  He immersed himself in Kolberg at age fifteen. As an adolescent, he had already developed his first ideas on broader research (for example, a project on medicinal herbs). Thus the mind, to which we owe so much today, was born, and his passion became “giving an account of life”, of learning its “arcana”. Udziela was most fascinated with how life was expressed in its mundane, everyday details – how we organise it, what we produce for our daily existence. Everyday life echoes throughout the world, and transcends it, and in doing so, enables us to study it.   




At the time of his aforementioned letter in 1879, Seweryn Udziela did not yet know that in time he would undertake a massive project – his creation of an ethnographic museum in 1911. He also didn’t know that he would marry Halina Piotrowska in 1895 and that the creation of the museum would not have been possible without her (more on this later). In the meantime, Seweryn continued his work as a school inspector – in Gorlice and Grzybowski counties, and later in the Wieliczka and Kraków counties. In 1893, the growing Udziela family moved to Wieliczka, and in 1900 to Podgórze (today a district in Kraków). Seweryn, however, never ceased taking notes, making friends, or being interested in the world, both near and far.




What do you need to create a modern museum? A location? Money? State support? Seweryn Udziela did not have any of these things when he began. He had passion, stubbornness, and a vision that, in many respects, was ahead of not only his own time, but also ahead of our time. Before work on the museum began, he had collected close to two thousand objects, and with each passing year he developed his ideas on his collections material and immaterial dimensions. He got to know the ways of rural and small-town life, which had previously been considered unworthy of attention, treating them seriously and as multidimensional. The deeper we dig into the legacy of MEK’s founder, the more we are astonished by his vast range of interests, the scale of his activities and the bravery of his ideas. When we examine what he was reading, with whom he was corresponding (the most important research institutions in the United States and Europe), where he was travelling (Berlin, Vienna, Lviv, Prague, Pest), what he was writing (hundreds of academic articles, stories for children), and above all what he was thinking – in terms of the museum and of the world – we begin to understand what an unusual and charismatic person he was, as well as how important it is to seriously reconsider his works and ideas. His first exhibition? – On educational equipment. His first article? About owls and written for owls.

The first device bought for the Museum? – an Electrolux vacuum which he partly paid for himself. One hundred years ago, Seweryn Udziela, ethnographer of the everyday, ecologist, and lover of modern technology (he emphasised the role of photography in the collections) already wanted the museum he founded to become a place for research, for instance for artists (today ethnodesign is a continuation of this idea) and also would conduct fieldwork itself (today this idea is manifested through the many long-standing research projects like “Art of the Allotment Plot”, “The Virtual Folk Woodcut Museum”, “Photo Proxima”, “Family Memento”, “Weddings 21”, “Types of Fallow Land and the Earth”, “Costumes of Western Krakowians”, “Craftsmanship 2.0”, and “Well-wishes”).




After several unsuccessful attempts at creating an ethnographic museum within already-existing museums, Udziela, together with his friends from the Ethnological Society (especially Julian Talko-Hryncewicz, Franciszek Bujak, Włodzimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer),  decided to found the museum in two small rooms off Studencka Street in Kraków. A year later, the Museum was moved to Wawel Castle,  into  rooms in a building that had formerly housed  St. Michael’s theological college. Udziela served as the Museum’s first volunteer-head and, for a long time, as its only “curator, secretary, preparator, and servant”, to use the words of  another brilliant ethnographer of that time, Eugeniusz Frankowski. How could Udziela, who performed so many different tasks, find the time to conduct field research and edit numerous ethnographic works? The answer that he took advantage of his free time and holidays is like not providing an answer at all – the range of his activities is far too extensive. In fact, this one-man-institution was also a husband and a father of nine (!). Perhaps it is here that we can find the answer to our question – Udziela’s wife, Helena Udziela, unquestionably deserves to be called the Museum’s co-founder. Only thanks to her could Seweryn Udziela devote so much time to public matters. Despite this, Udziela always found time for his loved ones, as his grandson Tadeusz Sulikowski recollects. When a three-year old Tadeusz would come to his grandfather, Udziela would always put his work aside, take his grandson into his lap and listen to what was the matter. “At that moment only the two of us were important”, said Tadeusz many years later. 




Udziela was fully aware that his life situation did not allow him to dedicate his time to research as much as he would like. Subsequent generations of ethnographers criticised him occasionally for the fact that his works had, above all, a descriptive character. Udziela himself, however, advocated for methodical research, where all steps would eventually lead to a deepen, analytical reflection on the collected material. He wrote in 1886: “Collecting and comparing children’s games from various regions could generate many interesting conclusions” (1886). Udziela had the same approach toward other collections, for example, the six thousand  folk tales he had gathered. If he himself did not undertake their thorough analysis, it was only because he calculated that this task would take him twenty years.




We should also emphasise that Seweryn Udziela understood the importance of photography long before others did. Although he did not take pictures himself, he was one of the first Polish ethnographers who grasped their role as a significant research and interpretive tool, no less valuable than the material collections. It is no surprise that from the very beginning the Museum’s collection included works by outstanding photographers of that time – Michał Greim, Ignacy Krieger, Walery Eljasz-Radzikowski, Walery Rzewuski, Leopold Węgrzynowicz, Władysław Postawka, Juliusz Dutkiewicz. Today, thanks to Udziela’s intuition, we are able to work with priceless photographs evidencing past culture and art.    




Seweryn Udziela died in 1937. Only a year after his death, the Museum was named after him as a tribute to his accomplishments. Udziela left us an unusual legacy – excellent collections, the wealth of his work, his courage in certain undertakings, open-mindedness, and fortitude. He also left successors – Tadeusz Udziela and Roman Reinfuss. Without their collaboration, the Museum could not have been rebuilt from the ashes of the Second World War. This legacy creates a reality through which a very strong and pronounced idea is expressed and which passes from generation to generation; this idea continuously calls attention to public service and words such as “thinking”, “serving”, “giving and exploring”.   


An impressive figure. Truly a founder. 


Dr Antoni Bartosz

The head of the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum of Kraków*


*In the above text I used my introduction to Seweryn Udziela’s book Krakowiacy (Krakovians). The book was re-published by WYDAWNICTWO BONA, Kraków, 2012.