2020 – The Museum of Warsaw collection comprises more than 300,000 artefacts, including paintings and sculptures, graphic prints, photographs, archival materials, architectural designs and drawings, handicrafts and historical keepsakes as well as various products of material culture stored in storehouses of ca 3,000 m2 in size and displayed in exhibition spaces with a total surface area of more than 7,200 m2.
Origins and early days
1906 – The Society for the Protection of the Monuments of the Past (TOnZP) was founded in Warsaw to collect artefacts representing Polish cultural heritage. A special place in the TOnZP collection was devoted to items related to Warsaw, acquired by the separate “Old Warsaw” department. As the result of its efforts, in 1911 the city hall hosted an exhibition under the same title, and three years later those artefacts became part of the Museum of Polish Antiquities, established in the Baryczka House. In 1937, the collection gathered by the TOnZP was donated to the National Museum in Warsaw. The items related to Warsaw included in those holdings were set to find their place in the branch of this institution established the previous year as the Museum of Old Warsaw. In 1937–1938, the municipal authorities purchased three burgher houses: Baryczka House, Kleinpold House and Black Boy House for the use of the new museum. Thus, the artefacts collected by the TOnZP that revolved around Warsaw were supposed to return to their original seat. Unfortunately, the transfer of selected items to the Museum of Old Warsaw was interrupted by the outbreak of the war in 1939, and as the result of its last stage – the Warsaw Uprising – the collection gathered in Old Town Market Square shared the fate of the museum houses or became dispersed.
1946 – The Museum of Old Warsaw (operating briefly as the Museum of Warsaw) inaugurated its activity within the newly established structures of the Municipal Office. With the Museum’s pre-war seat destroyed, holdings began to be gathered in a small space at the Municipal Archive, but the decision of the municipal authorities to found an independent institution – the Historical Museum of the City of Warsaw – in 1948 opened a new chapter in the development of the collection. As early as in October 1949, two out of eleven Old Town burgher houses set to house the Museum’s new seat were rebuilt, including the Black Boy House, to which the collection was transferred and where historical artefacts found during the reconstruction of Warsaw were gathered. The most valuable ones certainly included fragments of the frieze from the tympanum of the Grand Theatre by Paweł Maliński, which remain in the Museum collection until today. Following the nationalisation of the institution in 1950 and conferring upon it the status of the central historical museum, its holdings ever more frequently included artefacts originating from the entire country, secured by central museum storehouses. However, preparations to the exhibition devoted to the history of Warsaw, opened in 1955, revealed gaps in the Museum collection at the time. For that reason, as early as in 1949, the then director of the Museum, Adam Słomczyński, launched the programme of creating “replacement artefacts” in the form of copies and mock-ups. Given the modest size of the Museum collection, in the post-war years it gathered nearly all cultural goods that made it into its holdings. However, items of a historical character prevailed, which was directly related to the Museum’s profile and the concept of the core exhibition.
1965 – The modernised core exhibition, presented to the public under the title Seven Centuries of Warsaw, showed a new face of the Museum and its collection. The Historical Museum of the City of Warsaw became an institution recognised by residents of Warsaw, in possession of specific holdings clearly demonstrating a historical profile. However, the golden years of the development of the Museum and its collection were to come only in the following decades of the 20th and 21st centuries. Owing to numerous private donations and new branches, the collection not only grew significantly, but also became more diverse. Inhabitants of Warsaw, who soon developed an attachment to the institution, donated both individual artefacts and entire collections. The most important donations to the Museum in the years 1948–2020 included the collection of books as well as graphic prints and archival materials concerning the November Uprising, donated in 1964 by the renowned bibliophile Dr Ludwik Gocel. Standing out among a myriad of donations impossible to enumerate is also a body of more than 660 graphic prints and maps from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, donated along with family keepsakes in 2002 by the Schiele family living on emigration. The Museum collection also began to embrace the heritage of famous Warsaw families, such as the Kronenbergs (1973) and figures meritorious to Warsaw, such as Jerzy Waldorff (2008). After the war, the collection of architectural designs and drawings, whose foundation was formed already at the Museum of Old Warsaw, grew richer with legacies of Warsaw architects, such as Stanisław Żaryn, Borys Zinserling, Stanisław Marzyński, and the photography collection – with unique negatives from the period of the Warsaw Uprising created by Sylwester Braun as well as legacies of a number of outstanding photographers, such as Alfred Funkiewicz and Edward Hartwig. Aside from private sources, the Museum also received donations from various institutions. That was how it came into possession of the documentation of works of the Commission for Research on Old Warsaw (KBDW) and the “Warcent” Municipal Design Office. The Museum of Warsaw collection also became expanded with artefacts discovered during numerous archaeological surveys conducted in the city. The most important certainly include items found during works pursued from 1977 to 1983 in Castle Square and during the renovation of the Museum cellars, where a treasure containing 1211 coins from the 17th and 18th centuries was uncovered in 2010. The collection developed to a lesser degree through purchases of new artefacts, however it is of note that the most precious acquisition in the Museum’s history was the portrait of King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski by Marcello Bacciarelli from the hands of a private collector in 1964. The Museum of Warsaw collection is complemented by the holdings of its branches. Their broad spectrum may come as a surprise, but the common denominator is their connection with Warsaw. The Museum currently operates six branches, which can be divided into three groups in terms of the profile of the gathered collections. The first represents a historical-martyrological character: the Palmiry Museum – Memorial Site, established in 1973 (formerly the Museum of Struggle and Martyrdom in Palmiry), which commemorates victims of Nazi executions in Palmiry during World War II, and the Museum of Field Ordinance, founded in 2010, which gathers artefacts related to chaplains of the Polish Army. Also of note is the Warsaw Rising Museum branch, operating from 1983 to 2003, whose holdings became the foundation of the present day museum under the same name. The second group comprises branches that function as museums of individual city districts: the Wola Museum of Warsaw (established in 1974) and the Praga Museum of Warsaw (founded in 2007), which collect testimonies to the history of these areas. The third group of the Museum of Warsaw branches is represented by museums devoted to specific trades: The Museum of Printing (established in 1982) and the Antonina Leśniewska Museum of Pharmacy (founded in 1985, branch of the Museum of Warsaw since 2002). The former collects historical technological artefacts and products of the art of printing, the latter – artefacts related to Warsaw’s pharmacies and pharmaceutical industry.
2017 – Opening of the new core exhibition titled The Things of Warsaw in the Museum’s restored and modernised seat. It is the first display in the institution’s history that abandons historical narratives, focussing on the holdings in and of themselves, bringing them centre stage and establishing them as the protagonist of the show. In this sense, the exhibition The Things of Warsaw pays homage to the Museum collections gathered throughout the decades, offering them to visitors in a pure form to be discovered anew every day.
Chief Inventory Officer of the Museum of Warsaw Collection