Present and Future Perspectives of the State Archeological Museum
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Państwowe Muzeum Archeologiczne, ul. Długa 52, 00-241 Warszawa
Publication date: 2008-12-31
Wiadomości Archeologiczne 2008;LX(60):3-8
In May 2008 the State Archaeological Museum in Warsaw celebrated its 80th anniversary1. Both in the past and at present the Museum has united the functions of a research institute with that of an exhibition gallery. It has a staff off 120, two thirds of whom are museum science specialists. Among them are forty or so professional archaeologists, six with a PhD or professor’s degrees. Most of the museum staff are concerned – within the frameworks of departments taking care of the collections – with scientific analysis and interpretation of collections, excavation and with developing exhibition scenarios. The second largest unit associated with follow up work on the collections is the Department of Conservation and the Facsimiles Section. The Department carries out conservation work of virtually all types of archaeological object, except for very large timber elements. The Anthropology Laboratory of the Museum specialises in analysis of human remains, mostly from cemetery sites excavated by the Museum’s own archaeological expeditions. An extensive department is concerned with cataloguing the collections which derive from over 11 000 sites, mostly from the territory of present day Poland as well as from the territory which was part of the Polish Commonwealth until 1795. The Museum’s extensive archival material – documentation from past and present archaeological research, legacies of many leading Polish archaeologists etc, is stored and investigated in the Department of Documentation. The Museum has a specialised Scientific Library of ca 60 000 volumes. Many of them are unique copies in Poland. The Library is open to all researchers, including also students of archaeology. The State Archaeological Museum has the largest archaeological finds storage facility in Poland – the Storage and Research Unit at Rybno in western Mazowsze, about 70 km to the west of Warsaw. Seven storage houses help store mass material such as pottery and flints, fragments of timber structures etc. There is also a small conservations workshop and accommodation of museum staff members and archaeologists from other institutions who visit Rybno to study the collections. As in the past also now the State Archaeological Museum continues to engage in lively excavation activity. In the first decades of the 21st century it ran 4–9 excavation campaigns every year investigating Late Palaeolithic to Early Medieval sites in Central and NE Poland. Under the Polish law this is the main method of acquiring collections by the Museum since all archaeological artefacts are property of the State and all commerce in them is illegal. Most of the investigations were commissioned by and funded from the resources of the Provincial Inspector of Monuments and from the resources of the newly initiated operational programs of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. This demonstrates the significant involvement of the State Archaeological Museum in protection of archaeological heritage in Poland. The Museum continues to publish its yearly journal “Wiadomości Archeologiczne”, the oldest archaeological publication of its kind in Poland, in print for 135 years now2. Other Museum publications include monographs of archaeological sites and scientific catalogues of the collections, particularly of those originating from areas of pre-1795 Poland, and exhibition catalogues. The staff of the State Archaeological Museum publish a total of seventy or so scientific and popular publications every year. In 2008, after a break of many years, the Museum revived its “Materiały Starożytne i Wczesnośrednio¬wieczne” series which features larger monographs and analytical studies. Over the years, the Museum staff have been carrying out research and publication grants of the State Committee of Scientific Research; the results of their efforts are published in the form of comprehensive monographs of the key archaeological sites in Poland. The editorial board of the Monumenta Archaeologica Barbarica series well-known to European archaeologists specialising in Roman Iron Age is also placed in the Museum. Of fourteen titles from this series already published six were written by Museum staff. The next field of activity pursued by the Museum is dissemination of knowledge on archaeological heritage and education. A permanent exhibition on Polish prehistory, thoroughly modernised recently by deploying state-of-the-art audiovisual solutions, will soon be given also a full version in English. Two other permanent exhibitions intended to complement the school curriculum are “ABC of Romanesque” and ABC of “Gothic Architecture”. Finally, there is a standing exhibition which highlights the Late Bronze fortified settlement at Biskupin – the best known archaeological site in Poland. Every year the Museum organises a series of temporary exhibitions drawing on its own collections and playing host to exhibitions from museums across Poland and abroad. One of these was the highly successful “Between Mycenae and the Baltic” brought by the East Slovak Museum in Košice; a year later, the exhibition “Vandals – Keepers of the Amber Route”, developed in cooperation with the Archaeology Institute of Marie Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, turned out to be a sensation. In 2006 a major event was the presentation of authentic artefacts from Troy as part of the exhibition “Troy – the Dream of Heinrich Schliemann” prepared in cooperation with the Berlin Muzeum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte. The following year saw the opening of the exhibition “Treasures of Ancient Latvia” – the first ever presentation in Poland of the rich archaeological heritage of this Baltic republic. One of the most significant events ever for the Museum was the opening in December 2007 of the exhibition “Treasures of the Middle Ages” organised from the collections of the Medieval and Modern Age Department of the Museum. In the summer of 2008 this display was viewed by a truly impressive number of visitors at the Wikinger Museum in Haithabu – more than 109 000 guests in just three months. There are plans to take this exhibition to other venues in Poland and abroad, eg Riga, Berlin and Prague. In its educational activity the Museum works in close cooperation with schools. Every year some 2000 museum classes are organised, held on didactic premises of the Museum and involve eg, the making of pottery and beads, basic weaving techniques, and coin-making. Every year the Museum opens its doors to some 50 000 visitors – 80% of them children and teenagers. Over many years the Museum staff have been involved in various outdoor projects aimed at promoting the archaeological heritage. Of these the most popular are presentations of experimental archaeology. They are held during the archaeological festival in Biskupin, at the “Scientific Picnic” of Radio BIS network. and during the “Slav Heritage Days”. As many other countries Poland has witnessed a growing popularity of events associated with reconstruction and re-enactment of famous historical events. The historic building of the Warsaw Museum and its surroundings provide a setting for one of such re-enactments – the taking of the Arsenal on 29 November 1830. A major challenge for the Museum is how to finance its activities. The main source of its budget are funds allocated by the self-government of the Mazowsze province; a smaller amount – 10–15% of the budget comes from ticket sales, fees, rental of facilities. The largest portion of expenditure is on salaries and associated costs (health and retirement insurance). The remaining part of the budget is consumed by building maintenance costs, power supply, etc. Ultimately the Museum is left with only a very small fraction to pursue its statutory activities. It must be noted however that over the last three years the Mazowsze provincial self-government has come up with substantial supplementary funding to pay for the maintenance works on the Warsaw building (the Arsenal) and most particularly, at Rybno. It has been possible to undertake a major remodelling project on two buildings of the Storage and Research Unit and install mobile storage cases in one of them. This has increased over three fold the capacity of the storage unit and will possible in future (after similar facilities have been installed in another unit) the dismantling of four units built of timber derivative material which do not ensure proper storage conditions. Also in recent years the Museum was able to secure resources from the Mazowsze self-government to finance the organisation of exhibitions mentioned earlier, as well as the major modernisation of its Conservations Department and purchase of electronic equipment for the Museum. The future prospects of the Warsaw Museum depend on external factors, eg, the state policy on culture, national budget, economic situation etc, but also on the activity and plans of the Museum. As a result of the administrative reform of 1 January 1999 most museums have passed into charge of the newly enacted self-governments. The State Archaeological Museum also, a government institution from the time its inception, passed into the charge of the provincial Mazowsze self-government authority. This self-government has fully accepted the direction and the all-Polish character of the Museum’s activity. It is also favourably disposed toward the Museum’s needs in various fields, which has contributed eg, to the improvement of the level of technical equipment of the Museum and also to intensification of exhibition activity, as was noted earlier. Another important question is whether now that we have entered 21st century and Poland has joined the European Union it is possible at all to sustain the model represented by our institution in the past. By this I mean, first of all, the scientific activity of the museum. Perhaps, archaeological investigation in its broad sense should become the concern only of archaeology institutes of universities and of the Polish Academy of Science? Similar views have been expressed on occasion by representatives of the archaeological milieu. It seems nevertheless that scientific analysis, interpretation and publication of archaeological collections, in other words, of source materials, is a natural field of activity of archaeologists working in museums such as the State Archaeological Museum. Discontinuation of this activity would reduce the access of archaeologists to archelogical artefacts and increase the disproportion between the published and unpublished material. The danger posed by the changeover from the model of a specialised archaeology museum to an institution concerned exclusively with dissemination of archaeology is real. According to some views museums should transform into institutions which cater to the tourist industry or even of the leisure industry. Increasingly often, museums are seen to function as venues for various type of mass events, festivals, shows, etc, some of which are not compatible with the profile of the museum at all. This trend has been affecting also museums of archaeology which, next to fielding presentations of experimental archaeology, have become the setting for the re-enactment of historical events. In addition, the general public apparently accept this role of museums as the main one, happy to leave the viewing of display galleries to schoolchildren. The next question which needs to be asked is about the nature of the displays, both permanent and temporary. Are they to continue as a sort of an ordered (but probably somewhat boring) lecture on distant people and events, arranged by culture and chronology? Or would it be enough to focus, in greater detail though, only on key events such as transition from the hunter-gatherer to the farming and stock breeding economy, or on the origins of early medieval statehood, or, in a similar manner, on certain processes such as evolution of the funerary rite from the dawn of humanity until the Middle Ages? Obviously it is possible to pose more questions of this kind. And it is not easy to find an answer to them. In the coming years one of important projects for the Museum will be to expand its relatively small display space. There are plans to relocate the Museum library from the northern to the eastern wing; this would make access for visitors from outside the Museum much easier. A new permanent exhibition would be housed in the rooms on the first floor of the northern wing. In this way, room will have been gained for the temporary exhibitions on the ground floor. This project calls for wide-scale remodelling works and serious outlays on the new equipment for the library. Another pressing issue is how to utilize the fine courtyard of the Museum building seriously devastated in the wake of repair works made to the eastern wing during the late 1970s. According to a preliminary architectural study the entire courtyard is to be provided in future with an underground level which will accommodate educational facilities, a lecture and film viewing hall, cloakrooms, reception rooms, etc. This should open up new potential for Museum activities, particularly during the spring-summer season, making it possible to stage open air events and concerts in the ‘reclaimed’ courtyard. The courtyard will come to function as a natural connecting unit between the main entrance to the Arsenal from Długa street (rather, than at present, from the Krasiński Park) and display rooms in the northern wing. Obviously, both these projects require suitable supplementary financing by the provincial self-government. It seems that the future of a museum such as ours should continue to base on the present model of activity enhanced, nevertheless, by up-to-date educational and outreach activity. One difficulty is that museums are by their nature conservative institutions. In the case of archaeology museums an additional factor is that they add to their holdings (primary task of every museum) in the process of research work such as excavation. This imposes a certain mindset on many archaeologists-museum specialists who rate research activity above all other forms of disseminating archaeology. Even so, let me venture my opinion that despite all the reservations and circumstances outlined here specialised archaeology museums such as the Warsaw Museum should retain their special form as the most enduring institutions which stand guard over our archaeological heritage.
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