A letter from the Chairman

Let’s start with some history. The Congress of Polish Museologist (the Congress) was not born at a “green table”. In fact, “it was conceived” on a train from Kraków to Poznań, and it was “born” in a museum. On the said train, on 15 March 2012 the author of this text was travelling willingly for the next Time of Museums debate which was named “Museum as an Organisation of Creative Work”. The debate was to be held by the National Institute for Museums and Public Collections. Combining the advantages and duty — the Board of the Association of Polish Museologists set the date of their convention on the same day. My role was also to prepare points for the meeting, which I was perfecting during my trip. Realizing the pace of changes taking place around us, changes which directly impinge on the existence of museums, seeing social energy accumulating around museums, I began to harass myself with intrusive thought that there was a need for a radical extension of the environmental platform for a program debate over the role of contemporary museums and the essence our work. On the same day, in the afternoon, participating in the discussion which was also actively attended by Professor Piotr Majewski, the head of the National Institute for Museums and Public Collections, the idea of the First Congress of Polish Museologist crystallized. It also need to be mentioned that it happened in the hospitable space of the Musical Instruments Museum (a division of the National Museum in Poznań). Therefore, let’s call this event the “Initiative of Poznań”. The spark of the idea hit a dried pile of needs. In less than three months since, during the next convention of the board of the Association of Polish Museologists, on 1 June 2012 in the Museum of Technology and Communication in Szczecin, we were able to substantiate the idea of the Congress well enough to pass a resolution on this idea. Let’s call it the “Resolution of Szczecin”. Meanwhile, it turned out that the way of thinking of the Association of Polish Museologists is consistent with the discussion initiated at the same time by the people centred around the Polish National Committee of ICOM. After several working meetings, on 14 June 2013 in Kraków, we signed a cooperation agreement. It was signed on behalf of the Polish National Committee of ICOM by professor Dorota Folga–Januszewska and professor Stanislaw Waltoś, and by the undersigned on behalf of the Association of Polish Museologists. Let’s call this document the “Agreement of Kraków”.

Since then, the pace of the action was really swift. Having agreed upon initial assumptions of the event, on 28 March 2014 in Warsaw there was established the Congress Programme Committee which was created as an emanation of social organizations and institutions dealing with museology (National Institute for Museums and Public Collections and National Centre for culture), and the make up of which is included in this publication. The undersigned was elected as a chairman of the Congress Programme Committee, which may not have been reasonable, but easy enough as he has had a wide support of the environment conscious of the need to debate and open to change. Moreover, he received support from the National Institute for Museums and Public Collections which provided a secretary of the Congress Programme Committee — Mr Michał Wysocki was appointed to that position. Trying to distinguish courtesy from gratitude at this point I would like to thank Michał, who has been my closest peer, skillfully combining extraordinary commitment and high professionalism. The Programme Committee held 11 meetings, usually in Warsaw, some of them taking two days, which is worth emphasizing, as all its members have worked free of charge, travelling to the meetings from locations distant from the capital. During the meetings, we managed to develop the agenda of the Congress, define its objectives and outline the organizational framework of the project. Undoubtedly, the most important meeting was held on 30 July 2014 in Warsaw. During that meeting representatives of social organizations co-organizing the Congress (Association of Polish Museologists, Association of Open Air Museums, Polish National Committee of ICOM) and representatives of official institutions (National Institute for Museums and Public Collections, National Centre for Culture, Ministry of Culture) signed an agreement. In the first place, it was signed by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Małgorzata Omilanowska who was appointed to this position on 17 June 2014. Let’s call this document, also published in this brochure, the “Agreement of Warsaw”. If I may add my personal gloss, the participation of Mrs. Minister at all stages of our work must be called not only kind, but also enthusiastic and unwavering. Her consistent conviction to the idea of the Congress and the trust bestowed upon us restored our balance, added strength and supported at times when members of the Congress Programme Committee were overwhelmed by fatigue, doubt and confusion.

This is all I wanted to mention about historical events. After several years of dreaming and many months of preparation, the Congress is becoming a reality. During long discussions it was agreed that it will be held in Łódź. So let it go down in history as the “Congress of Łódź”. I will only add that, not without reason, I handed over the names of cities and museums where the idea of the Congress was forged. The Congress was not developed at the “green table” in the national capital. It was developed in museums, was born from the experience of museologists, it is a civic initiative, which was joined by the Minster of the Polish Government with the intention of team work and willingness to help in completion of this project. Thus, the Congress embodies the dream of a State we want to have, and this sublime event is sealed by the decision of the President of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski, who on 22 December 2014 took his highest patronage over the Congress.

***

Writing these words I do not know the effects the project is going to achieve. Why and by who is the Congress needed? What are its goals?
The answers to these fundamental questions should be divided into two categories. The Congress would be semi-reasonable if it was needed only by museologists. As far as we discover that museums are the common good of the society, then the perspective of museologists must emerge hand in hand with the perspective of public visiting museums. If we realize that statistics indicate the growing attendance at museums, which in year of the Congress probably will exceed 30 million, our perspective must be broad and refer to the Polish and European society. Thus, in both professional as well as the general and media perspective, the image of a museologist — a researcher isolated from the public and bent over an artefact studied in their laboratory – requires revision. This image long ago lost its relevance, the same as the stereotype of museums as places generally unfriendly, closed, isolating visitors from artefacts as much as they require visitors to wear felt slippers with a belt. Thus, the aim of the Congress is to break in the media stereotypes of museums and convince the public that they are modern institutions, their employees are open to change and present in today’s debate. Despite it is generally clear that museums play important role in nurturing and promoting the historical and national identity, it is still worth noting that the role of museum is also a social dialogue on current problems of our country and the modern world carried out from the perspective of collected treasures of culture and history.

It is obvious that the change of the perspective, or just its broadening, is transferred to increase in the activity of museums, which must be supported by both legislative processes and the change of perception of economic functions of museums. Far more dangerous than the stereotype of a “museum slipper” is another stereotype that shows museum as a recipient of funds from the public budget. It is necessary to inform the public that museums are completely different. Indeed museums acquire grants from public funds, but on economic ground, by generating the value, they return to the budget far more than they get. Museums are agents of local change, create jobs and demand for services around them. Most importantly, they demonstrate that the development cannot be associated only with economic development, as access to the culture is an inherent need for communities and individuals. In this context there is needed a major change in the system of financing museums. It is necessary to abandon discretionary subsidizing of museums by their supervisors depending on non-substantial reasons and apply a system which ensures stability of existence and development of museums. This system cannot ignore the issue of salaries for museologists because their current level in the long term, the high competence profession will turn into a profession of negative selection.
Another area to be settled is museum collections. If you need to realize that as a result of wars and annexations, the collections of Polish museums are poorer than those of other European countries, the more you need to create legal and financial conditions for permanent development of museum collections. This problem cannot be solved by operational programs of the state or local governments, because they prevent rapid response which is of key importance when trying to acquire pieces of art.

Also infrastructure requires serious consideration. Polish museums are now full of contrasts. New, stunning and arousing our pride museums grow alongside undercapitalized and non-modernized museum buildings. What is needed is a reflection on the desirability of large investments which is not to doubt they are reasonable, but it is to point the need of making investment into the existing assets. Polish museums, both in terms of the public space (exhibitions, educational rooms) and protection of collections (warehouses) must maintain a uniform standard appropriate to the level of the Polish State. Museums need intervention of the State and legislative changes directed towards creating a policy of cohesion and compensation of levels. Museums in Poland are in fact large or small, but the standard for their operation should be the same. A particular challenge is digitization of collections. Without a system solution this important and inevitable process will increase the disparity between institutions, diversify adverse technological standards and create problems which will be difficult to fix for numerous generations to come.

Also infrastructure requires serious consideration. Polish museums are now full of contrasts. New, stunning and arousing our pride museums grow alongside undercapitalized and non-modernized museum buildings. What is needed is a reflection on the desirability of large investments which is not to doubt they are reasonable, but it is to point the need of making investment into the existing assets. Polish museums, both in terms of the public space (exhibitions, educational rooms) and protection of collections (warehouses) must maintain a uniform standard appropriate to the level of the Polish State. Museums need intervention of the State and legislative changes directed towards creating a policy of cohesion and compensation of levels. Museums in Poland are in fact large or small, but the standard for their operation should be the same. A particular challenge is digitization of collections. Without a system solution this important and inevitable process will increase the disparity between institutions, diversify adverse technological standards and create problems which will be difficult to fix for numerous generations to come.

Questions about the goals of the Congress follow directly from the questions about what museums are needed today for? It is because a modern human needs an alternative to the civilization of shopping centres which surround us with a tight cordon of apparent attractiveness and shallow lack of content. Because our society needs energy. It is not hard to define it. It is called authenticity and verified truth. It is the energy that sleeps or just slumbers in monuments — artefacts that with support of museologists, are able to rise from the dead past to life. At the “Heritage First” conference which in March 2014 was held in Athens, the President of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), Hans-Martin Hinz said that museums were the cathedrals of the twenty-first century. Did he make a mistake? Has this formulation hallmarks of a sacrilege? If it had been said with the intention of giving the heritage features of the absolute sacred, probably we could consider it as an attempt of the Promethean theft of holiness. If, however, today we recognize a museum as a binder, which has the potential to create a community of individuals, then in fact, museums in this sense become modern “temples”. Museums are places where a huge social deficit is satisfied. This deficit is formed at the interface between tabloidisation and globalization. This is a deficit of the remembrance culture. It is because the past is just the same building block of humanity as the present.

Experiences that are not based on the past, lack of continuity, and that makes human existence empty and devoid of identity. Museums are therefore laboratories of “memory recovery”, which was forgotten and sometimes deliberately manipulated and deformed. Museums not only recover, but also “construct memory” which is building myths that are often constitutive and founding “anchor”. Thirdly, museums “protect and strengthen memory” founding in recent years a versatile tool for the implementation of this mission. This tool is called a “story” and it has therapeutic value if it is told without haste. This is a mission for a museologist – to tell a story.

Is every museum now able to take the new role? Is each of them capable of undergoing a process of change and open up to modernity while retaining extreme care not to lose all the important things on the way? Has every museum a rank and scale that would allow us to call it “a cathedral of the 21st Century” even if it is a prominent factor of the changes in its location? These questions are incorrect. Museum have no causative power. This is museologists who have that power. Of course if they want to have it. It is them who are the lifeblood of museums, they know the mysterious power that can animate a dead sheaf cap sleeping in an artefact and change it into a lively dancing imagination. They “evoke the spirits” in the Part Two of Forefathers by Adam Mickiewicz who in Part Three become the energy of the Nation. The Congress is a meeting that should liberate this energy. As conscious experience of the past and contemplating art, which proves it, makes people free.

 

Michał Niezabitowski

The First Congress of Polish Museologists