An Autumn Journey through Poland
by Dr. Ute Wartenberg, ANS Executive Director
In September of 2016, our annual Sage Society trip brought a group of members to Poland, a country with a long, distinguished, sometimes painful history, which we were able to witness in its beautiful towns, palaces and museums. As on so many other journeys of the Sage Society, during which we try to get to know a country by experiencing art, culture, numismatics with good food and wine, Poland offered plenty in every respect. What set this trip apart from previous ones was the extraordinary kindness of our hosts.
We began our trip in Warsaw, the country’s capital, where we visited the National Bank of Poland’s newly opened Centre of Money. Here Marta Dulinicz, the head of the Education Department as well as a trained numismatist, gave us an insight into the economic history of Poland and its banking system. The next day, we went to the national numismatic collection of Poland with over 250,000 objects, which is housed in the National Museum and still undergoing a program of modernization, but our group was fortunate to still see a small display of coins, which closed the next week, and enjoy a private tour of the cabinet. Although not strictly numismatic, we also greatly enjoyed the Farras Gallery, which displays the extraordinary group of Nubian paintings from an 8th century cathedral, which were brought to to Warsaw by Polish excavators as part of the Aswan damn rescue excavations. Over lunch in the restaurant Kafe Zielony Niedźwiedź , located in one of Warsaw's many beautiful parks, the Deputy Director of the Museum, Dr. Piotry Rypson, explained the challenges that Polish museums face today. While other European and US museums have been working on exhibitions and digitization, the national museum is still trying to catch up when it comes to cataloguing its enormous holdings of objects.
Another highlight of Warsaw was Wilanów, a beautiful residence and park. Built in the 17th century, the Baroque palace became the property of Aleksandra Potocka and her husband Stanislaw Kostka Potocki in 1799, who turned it into the first museum in Poland. The painting of the former owner, by Europe’s most celebrated neo-Classical painter, Jean-Louis David, is one of the most famous pieces in this collection. We were also amazed by the beautiful display of inscriptions, Roman portrait busts and Greek vases in the so-called Etruscan Room of Wilanów Palace.
In recent years, Poland has focused on creating narrative exhibitions, which deal with its more recent history, and in particular the Second Word War and the Holocaust. Two contemporary museums illustrating the history of the Jews in Poland were part of our tour. The Polin Museum, which opened to major acclaim in 2013 and won the European Museum of the Year award in 2016, provides its many visitors (over 450,000 to date) with an extraordinary multimedia display, which illustrates the history of the Jewish community in Poland. Built on top of the area of the former Warsaw Ghetto, visitors learn about Shtetl culture of small Jewish towns all over Eastern Europe, the cosmopolitan art scene in Warsaw, the Holocaust and the treatment of Jews under Communism. We encountered a similar concept of a museum display in Oskar Schindler’s Factory in Krakow, where the enamelware factory, now turned into a museum, provides the setting for a presentation of the fate of rescued Jewish workers and Jewish life, which was made famous by Steven Spielberg's 1993 film.
One of the highlights of our tour of Poland was our visit to at Nieborów Castle. While most tourists follow the tour guide through the famous baroque palace, built by one of Europe’s great 17th century architects, the Dutchman Tylman van Gameren, we were allowed to stay in the very rooms where the aristocratic family once lived. Renovated at multiple occasions over the centuries, we enjoyed a lavish dinner and after-dinner drinks in the grand rooms of this castle. We were most fortunate that the gorgeous autumn weather we enjoyed all week made our afternoon walk through Arkadia, the nearby 18th century Romantic park at Nieborów, a most memorable experience.
On our visit from Nieborów to Krakow, we visited – alas briefly – Wrocław and the renowned Ossolineum, housed in a stunning Baroque palace on the Odra river, which was rebuilt after the second World War to its 17th century original splendor. Today it is home to the Ossolineum Library – an important research center of Polish history and national archive. Founded by Józef Maksymilian Ossolinski, an avid collector, it was originally housed in Lvov (Lwów, today in western Ukraine), but during World War II, it was moved in parts to Krakow. It contains a wonderful numismatic collection, and its staff was able to show us some amazing highlights among their many coins. The curator of ancient coins, Adam Dengler, explained to us how he and his colleagues are trying to add to the collection by occasionally purchasing from local auctions.
Krakow was our final destination, and here we learned a great deal about earlier Polish history. Wawel Castle, the royal medieval residence built by Kasimir III (1333-1370) and occupied by Polish kings, is today Poland’s most impressive historic site. After our guided tour, we visited the Museum of the Jagiellonian University Collegium Maius, a small but fascinating museum in the oldest university building in Poland, which dates to the 14th century. Here our group was particularly fascinated by the collections of scientific instruments, which also included the oldest known globes showing the Americas. For the numismatists on our tour, the visit to the Emeryk Hutten-Czapski Museum was perhaps the most enjoyable part of our stay in Krakow. Here our colleague, Jarosław Bodzek and a full team of curators hosted us in this beautiful museum, which was recently renovated. All of us were most impressed by the display of ancient and Polish coins, books and other objects; all vitrines had touch screens, which provide important information about the coins on display as well as enlargement of obverse and reverse of both coins.
Our last vist in Krakow was to the Wieliczka salt mine, which consists of a labyrinth of tunnels, some 2,000 chambers and 178 miles of galleries carved out over seven centuries and distributed over 1,100 feet underground. Over two hours, our group climbed stairs to reach extraordinary spaces in which many famous artworks were all re-imagined as salt sculptures. People often visit the mine and its spa to cure respiratory diseases, as the salty air is supposed to cure them. Our visit ended with a memorable lunch underground.
As mentioned above, our group learned to love Poland and its people. We were most fortunate to have had our friend and colleague, Dr. Aleksander Bursche, as advisor and organizer without whom it would have been difficult to replicate this trip. However, his hospitality went beyond anything we have ever experienced before. On our first night in Warsaw, he and his family invited our big group to his home for a wonderful dinner of Polish delicacies. For us, this was the culinary highpoint of our trip, and although we enjoyed excellent food in some of Poland's finest restaurants, this first evening was special. Tomek Wiecek, an archaeologist and numismatic expert on Sicilian coins, travelled with us and, during our journey, he became our dear friend. In him we found a most charming young man and - very surprisingly - an expert of the American Civil War, Polish history and almost any subject. When he left us after five days, many of us shed a tear, and we hope to see him again soon. The Sage trip through Poland opened a new world to us, in which a modern, young country builds proudly on its history.