THE POWER OF THE STORY: From an Old Chronicle to a Modern Museum - Polish History Museum in Warsaw SKIP_TO
Visit Przejdź do sklepu

THE POWER OF THE STORY: From an Old Chronicle to a Modern Museum

Is history science or literature? Who has shaped our ideas about the past over the centuries and how? A medieval chronicle, souvenirs of national heroes, and a historical novel are different tools for community building. For whom were historical images and works of literature/film created? A new temporary exhibition at the Polish History Museum presents a variety of ways of telling history and the impact they have had on shaping Polish identity.

Key information

01. When?

From: 15/06/2024
To: 15/09/2024

02. Where?

Muzeum Historii Polski

03. Curator of the exhibition

Michał Bąk, Tomasz Borowski PhD, prof. Aleksandra Jakóbczyk-Gola, prof. Michał Kopczyński, Grzegorz Rogowski

04. Ticket prices

od 10 PLN
A 15th-century manuscript version of Wincenty Kadłubek’s Chronicle

On paper

We will begin our journey in the times of the Piasts and Jagiellons, when the task of chroniclers was above all to strengthen the authority of the ruling dynasty. At the heart of the story, therefore, are the chronicles of Gallus Anonymus, Wincenty Kadłubek, Maciej Miechowita and Marcin Kromer. The idea that the history of a state is in fact the history of a ruling family is expressed by a valuable Baroque monstrance from Henryków with a representation of the Tree of Jesse, the family tree of Jesus.

A complementary element to the narrative is a discussion of the importance of family chronicles, which also date back to medieval times and which also reinforced identity and a sense of connection to Poland. In addition to texts or collections of family letters from the time of the January Uprising, we also present an original 15th-century shield of arms from Sandomierz, which is not typically on public display. The exhibition also includes interactive elements, such as a stand enabling visitors to learn about the legends of Polish coats of arms presented on the pages of a Gelderland book of heraldry written down in the 14th century.
A processional monstrance in the shape of the Tree of Jesse
A painting depicting the Battle of Vienna from a series on Polish history created by the Brotherhood of St Luke

On canvas

Further on, we can see how historical painting was involved in the propaganda of power. We look at how the presentation of historical scenes built community identity. 

Just like throughout modern Europe, in the past Polish Commonwealth painting was used to create propaganda celebrating monarchs or representatives of the political elite - magnates and victorious leaders. The same depictions captured in copperplate and oil paintings were also reproduced on precious metal objects, such as the elaborate medals presented at the exhibition with the images of Sigismund III Vasa and his son Władysław IV, commemorating the victory over the Muscovite army at Smolensk in 1634.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of historiosophic painterly visions such as that of Jan Matejko, whose paintings created a unique national mythology. It was forever inscribed in the Polish imaginarium, sometimes speaking in warning at other times recalling past glories. The series History of Civilisation in Poland was particularly important in this context. The exhibition features the painting The Power of the Polish Commonwealth at Its Peak from 1889, which is part of the series. 

Also on view are paintings by Józef Brandt and January Suchodolski, as well as canvases by the Brotherhood of St Luke, the last great historical painting project, whose aim was to present the story of the Polish past at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The series remains in dialogue with the aforementioned works by Matejko. 

A highlight in this section is a multi-sensory presentation of the painting Battle of Klushino by Szymon Boguszewicz, using sound and smell to recreate the impression of the battle.
The power of the Polish Commonwealth at its peak - a painting by Jan Matejko from the series ‘The History of Civilisation in Poland’
The funeral lodge of Prince Józef Poniatowski

In the crowd

The following part of the exhibition is devoted to holidays and mass celebrations, i.e. ways of shaping memory through communal experience. Solemn commemorations of anniversaries have acquired the value of a new language for telling history, turning it into an experience of collective memory. 

The anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald became the first secular national holiday, appropriating the religious feast of the Dispersion of the Apostles. We present a 15th-century collection of sermons by Mikołaj of Błonie commemorating this very feast day, as well as original swords from the period, in reference to the myth of the two naked swords from Grunwald.
A postcard: Scenes with motifs from Sienkiewicz’s books according to a drawing by Adam Setkowicz 1910–1939

In print

Print technology revolutionised the reception of content, including historical content, which became more widely available cultural elements - over time becoming the leaven of popular culture. Reading has entered the canon of entertainment and the experience of everyday life.

An important character in this story is Henryk Sienkiewicz. His works - initially published in episodes - created a vision of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, still strongly influencing the mass imagination today. The exhibition presents various testimonies to the popularity of Sienkiewicz’s works: their adaptations on theatre stages and cinema screens, or numerous  - enthusiastic and critical  - opinions about the author.

An interesting object is the watercolour Wołodyjowski’s Gift by Jan Rosen, relating the unusual story of the donation of a large sum of money to the author by a donor who signed his name after a character from the novel. Also on display are postcards and photographs of Sienkiewicz’s manor house in Oblęgorek, as well as a collection of documents relating to the ceremonies of his funeral and the public reception of the event, including the timetable of the extraordinary train carrying the writer’s body. The exhibition is rounded off by elements of contemporary popular culture, showing how alive the characters from the pages of The Trilogy (by Sienkiewicz) still are.
A patriotic wire: Towarzystwo Czytelni Ludowych in Poznań - a scene from the novel The Lighthouse Keeper by Henryk Sienkiewicz
A still from the film Pan Tadeusz - a group scene in which a large number of costumes made especially for this production were used

On screen

Moving on, we go to the beginnings of Polish historical cinema. The late 1920s saw the professionalisation of storytelling. Historically faithful costumes and sets began to be designed, with attention to detail, such as in the films Sir Thaddeus (original title Pan Tadeusz) and Chopin’s Youth (original title Młodość Chopina). The exhibition features the original watercolour set designs for these films.

Censorship applied to films is also an important topic. One of the manifestations of censorship in post-war cinema was the phenomenon of ‘shelved’ films that were kept on hold and not to be distributed. They did, however, reach the public through reprints of the script in illegal publications or in the form of videotape recordings. One example is the story of Ryszard Bugajski’s film Interrogation (original title Przesłuchanie). The audience is treated to numerous stills from the film and a presentation of excerpts from it, as well as a valuable reprint of its script. Undoubtedly, the most colourful part of the module is the story of the great historical productions of Polish cinema. Attention of the visitor is certainly drawn to archive interviews with the filmmakers and the original costumes from the films Barbara Radziwłłówna’s Epithaph (original title Epitafium Barbary Radziwiłłówny) and The Deluge (original title Potop), which show the richness and attention to detail of Polish historical cinema.
Krystyna Janda in the film Interrogation (1981/1989), bluntly touching on the subject of Stalinist terror and therefore not allowed to be distributed until the fall of communism. National Film Archive -Audiovisual Institute
A mock-up of the National Museum in Warsaw made on the basis of Tadeusz Tolwiński’s design from 1926–1935

Behind the glass

The exhibition closes with a section devoted to museums. It begins with a presentation of the oldest museum initiatives from the end of the 18th century, above all the Sybil Temple, founded by Izabela Czartoryska, the first museum collecting Polish historical memorabilia. On display is a painting from 1880 showing a view of this building and also, from the collections of our museum, one of the oldest Polish museum catalogues: A list of keepsakes held at the Gothic House in Puławy. The story also concerns projects never completed - the Musaeum Polonicum of Michał Mniszch from 1775, whose oil portrait painted by Marcello Bacciarelli is on display, and the vision of the reconstruction of Wawel Castle from the early 20th century by Stanisław Wyspiański.

The exhibition presents various incarnations of the idea of a national museum - from its first execution in the 19th century in Krakow, through the initiative to create it in Warsaw, seen as an objective of the cultural policy of the new, independent state, to the reconstruction of the Royal Castle after the Second World War. 

The module closes with a presentation of Polish museums built in the 21st century. The topic is illustrated by implemented - or not - concepts of museum buildings, including the latest ones, also presented in the form of mock-ups.
Makieta Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich – Polin

Related Exhibitions