In Krakow there are as many as 82 museums and museum departments. So you can easily plan a two-week holiday at the Wawel Castle and not go out at all! Just as modern museums have long ago left their dusty showcases and are engaging visitors in a story about the heritage of culture and nature, so our story will not be limited to a dry overview of the institutions, but will serve as an introduction to the world of Krakow’s museum treasures. Let’s go!
Echoes of the Golden Age
The extraordinary diversity of Krakow’s museums can be proof of how the city – also through time – shapes its own identity, telling the story of itself through its collections and exhibitions,” wrote Łucja Piekarska-Duraj in an article about Krakow’s museums for the Krakow Culture portal. The ecosystem of Krakow’s museums can thus be arranged into a collection of stories about successive stages in the city’s history. For a start… let’s go underground.
Krakow’s central square – the Market Square – has its second, underground alter ego in the Traces of Krakow’s European Identity exhibition at the Krakow Museum’s branch Rynek Underground. Archaeological research carried out at the beginning of the 21st century on the occasion of the renovation of the Main Market Square inspired a multimedia exhibition in which the remains of an early medieval settlement became a contribution to the story of Krakow’s place in the network of cultural and commercial contacts in Europe. The intensive use of screens and touch panels is a trend in museology that is now slowly losing its momentum, but the tour in the Market Square’s basement enjoys enduring popularity – and is a valuable tourist attraction for the city.
A testimony to the heyday of Krakow from the 14th to the 16th century is provided by the State Art Collections at Wawel Castle. An impressive collection of Flemish tapestries purchased by King Sigismund Augustus is at their core is, but they also count on prints, sculptures, goldsmiths’ wares, militaria, porcelain and furniture from various periods collected in the Wawel chambers and the Crown Treasury. The collection of paintings, including a sizeable selection of early Italian paintings, is the result of numerous legacies and donations by Polish aristocracy and people of culture, with the Lanckoroński family collection at the forefront. Unique on a European scale are the Turkish tents captured by King Jan III Sobieski at the famous Battle of Vienna.
Despite the experiences of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Wawel art collection remains a first-class collection of European museum artefacts, and the stories of their wartime adventures and the dedication shown by their guardians are sometimes as interesting as the artistic value of the individual works themselves.
A walk through the treasures of medieval Krakow will be complemented by a visit to the Jagiellonian University Museum in the Gothic building of Collegium Maius (ul. Jagiellońska 15), which collects the treasures of the oldest Polish university, or a visit to the remains of Krakow’s defensive walls with their most characteristic element – the Barbican. The traditions of the Bractwo Kurkowe (the Fowler Brotherhood), a bourgeois self-defence organisation typical of the Middle Ages, are recounted in the Neo-Gothic Celestat Palace (ul. Lubicz 16). The Krakow-based Fowler Brotherhood was probably founded in the 14th century and still exists today, electing a fowler king from its ranks every year.
And if you feel like going back to even earlier times, it is worth visiting the nearby Archaeological Museum (3 Poselska Street), where numerous artefacts from the prehistoric period sit alongside Egyptian mummies and sarcophagi collected by Polish and Polish-Austrian scientific expeditions from the early 20th century.
Cultural capital of a non-existent country
The origins of museology in Krakow are precisely linked to the period of Austrian rule over the city, when Polish society, deprived of its own statehood, made Krakow the centre of its national imagination. The “cultural capital” of the non-existent country was then particularly favoured by the leading Polish noble families, who founded representative palaces and monasteries.
In 1876, Prince Władysław Czartoryski moved the oldest public museum in Poland to Krakow, based on the collections of a powerful Polish noble family gathered since the beginning of the 19th century in Puławy. The jewels of the collection of the Princes Czartoryski Museum, taken over by the state and transformed into a branch of the National Museum at 6 Pijarska Street, are the famous portrait of the Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci and the Landscape with a Merciful Samaritan by Rembrandt. The unique collection fortunately, although not in its entirety, survived the turmoil of the 20th century – Rafael Santi’s Portrait of a Young Man, which was part of it, was lost during the Second World War.
Three years later the City Council established the National Museum in Krakow – the oldest and largest museum in the country with the adjective “national” in its name, with a collection that now numbers more than 900,000 exhibits. The third key museum established in the 19th century was the Museum of Kraków, founded in 1899.
The representative facility of the National Museum in Krakow is the Main Building (l. 3 Maja 1), built in the inter-war period, full of modernist monumentalism and simplicity, with exhibitions devoted to artistic crafts and art of the 20th and 21st centuries, but the symbolic heart of the museum’s collections is the Gallery of 19th-Century Polish Art on the first floor of the renaissance Cloth Hall building on the Main Square. Visitors can see both leading works of historicism, crucial to the development of national consciousness in the 19th century, such as Jan Matejko’s Prussian Homage (1879-1882), as well as works that transcend their era, such as Władysław Podkowiński’s scandalous Madness (1893).
A visit to the Cloth Hall should be combined with a “small black coffee” drunk on the terrace of the Szał (Madness) Café, located on the roof of the building. It offers a unique view of the Market Square.
The pulse of European Art Nouveau
Another artist greater than the times in which he lived was Stanisław Wyspiański, the man-orchestra of European Art Nouveau and a leading representative of the literary and artistic movement of Young Poland at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Stanisław Wyspiański biographical museum in the Old Granary building (Plac Sikorskiego 6) tells the story of the versatile oeuvre of this outstanding Cracovian.
Two blocks away, in an inconspicuous one-storey tenement house at ul. Krupnicza 26, lived and worked Józef Mehoffer – somewhat in Wyspiański’s shadow, but an equally talented painter, graphic artist and stained-glass artist. The added value of a visit to the Józef Mehoffer House is the beautiful garden which inspired the artist’s work. During the summer season, a café operates on this small island of greenery in the middle of the city.
The fruit of the widespread fascination of bourgeois Europe with the Orient at the end of the 19th century is the unique collection of Japanese art amassed during this period by Feliks “Manggha” Jasieński. Hokusai and Hiroshige woodcuts, old prints, samurai armour and musical instruments were given a new home in the 1990s in the phenomenal, award-winning architectural building of the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology (ul. Konopnickiej 26), inspiring interest in Far Eastern culture among successive generations of visitors.
The Remembrance Trail
The drama served up to the world by the two totalitarian systems of the twentieth century is inevitably reflected in the offer of Krakow’s museums. You can learn about the reality of the Nazi occupation in Krakow by visiting the popular exhibition in the former Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory in Zabłocie (ul. Lipowa 4), the nearby Pod Orłem Pharmacy (Plac Bohaterów Getta 18) in the centre of the former ghetto, where during the war the Polish pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz organised help for the Polish-Jewish inhabitants of Krakow, and also the memorial on the site of the former concentration camp KL Plaszow, now being transformed into a museum.
The picture of an era in which the individual lost in the clash with history will be completed by a visit to the Home Army Museum (ul. Wita Stwosza 12) documenting the Polish resistance movement of the Second World War, and at ul. Pomorska 2 (a branch of the Krakow Museum), on the site of the former Gestapo prison, where not only the repressions of the Nazi period, but the crimes of Stalinism that followed, were documented.
The best final point on this peculiar “Route of Remembrance” will be a visit to Nowa Huta – the flagship workers’ town of post-war Poland. The Museum of Nowa Huta there (Os. Centrum E 1) brings you closer to a period marked on the one hand by political oppression and on the other by enormous social transformations, the development of architecture and applied arts.
Art here and now
After such a solid dose of history, it is worth devoting attention to the heritage of contemporary art. Since 2011, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow (MOCAK), symbolically located in a part of Oskar Schindler’s former factory at ul. Lipowa 4, has been presenting the achievements of the post-war avant-garde and the work of contemporary artists. A must-see when visiting MOCAK is a photograph inside the installation by Stanisław Dróżdż entitled Between. Its interior is densely covered with letters of the alphabet arranged at various angles.
Complementary to the Museum, contemporary art is presented in the city’s Bunkier Sztuki gallery, located in a modernist concrete pavilion in the Old Town (pl. Szczepański 3). At the time of writing this article (2022), the building is undergoing renovation. A valuable overview of the history of contemporary Polish art, from Wyspiański’s pastel portraits to the record-breaking works of Wilhelm Sasnal, is provided by the Gallery of 20th- and 21st-century Polish Art in the Main Building of the National Museum (al. 3 Maja 1).
Krakow’s theatrical traditions and the contribution of local artists to the development of this branch of art are presented by the Cricoteka Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor in an unusual facility in the Old Podgórze district (ul. Nadwiślańska 2/4), suspended over a former power station building, and by the Museum Interactive Centre for Theatre Education (MICET), which operates at Poland’s oldest theatre stage – the Helena Modrzejewska National Old Theatre (ul. Jagiellońska 1).
Museums of technology
From its beginnings, the process of exploring successive aspects of mankind’s cultural heritage has been evident in museology. As early as the turn of the 20th century, learning about the heritage of technology became as interesting an activity as admiring works of art. It was no different in Krakow, where there are several museums of this type.
In the 1980s, Poland’s pioneering Museum of Photography (MuFo) was established in Krakow. A permanent exhibition devoted to the history of the medium that revolutionised the way we look at the world has been on display since 2021 in a specially adapted building of the former armoury at ul. Rakowicka 22A . The museum’s offer is complemented by an exhibition in the main building at 16 Józefitów Street, where one can learn how the collections are archived and preserved, and by temporary exhibitions in the openwork structure of the former shooting range at ul. Królowej Jadwigi 220tin the Wola Justowska district.
A treat for aviation enthusiasts is a visit to the huge hangars of the Museum of Polish Aviation on the site of the former airport in Czyżyny (39 Jana Pawła II Avenue). More than 200 aircraft are on display there, including 25 aircraft from Hermann Göring’s abandoned private collection. Also noteworthy is the old tram depot in the Kazimierz district, which houses the Museum of Engineering and Technology (ul. Św. Wawrzyńca 15).
Closer to the everyday
The development of museology has also been and continues to be a movement from the elite towards the experience of the ordinary person and his or her fate, from the centre to the periphery (or perhaps from what we used to call the centre – to the centre proper?). First and foremost, we should mention the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum, established in 1911, with its main exhibition in the building of the old town hall of the former town of Kazimierz (1 Wolnica Square), which advertises itself with the significant slogan “My museum, a museum about me”. There you can not only learn about the world of the old Polish countryside, but also see how ethnographers saw it (or wanted to see it).
The tangible and intangible heritage closely associated with Kraków is recounted in the exhibition “Kraków od początku, bez końca” (Kraków from the beginning, without end) at the Krzysztofory Palace – the main seat of the Museum of Kraków (Rynek Główny 35). A highlight of the collections of both these institutions is the collection of original Kraków nativity scenes bringing closer the tradition included in 2018 on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The rich and complex history of Krakow’s Jewish community and the former multicultural region of Galicia is told by the Galicia Jewish Museum at 18 Dajwór Street in Kazimierz. Its creator was British photographer Chris Schwarz, who together with anthropologist Jonathan Webber travelled through southern Poland for years, documenting the memory of a culture tragically marked by the stigma of war. Also worth a look is the nearby Old Synagogue, one of the most valuable monuments of Jewish sacred architecture in Europe.
Neighbourhood museums and memorial rooms
Museums’ efforts to meet the needs of local communities are reflected in smaller-scale, intimate exhibitions presenting the culture of Krakow’s bourgeoisie (the Hipolit Tenement House, Plac Mariacki 3) or the history of the village of Bronowice, beloved by Krakow artists at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (the Rydlówka Manor House, ul. Tetmajera 28). The trend of district museums is followed by the branches of the Museum of Kraków – the Museum of Podgórze (ul. Limanowskiego 51) and the aforementioned Museum of the Nowa Huta.
An undoubted peculiarity of Krakow is the accumulation of biographical micro-museums devoted to selected figures important to the city’s culture, usually located in places connected with their lives. How about a visit to Jan Matejko’s private flat and manor house (ul. Floriańska 41, ul. Wańkowicza 25) or the room, reproduced 1:1, of Józef Czapski – painter, draughtsman and essayist distinguished for his contribution to post-war émigré culture (Czapski Pavilion, ul. Piłsudskiego 12)?
Regardless of whose space we are looking into, unexpected encounters with the world of the ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ are a unique experience to be had in these places.
While we are on the subject of creativity and heritage, museums in old craft studios cannot be overlooked. We can experience this kind of fusion of the past and the present by visiting the Stained Glass Workshop and Museum in an inconspicuous bourgeois tenement house at al. Krasińskiego 23. This is both an active company handling orders for stained glass from all over Poland (and beyond) and an open workshop with an educational profile. On over 100-year-old wooden tables, the studio’s employees assemble colourful glass from current orders before our eyes, and two floors above we can admire the most interesting realizations, with stained-glass designs by Mehoffer and Wyspiański at the forefront. The activities of the Krakow Glassworks at ul. Lipowa 3 have been heading in a similar direction in recent years.
Natural history museums
The last stop on our tour is the natural history museums. First and foremost, the Natural History Museum of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences (u. Sebastiana 9) with its 30,000-year-old, only fully preserved woolly rhinoceros in the world. It is also the Museum of the Botanical Garden of the Jagiellonian University (ul. Kopernika 27), surrounded by the enchanting space of a vast garden with historic greenhouses and a 150-year-old Canary Island date palm hidden under a specially built openwork structure. One gets the impression that the commissioning of a new 21-metre high palm greenhouse has pleased Cracovians more than the construction of most office buildings growing like everywhere else in the world!
The list of natural history museums closes with the small Geological Museum of the Polish Academy of Sciences (ul. Senacka 3) and the recently opened Centre for Nature Education at the Jagiellonian University campus in the Ruczaj district (ul. Gronostajowa 5), aimed primarily at educating the youngest.
Krakow can be read as a kind of “cabinet of curiosities” filled with artefacts from different places and eras. It is up to the talent and creativity of the museum professionals, as well as our openness to the unknown, to determine how much we take away from it for ourselves. More and more new initiatives are springing up in the city, project-based or itinerant museums. Each of these has as simple as it is complex an objective – to enchant a chosen slice of reality and engage in a game that results in an even better understanding of our place in the world.
An example of this is the Museum of Comics (ul. Sarego 7) or the emerging Museum of Toys, whose starting point is an original private collection of more than 40,000 antique toys from various eras assembled by the Sosenk family from Krakow. Saved from obscurity and oblivion, inconspicuous cars, wooden figures and ships, rag dolls and teddy bears bring us important reflections on what objects once were for people – and what they are today, in the flood of plastic, mass production and universal temporariness.
Yet another kind of museum experience might be a visit to the open-access archive of the Museum of Krakow – Thesaurus Cracoviensis (ul. Księcia Józefa 337). In the vast spaces of the storerooms and conservation workshops, each of us can gain our own piece of knowledge about the past.
The genius loci of Krakow, a city that has made memory its hallmark, makes it possible to reflect thoroughly on our relationship with the past. And to think whether, in the face of climatic threats and an uncertain past, our ancestors have something interesting to tell us!