31 January 2017

An interview with Director Marcin Hamkało of the Pan Tadeusz Museum in Wrocław

Category: XXw, Polish historiography, News, Borderlands, sources, Political history, Social history, Cultural history, Memory studies, history of Polish culture


The interview below with Marcin Hamkało founding director of the Pan Tadeusz Museum in Wrocław, touches on relevances and complications of the Adam Mickiewicz poem from which the new museum takes its name. Director Hamkało discusses further aspects of Mickiewicz in present-day Polish consciousness, and key features and extensions of the museum and its exhibition.

As an object lesson in a whole institution equalling more than the sum of its constituent presentations, the Pan Tadeusz Museum, filling a rowhouse on the central market in Wrocław, has established an impressive example. Opened in May 2016, the museum is based on collections from the Ossolineum (the National Ossoliński Institute) – the research institution that’s been a core feature of revitalized Wrocław since its relocation in 1947 from Lviv, where it had opened to the public in 1827.

More specifically, the new museum embeds its thematic cornerstone, the surviving manuscript of Adam Mickiewicz’s classic book-length poem, in a rich level of Ossolineum artifacts and curatorial explications regarding its author and his historical context. The ante is then upped with a more contemporary level of context: the lives, works and collections of two other ardent Polish resistance icons, writers and patriots, Wladysław Bartoszewski and Jan Nowak-Jeziorański. By contextualizing Mickieiwicz with the famed historian, oppositionist and minister, and the wartime courier and Voice of America lynchpin, the Pan Tadeusz Museum both utilizes and revitalizes the relevance of Poland’s legendary poet and his final paean to defeated ambition.

Even more, the museum will be expanding its presence over 2017. Publication of a new volume on the rowhouse in which it resides will portray the significance of the historic building, in the city to which historians Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse dedicated their entire volume Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City in 2002. Work progresses over coming seasons on presenting visitors with yet another Ossolineum archive, rife with the present exhibition’s prevailing themes of writing and poetry, advocacy and brilliant resistance in the face of trying repressions: that of the late poet and arch playwright Tadeusz Różewicz, Wrocław resident from 1968 until his death in spring 2014.


Alan Lockwood: In one of his many highly regarded books, the literary critic and theorist Georg Brandes details four trips he made across Polish lands between 1885 and 1899, writing acutely about people he met and conditions they endured after decades of partitions and occupation. In his 1886 study, The Romantic Literature of Poland in the Nineteenth Century, the renowned Danish critic found an apex in Pan Tadeusz.

Marcin Hamkało: The study was originally written in Danish?

AL: Yes. He also wrote in French and German, with his works promptly published in those languages. These Polish works came out in an English volume in 1903. Brandes repeats a singular admiration for Poles then adds this proviso: „As a critic, therefore, I am bound to be on my guard against the pleasant promptings of gratitude.”

He found Pan Tadeusz to be the single work in which one of the great Polish bards „attempted to give a picture of the many-sided national culture during a period of agitation of which he was himself a witness; […] the only one in which the poet does not think it beneath him to let everyday men appear in large numbers; finally, the only one in which the keynote is no longer that of tragical or lyrical exaltation, but a quiet humor, from which the passage to satire, tenderness, melancholy, or enthusiasm is easy.”

Then he writes, as a general assessment: „In Pan Tadeusz, Poland possesses the only successful epic our century has produced.”

MH: But there probably were no other epics written after the 18th century. And there’s a very big problem in such discussions: is Pan Tadeusz an epic at all? The vision from outside Poland is probably different from the vision inside Poland.


Polish maps, and other paradoxes

AL: Given Brandes’ standing – not to mention the utility of nationalist epics through the nationalistic 19th century – what was the initial vision of the poem from inside Poland?

MH: The audience here was looking – and waiting – for some kind of legendary piece of art to establish the symbol of vanishing or vanished Polish culture. That of Polish nobles: the szlachta, a world that had already vanished.

AL: When you say vanished, was this from the normal passage of time, or due to the corrosive reality in occupied, partitioned Polish lands?

MH: It was in one way the normal passage of time, the progress of European civilization and the normalization of the role of the nobles in European society. This of course was according to the French Revolution and progress in laws. The modern idea of society was completely different from that on which the Polish nobility had been established – especially the rights of women and workers, in that there had been a kind of slavery.

AL: Under the szlachta. Is land reform included under workers’ rights?

MH: Yes, it is. As to Poland under partitions, we have a map on the first floor in the third gallery, which shows places in which Mickiewicz wrote some important pieces. There are no Polish cities or places on that map – all are abroad, in Russia, in Turkey, Switzerland, Italy, Germany.

AL: It’s commonly said that Mickiewicz, the greatest Polish poet, was never in Warsaw or Kraków.

MH: Yes – he never visited Warsaw, Kraków, Wrocław, Gdańsk. Actually, he may be the main insider who’s a pure outsider. Through his whole life, as a European intellectual and a European writer, his view on Poland, Polish history and literaturę, was probably from the outside.

AL: Mickiewicz now appears to be a pioneer of a broader sense of cultural influence. A schoolboy in Novogrodek, which is now in Belarus, where the family house with its museum stands today, moved from the village of his birth. Belarusians have a growing appreciation of Mickiewicz, and a distinctive way of spelling his name. Vilnius and his Lithuanian context exposes in similar yet specific ways the nationalized boundaries that have been created or imposed ever since his era.

MH: Part of why Pan Tadeusz is so contemporary for us may be that it’s based on paradoxes. On kinds of visions that are not quite based on facts, a kind of paradigm, a myth built on ideas and on literaturę. Maybe that’s why the book remains so influential – it shows visions of some kind of no-longer existing world. 

AL: Brandes writes of a Poland in which „the national character was peculiarly adapted to assmilate Romanticism, [and] the common national misfortune had moreover given a romantic bias to minds.” He specifies that this was not „contingent upon a dislike to reality, but upon the sense that the fatherland was already an unreality, something which must be believed in, and could not be seen with the bodily eye.”

MH: When Pan Tadeusz was written, from 1832 to 1834 – in Paris, mainly – it was just after the November Uprising. Which had been defeated, and there was no quiet vision of victory left, of reestablishing the political freedom of Poland.

AL: Mickiewicz must’ve been a wreck then, writing this book-length poem to in some way contend with a terrible time for Polish nationalism.

MH: It was a very specific time in Polish history. If the culture and history of the Great Emigration, again mainly in Paris, couldn’t believe any longer in those possiblities, there wouldn’t be good reasons to believe in them at all at that time.

It is very important that after writing Pan Tadeusz, Mickiewicz stopped writing and started to act. He died in Istanbul in 1855, as a political leader who didn’t believe in the power of literaturę but believed in uprising, in fighting with arms in hand. They actually didn’t believe then that the vision could work. But it worked, in some way.

You know, Pan Tadeusz isn’t quite a Romantic epic – neither quite an epic nor a Romantic piece of literature. It’s so different from Dziady and other pieces of Mickiewicz’s work.

AL: In what ways?

MH: Again, friends of Mickiewicz, when they first read Pan Tadeusz, felt it was not what they had been waiting for. It’s about pastoral country life and some strange, not quite heroic personages.

AL: Including Rykow, a memorable Russian character who’s a good person at heart, when Russia was probably the most implacable oppressor of Poles.

MH: These friends knew the history, about the war with Russia and how it ended. So they knew there would be no happy ending.

Mickiewicz, when he was 15 or 16, had chosen „Napoleon” as a second name. He’d believed in the idea of a Napoleonic Europe, of working on re-establishing the Polish nation.

AL: He was one of that important phase of Romantic-era writers who felt very similarly, even since their young years – Heine wanting unity for Germans, Stendhal supporting the Italian cause.


Censorship: from Mickiewicz to Bartoszewski

AL: What were the concerns in publishing and dispersing Pan Tadeusz, given strict censorship existing in Polish lands at that time?

MH: There wasn’t censorship in Paris in those days, and the first edition of the book was printed there.

AL: Though if you were caught with it at the border, you’d have a tough time answering the Russian authorities.

MH: Of course. They had to smuggle it over the borders. Speaking of censorship, there’d been censorship when Mickiewicz was publishing in Russia.

AL: His Konrad Wallenrod wields a highly subversive message for a verse drama, but was actually passed over by the Russian censor and published in 1828.

MH: With lots of luck. Probably the censor didn’t understand it correctly , because it certainly was revolutionary. There wasn’t such a problem with Pan Tadeusz, but of course the next editions were censored. We have one of those editions.

Censorship is a topic that connects the two main parts of our exhibition. For the Romantics in Russia and Poland, there was censorship through the 19th century. In parallel, we show the same in Communist Poland.

AL: With the collections of Władysław Bartoszewski and Jan Nowak-Jeziorański.

MH: Yes. In the Bartoszewski Cabinet galleries, there is an app that shows how that censorship worked.

With Pan Tadeusz, the text was published as it was written. But in the manuscript, we have small and even big differences between that printed edition and the original version. Even in the first four lines of the poem, there are differences. In that invocation, the part that Poles know by memory, mostly from school, of course.

AL: And can repeat by heart.

MH: It is a text that connects the generations over the decades, across nearly two centuries. In our manuscript, the only manuscript that has survived through time, there are real differences in the text of that invocation. This shows his work on the text. And it shows that the muse that struck the poet is not the only muse he needs to fully complete the text and reveal the poem to readers.

Our educational program is based on that idea, that you must really work on it – not just have the vision and that’s it. We say to kids: Let’s try then to make workshops on it – to make progress with your skills. It’s hard work to write such an epic: every literary work is very hard work. We try to show this to them.


Matrix of manuscript and the Rynek rowhouse

AL: How did your Pan Tadeusz manuscript survive?

MH: His son preserved it until 1871, then sold it to the Tarnowski family in Kraków, who kept it in the family castle at Dzików. After the start of the Second World War, they put it in the Ossolineum in Lviv, because they thought that would be the safest place to preserve it.

They were wrong, because the Russians took Lviv, then the Germans took Lviv from the Russians. They took the manuscript and other treasures of the Ossolineum, and tried to get them to Germany. Most of them stayed in Lviv and survived, and are in Ukrainian institutions right now.

But the manuscript vanished, then was recovered in 1945 in a village in Silesia, near here, Zagrodno, where a boy discovered some papers he used to roll cigarettes, because the paper was thin. Legend says he knew the text, and recognized it when he looked more closely.

Then the Communist government gave the manuscript to the Ossolineum, which was then in Wrocław and part of a national institution. In the 1990s, the Tarnowski family at last sold it, as it had been deposited with the Ossolineum.

AL: Explain the decisions to make a public museum out these important aspects of the Ossolineum collections, with the central element being the invaluable Pan Tadeusz manuscript. To position it within social, artistic, political and historical contexts from Mickiewicz’s era, then add relevant layers of significance with the collections of Bartoszewski and Nowak-Jeziorański.

In terms of creating the museum and structuring the exhibition, this position of the Pan Tadeusz Museum on the central market square is significant – but I’m curous about the timing of it all. The official manuscript sale occurred in more recent years – did that permit discussions of how a museum could be fashioned around it?

MH: Exactly – that was the idea. To have the manuscript and make it public, not just the manuscript but with the contexts of Polish history and romaniticism. Frankly, it seemed a kind of mission impossible: to take a manuscript that is not really allowed by conservators to be shown. It’s only allowed to be on display 180 hours a year.

So you have small sheets of paper, filled of course by a known poet almost 200 years ago. But you’d almost not be allowed to show it, in the original – and you have almost 4,000 square meters of exhibition space.

AL: Within this impressive rowhouse on the central Rynek.

MH: A very sophisticated building, with its own very beautiful history. And you have to put onto it a matrix of ideas, which as a pattern is a narration actually violating the place. Different from it, yet very important for Poles who’d like to express and explain why freedom was such a big problem for us in the 18th century, and after that. Why literaturę could be so influential for Poles in those days. Why the poets were leaders, why we had our three great bards, the wiescz, who had such big impact on Polish history. Why is that so? It’s tough to explain.

It’s the fact – but why? If you’re crossing the Rynek and passing by you can now stop and get some information, get some ideas about why there’s been such a big impact, how it’s possible that it could happen. Of course, there’s a history of literaturę, of politics, there’s access to the music of the period and the paintings, then there’s the Second World War and all of the Solidarity times. It’s a complex of paradoxes [laughs].

It’s so interesting, but at the same time so difficult to explain in any easy way.

AL: Fascinating and enigmatic, simultaneously.

MH: Yes, it is. You have the viewer, the visitor, who has their own perception. He or she is prepared in ways so that you don’t really know in what part of an education you are relating which particular information, those messages. In the exhibition, the most important problem was to say things that are for everybody, but not for nobody.

We’ve tried to establish an easy narration, and it’s very well edited and targeted to simple messages. We started by making it understandable that Pan Tadeusz could be written in Paris in those days. The contexts of history and culture, the context of the Romantic-era salon, with the paintings and music as I mentioned. The context of the author’s biography. The context of literaturę, therefore that of the library and of intertextual contex.

While fitting it all within this fine, centrally located building – the base matrix on which we’ve put the exhibition.

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