06 February 2017
Interview with Alicja Knast: Muzeum Śląskie in Katowice and "The Light of History” exhibition
In the conclusion of her interview about Muzeum Śląskie in Katowice, Director Alicja Knast focuses on distinct regional aspects within the museum’s collections, and reflects on new audiences and outreach activities in ways that hold broad relevance to museums and culture institutions in our day.
Director Knast also raises regional issues specific to the museum and to its setting in Upper Silesia – topics she delves into with a rather patient force in the interview’s [first part].
Distinct from other institutions covered to date in this series – from major museums opened or opening in Warsaw and Gdańsk to the Pan Tadeusz Museum in Wrocław, with its links between literature, society, resistance and censorship – Muzeum Śląskie’s evolution makes it both a commentator upon and a reflector of its regional history.
Very considerable thanks are due to Director Knast for, if not walking interested readers past Silesian complexities, at least providing a compelling introduction. An introduction that will be rewarded and challenged in her museum’s „Light of History” exhibition, narrating the layerings, interlayerings and social tectonics of history in Upper Silesia.
Alan Lockwood: Other notable aspects of your museum, along with the regional „Light of History” exhibition, include the nonprofessional and outsider art collections you’ve just mentioned, and of course the regional religious collection.
Alicja Knast: The religious collectiion is again the idea of founding director Tadeusz Dobrowolski. In the first place, he was the so-called conservateur for the region. He was going from church to church to collect religious art that was in danger. He was keeping it together, with this excuse of protecting it. Which was a bad excuse – it was the property of the church. But he’d been certified to do that.
After the Second World War, the church took back the collection, which was obviously the right thing to do. What you see here now is a deposit from the church to us. Which somehow acknowledges the idea of Dobrowolski – he may not have done much good by taking things from the churches but his idea proved valuable, as what is shown is the work of Silesian workshops.
Someone had noticed that it would be excellent to show aspects of Silesian art that have more to do with Czech and German workshops in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries than with workshops in Toruń, Bydgoszcz, or even Gdańsk and Warsaw. That’s our sort of island where we tend to go: into the south then the Czech Republic, Bohemia and then Germany.
AL: Is the nonprofessional collection regional, as well?
AK: Yes and no. It began with regional artists, but now we have artists from around Poland and we foster the broader nonprofessional movement in art. We organize a contest for all Europe. Obviously we are in close touch with these artists, and Sonja Wilk, the curator, is something of an angel, trying to protect them from people who would merely try to sell them while they are affordable.
That’s a role of the museum, to try and be noncommercial and protect things that are unique. In 2017, we will hold an exhibition of artists from the outsider-art movement and art brut from all over Poland. So we are focused on Silesian artists, but in the context of the broader movement.
AL: The new site of Muzeum Śląskie fits in to Katowice’s broader plans for the Cultural District quarter, with the NOSPR concert hall for the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, the conference center, the legendary Spodek auditorium. How did the museum come to find its home here?
AK: Much of our particular involvement is in a book we’ve just published in Polish by the journalist Józef Krzyk [Szałfynster: od Kopalni Ferdynand do Muzeum Śląskiego].
You’ve asked about the origin of this building complex. In 1986, after the museum was restituted and received the building of the old hotel on Korfantego Street, the museum’s director, Lech Szaraniec, got permission to start thinking about a new seat. They opened a competition, and Jan Fiszer won, an architect from Warsaw. He won with a beautiful modernist or functionalist design for the museum. Visionary – but it was huge. In 1986, we were really in trouble as a country, so no one could actually finance it. Back then, they probably should not have proposed a building with, say, 40,000 square meters of space and such.
Around 1999, as with each time the museum was to take a major step, there was a steering committee of activists for the museum, and they proposed a new design. At that same time, the city had a problem with this mine being closed. And with the terrain of the former coal mine being used – for what? For housing, for shops? They began to think of what to do, with architects developing plans for how to use this quarter. In early 2000, it was decided that it should somehow be part of the city, some sort of center. They began to think of cultural purposes, and decide that Muzeum Śląskie should be here. The new concert hall for NOSPR came later, it was a question of funding – but the overall concept was about culture.
Again, this land was really polluted, filled with buildings that didn’t have any value, so to think about what to keep and what to destroy was a big issue. In 2004, this land was given to the museum. Then, the museum wasn’t owned by the city but by the regional government. It was a swap between land we had and land the city wanted us to use. The city council was very important in this process. They said it will be smart to have the regional museum in the heart of the city. Szaraniec was developing his programs for the museum that was to be at the other location [the major south-side interchange of Kościusko and Górnaśląska Streets]. He was not happy about it: he wanted the museum in a different location, in a completely new building on the surface, as in Kraków or Warsaw.
AL: This recalls the Polish History Museum’s original plans, the impressively radical design in Warsaw by Bohdan Paczowski’s firm, cantilivered out over a major thoroughfare to a Vistula bridge.
AK: This killed that project, its visionary design. I think with the Polish History Museum, that project had been too expensive for the times. One has to be cautious.
AL: About one’s scale of ambition.
AK: Exactly. That had killed the project with Muzeum Śląskie as well, in my opinion. Back then, it had been a really big institutional project. Jan Fiszer – he’s a brilliant architect and put his heart into it. But you could not use the design he created in 1999 for this site, because it’s completely different terrain and the old buildings from the coal mine, which were to be saved, they didn’t fit. It was a completely new story. But in terms of functionality was there, they took those numbers – how much public space you want, how many offices you want, how large exhbitions should be – and used it for the competition for the new building,. It was the first international architectural competition in Poland. The Austrian architecture firm Riegler and Riewe won it.
„Light of History”: exhibiting borderland history
AK: When Szaraniec was looking at these existing mine buildings and thinking about what to do, he decided that the history of Silesia exhibition should be in the north sector, in one brick building in the Bartosz complex. He decided that here should only be the painting gallery. Leszek Jodiński, the next director, felt that we didn’t have that much of the history of art, so why don’t we also do the history of Silesia here and not to wait for the next EU funding [to develop that further complex]. Instead do it from the beginning, including the history of the region.
And actually, the „Light of History” exhibition, as I’ve learned from European scholars, is the only exhibition today that’s dealing with a borderland region. Because it’s difficult to write borderland history – a borderland, regional type of history – and not kill each other. Before I became director, there had been big discussions about various directors and their positions. It became a public issue: This exhibition will be too Polish! This exhibition will be too German!
I learned this in part from a Belgian scholar, coming from her own historical borderland region. She said she was stunned with the results here, and she congratulated us on the exhibition. I think it has been done successfully, in fact, because we didn’t kill each other.
AL: May it become an example. There are regions across Europe and worldwide that need to allow for differences while a history and a region are being commemorated and presented, even in publications, and even more so in a public museum. It must be extremely difficult to draw together a team of competent historians who can overcome their differences about which, what and where boundaries are to be drawn.
AK: Boundaries – and also reasons. You can read this as collaborating with the enemy, or consider it as a lifesaving strategy, right? It’s two ways of saying the same thing – and that does indeed make it extremely difficult.
The formula is to ask local historians to do this. An additional formula is that when you have issues, difficult ones, you try to be as objective as you can. But you also must try to simply this picture [scenographically].
We are all visual, and in „Light of History” you can see in the section just before the early 20th-century plebiscite, we have two equal waves of visual propoganda. But they show you the same phenomenon, through the similar aesthetics on the propoganda posters, with various combinations of anti-German propoganda written in Silesian or anti-Polish propoganda written in Polish.
AL: As if with the same melody, but different lyrics.
AK: It looks as if they were printed in the same printing houses. In fact, they were done in different places. When you are there, at this section, you see this represented as half and half. In preparing this section, this balance was discussed – though after the plebiscite, a stronger group had voted for Germany. A historian could ask why does this propoganda looks the same, it was not, it should be more German than Polish. But in exhibition space, you use those short cuts to show the phenomenon. Then leave the rest to numbers in the captions and wall cards. The crucial message is that these guys were fighting, and what is on display were tools in this fight.
In the context again of the Polish History Museum in Warsaw, I am a member of the museum council. Local opinion makers here ask me what type of story will be told there, about here. The Polish one? The German one? Which one? Actually, I say, the only way to approach this, again, is to ask that Silesian historians discuss it with the mainstream historians. I can’t imagine a different way to do it. If we take it from the perspective of Warsaw, we’ll antagonize this region, which knows the complexity about themselves and knows it’s not easy to say that because your granddad served in the Wehrmacht, then you are an enemy.
Unfortunately, this was said by [the politician Jarosław] Kaczyński, that here, we are the hidden German option. And it was said not that long ago. So it’s coming into the political domain as well, and is a hazard in the perception of the region and the feel within the region.
AL: In an interview for this series with [Paweł Machciewicz], he described the work of his team in the Pomerania region, in developing the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, and issues and disparities between regional history and the mainstream national narratives from Warsaw.
AK: To politicians these days, Silesia has always been a troublemaker.
AL: Which is presented in the „Light of History” exhibition. And people from here always emphasize that through the 1970s and 1980s, through all of the recent history that Poland is acclaimed for today of resistance and opposition and of succeeding in that resistance, that Silesian troublemakers were a very important part of it all.
AK: Yes. There are many opposed feeling about it. In terms of current history, I think it’s very important that as we live in 2016, to not repeat the mistakes that we had in textbooks where you could only read that we had the three Silesian uprisings. Really, if you were a youngster, you didn’t know what these people were fighting for. If they were in Germany – why? It’s unclear if you don’t explain the various issues to them. As with why some people actually went into the German army.
Why in fact did some people actually go into the German army? Who are they today? Why in our last census did about 800,000 people vote that they feel Silesian as their first nationality? Close to a million people – against the 174,000 people in the census of 2002 who declared then that they feel Silesian.
Engaging new audiences
AL: On entering this morning, I was behind one school group at the coat check, then they were all over the „Light of History” exhbition. One way to conclude our interview could be to ask about education and outreach on the part of the museum.
AK: First, we have our mission statement on our Web site. That’s the starting point, to explain that everything we do, we ask is it part of our mission, or not? The mission is that we are aware of the industrial past here – we want to learn it, we know it’s part of the regional history, of Polish history and of European history. We want to form ourselves knowing that, having this full knowledge about our heritage not for the sake of knowing, but for building ourselves today.
Whatever it is – archeology, ethnology – we don’t do other things. We are focused on historic Silesia – or Upper Silesia – or on the part of our collection that is Polish art. Since inception, that’s part of our history and you can’t just stop doing that.
There are several layers of outreach and education in the museum. First, we see that we have a completely new audience that was never coming to the museum, ever. These are people just beginning to attend museums, learning how to be in the space and to use the space for their own sakes. These are senior citizens and families – the school groups, you’ll be surprised, are not the main group or even our target, because they have difficulties even going out of the classroom. Not because what we’ve got’s not interesting, but because they have a lot of legal paperwork within the school, and it’s expensive with transporation fees.
What we observe is that with this completely new audience coming to museums for the first time, either beginning to discover these things for themselves, or the families coming on the weekends, there are an endless amount of classes you can have and all will be filled with people wanting to spend quality time. You can do these in any topic: we do art history classes for families with children and for adults, and also regional history, our language and customs.
AL: This extent is very noticeable on the floorplan: it opens out to show all levels, and displays the quantity of space devoted to these extra-exhibition activities.
AK: We have eleven conference rooms that can be used for education, conferences, debates. We collaborate with cultural institutions, within the region but not only. We try to educate at every level. We work with the corporate sector – yes, they are coming for their meetings, conferences and briefings, and they also visit our museum. We also work with the disabled audience, physical disabilities and blind and deaf people.
AL: The touch-sensitive pathways on the floor are so evident, as well as the touch plates by certain works. The latter function in various ways – sometimes it’s according to the art object’s shape, sometimes it’s not.
AK: For several years, this process of making the collections available to people with various disabilities has been very important. We have people who are fluent in sign language. You can learn about our program by connecting to someone from a distance simply through Skype; they’re there from 10 to 8 and you can learn from them about whatever you want.
If I say we are for everyone you’ll probably look at me and say Really? But we are big enough to be very inclusive, in terms of our offer, the level of depth, types of knowledge fields. We need to look at both what is accepted and what is needed.
One thing I’m very proud of is our site-specific installations – the current on is by Dani Karavan, Reflection. I asked Dani to work with the curator Anda Rottenberg. She explained to him this view of showing Silesians themselves through eyes of others, someone who’s not from here. We did classes there with children with autism, and they were very responsive. People here are beginning to understand what contemporary art is – it’s a goal of mine to say No, contemporary art is not difficult, it is for you. You might not be able to verbalize what you feel, but you feel it.
We want to say that there’s one art. You will have Tadeusz Kantor works on the second floor and on Levels -2 and -4, where the Polish scenography department is and where Polish art is. You will nonprofessional artists in the space of the gallery and also in „Light of History,” because they belong to mining culture, to free time after-work culture, painted in a house of culture somewhere, and they were painting the Katowice Mine themselves.
AL: It seems you’re aiming at lessening boundaries, of lightening up the boundaries on a number of levels, whether curatorial and historical or whether personal, social, experiential, of interacting with the art in the museum.
Second-phase developments, and community exhibitions
AL: The Polish scenography department is of special interest, with my admiration for Polish theater, contemporary and historical. When was it brought in to Muzeum Śląskie? And what’s up with historical buidlings out the window – what’s to come there?
AK: In 1991, there was an initiative to join a collection of stage design to Muzeum Śląskie. It was a great initiative, to collect these stage designs, which is always a fleeting type of human activity, yet it is art.
We’ve finished the first stage of our development with the opening, and are within the second stage, which you can see through the window and which will be completed in 2017. We are rejuvenating the Old Baths for the miners as well as the carpentry room, in separate buildings. The baths will be for temporary exhibitions, the carpentry room for education.
We already have exhibitioins designed for it. We are aiming for one boundary more to break. We know in Silesia – and it’s true for many or all regions in Poland and Europe – we have this problem of the chasm between generations. In the past, we lived in multigenerational places. Now we don’t and we are losing something. We won’t turn the clock back, but we can try to bring it back a little bit within the museum. We’ve designed an exhbition that you can’t explore yourself – you’ll need someone small who can switch things on for you. Then you’ll have to help the youngster explore, you’ll be needed to explain certain things.
It’s based on a writer born in Chicago who then lived in Katowice. He was not a traveler, but read books on travel. There are five interconnected modules about places around the globe: Apache Indians, aborigines from Australia. An intergenerational approach to the ergonomics of the exhibition. It’s for all the fathers who want to come with their children but there’s nothing designed for their setup. We have another one set up, about the history of plants. Everything began when we began cultivating plants, which allowed us to store food and have time for religion and art – that’s the beginning of civilization. So we’re playing the role of a natural history museum, as well.
Next is a huge project that we’re calling a social revitalization. We’ve created a product we’ve called Creative Shift, the name for a discussion about how you can involve and include and engage local communities. Awareness of your past makes you think about what you can do today not to lose it and be proud of it. The local community from here, the Bogucice district that we talk about in the new book, have always lived with a coal mine next to them. And now they have a museum.
On their own, they created a comment on that with some music, a brass orchestra: The museum is here, no one asked if we wanted it, what do we do with it. My team wanted to learn how to work with the local community, from those who actually did it before like guys from Muranów in Warsaw and from Łódź. We want to share experiences and not to make the same mistakes again. It’s a huge project that has to do with our goal to be an institution that factually is building its social capital – not just pretending it’s doing it. Which we really need. To see the process, from the team of art historians, historians, archeologists and ethnologists being closed, and now opening up to the very local, nearby issues that are also universal because this part of the totality approach is very helpful. We have things to explore and they’re not very far. We’re not ashamed of this totally local community – it’s actually very representative of what we are, who we are, what we should be doing and that we were not doing in the past.
It is always coming from somewhere in the society taken up by people having strong views of what’s important in the society. The buildings in the north sector are to be rejuvenated, and will be about the history of industry, with the other building a performative space that’s also a big space for gatherings, communal eating space that we are lacking here, because people in the summertime want to have space for fun and to have something to eat. You wouldn’t believe how needed this is when it’s summer here.