Sightseeing wasn’t always easy. The Insider turns back the clock to a time when museum visits posed the ultimate challenge…
Walking into one of Poland’s super-new-fangled, shimmering museums with their ‘please touch the exhibits’ attitude offers the strange feeling of walking into the future, even though we are supposed to be walking into the past. However, those of us who have been round these parts for a while will know that a visit to a museum back in the 1990s was a different experience.
A visit had three elements. The first was the funny slippers you had to wear over your shoes; obviously the best bit for many people. The pleasure was multi-layered – first came the surprise of being handed your pair of comic pantofles, then followed the mirth at seeing your companions wearing theirs. Finally came the ultimate satisfaction of doing a little skid on the parquet out of sight of the attendant.
Which brings us to the second element – the museum attendant, often a woman with bright orange dyed hair and heavy amber jewellery, who would glare at you upon entering the room where she was sleeping with undisguised hostility for simply having the temerity to turn up that day.
The third element was the bizarre surprise. On a visit to a museum in Kłodzko (well worth the six-hour trip from Warsaw for their collection of cuckoo clocks), the aging gentlemen who sold me my entrance ticket followed me round turning on the light in each subsequent room I entered and turning off the light in the room I had just left. I decided not to visit the toilet in case he wanted to stand over me dispensing the paper.
Some experiences could be heart-warming. After ending a tour of the post office museum in Wrocław, I was muscled into an ante-room by a group of elderly heavies who turned out to be the local stamp-collecting mob. Their spontaneous hospitality was touching and I regret that I didn’t have anything interesting to tell them about the philately scene in Britain. Of course, many museums found themselves in financial difficulties in the 1990s as the turbulence of the transformation meant many people were busy dealing with more pressing matters rather than visiting a museum, and in the new reality the dusty exhibition rooms of countless regional museums were simply left to die. The socialist period had been pretty good for the museum sector as the authorities placed great importance on culture and the development of regional and national identity in line with socialist values. Museums were an important part of this.
This created is a huge wealth of museums from before and after the transformation, from the grand heights of the Polish National Museum with its branches in major cities all the way down to charming niche museums covering curious and often surprising subjects. Who wouldn’t like to pay a visit to the Christmas Tree Bauble Museum in Nowy Dąb, or the Axe Museum in Orzechówka? No claims, however, can be made about whether the Insurance Museum in Krakow is worth a look.