Perspectives on Poland: Getting Cultural

From time to time the urge to get cultural steals over me. I’ve never conducted a scientific study but I suspect it tends to coincide with persistent rainfall – getting cultural is indoor work and there’s no heavy lifting. A dismally sodden June had me in and out of museums, galleries, and other emporia of culture all over the city. Rubbing up against all that art and cultural bric-a-brac has left me with a sheen of sophistication that makes me attractive to women with glasses and, for some reason, insurance salesmen. It won’t last.

I love museums and galleries not just for the things in them but for the galleries and museums themselves. The way a society displays its most valuable possessions says something interesting about that society. My favourite Polish museum story comes from a trip to Warsaw’s Museum of Technology many years ago. As I wandered among dusty Cold War mainframes and broken models of coal mines it occurred to me that, not only was I the only visitor, I appeared to be the only person in the entire building – there were no staff at all. In the final room of the consumer electronics section there was a single modern television in a glass display cabinet. The television was on and, clustered around it, I found the staff – about 20 women of a certain age watching afternoon soaps.

Things have changed. I popped into the International Cultural Centre the other day to peruse their Bauhaus exhibition. It’s a fabulous space. All polished metal, exposed brick and hanging walkways. The staff were polite, professional and showed very few signs of wandering off to watch M jak miłość. I hated it. The exhibition consists of giant black-and-white photos of Bauhaus buildings and big chunks of meaning-free text. There was lots of white space and elegant typography. It felt rather like walking around inside an unremittingly trendy interior design magazine, and was about as satisfying.

Fortunately I had a great deal more fun at the Transport Museum. This is a Polish museum as it should be – ambitious, unfinished, incomprehensible in parts and with flashes of genius. The main room, where you can play with electricity and water and lift enormous weights with your little finger, is endlessly entertaining. In the next room there is a car park masquerading as an exhibit of Polish motoring. In a huge tram shed there are some very pretty old trams and, for some reason, a ticket validating machine in a little glass box that could have been taken off a Warsaw tram this morning. Brilliant.

Krakow’s ultimate exhibition experience has to be the main building of the National Museum on 3 Maja Avenue. In my view they should take the entire building and place it in a gigantic museum of museums that I will one day have built in Dubai. It’s a perfect microcosm of the entire Polish exhibition experience. There are dusty forgotten bits with old fashioned displays of armour and baroque wooden legs, solid sensible bits with stacks of Polish masterworks, and trendy bits behind sliding glass doors with art made out of plastic by people you’ve never heard of. All of this is contained in a great brute of a building that always makes me think of an iron gauntlet cupping a tiny and fabulously delicate Meissen figurine. I should probably get out in the fresh air more.

Jamie Stokes also writes for Polandian

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