7 New Museums to Explore in Krakow, Poland

September 25, 2013 by

Art & Museums, Europe, List Mania: Viator's Top Picks, Things to Do

A bunch of innovative museums have opened or reopened in Krakow over the last few years. Forward-looking and beautifully curated, they are a welcome addition to the manifold Renaissance charms of Wawel Hill and the fine decorative art displays in the National Museum. Several of these new venues are scattered around the historic Old Town within walking distance of each other, others are an easy tram journey out of the city center. When planning your itinerary in Krakow, bear in mind that most museums in the city close on Mondays and some have free admission on Tuesdays.

Krakow’s New History Museum

Rynek Underground

Medieval shoes displayed in Krakow’s Rynek Underground. Photo credit: Jorge Lascar via Flickr.

Krakow’s lovely Rynek G?ówny (Main Square) is the largest medieval piazza in Europe and has recently seen a double dose of museum action, both above and below ground. The Renaissance-built, arcaded Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) stands in the center of the square and is one of the city’s most recognizable buildings. After five years of excavation, the superb Rynek Underground history museum has been literally carved out below the Cloth Hall from layers of garbage and rubble that have caused the level of the square to rise by up to 16 feet (5m) since medieval times.

Entered through the bowels of the Cloth Hall, the museum is right down at the level of 10th-century Krakow and stretches underneath Rynek G?ówny towards St Mary’s Church – famous for its lop-sided spires – narrating the story of the city’s development from its humble medieval beginnings. This turbulent race through time is traced with the help of lots of noisy exhibits, dazzling special effects, interactive models, touchscreens and cool holograms. Highlights of the displays include the partially restored medieval market place full of artifacts excavated at the site, the remains of a cemetery and plenty of 3-D films on wrap-around screens. It’s exactly how all museums should be: engaging, well-labeled in six languages and educational as well as heaps of fun.

Take a tour of Rynek Glówny

Art Museums in Krakow

Krakow Cloth Hall

The Cloth Hall in Krakow’s Rynek Glowny. Photo credit: Jim McDougall via Flickr.

Back above ground and while not strictly speaking a new museum, the delightful Gallery of 19th-Century Polish Art (Galeria Sztuki Polskiej XIX wieku w Sukiennicach) on the first floor of the Cloth Hall has had an extensive four-year facelift and reopened in 2010 with its pictures rehung in a series of elegantly appointed Renaissance salons. This is one of Krakow’s most-neglected museums but has plenty to offer, neatly showcasing the wealth of Polish society in the 19th-century with elegant portraits of the aristocracy. Other highlights are the two super-sized allegorical works by Polish nationalist artist Jan Matejko and the rustic scenes by the Polish Impressionists.

The latest arriviste on the Krakow art scene had its debut in spring 2011, taking the avant-garde shape of Poland’s first Museum of Contemporary Art. It is in Podgorze, a ramshackle district a tram ride from the city center to Plac Bohaterow Getta on the edge of the former Jewish ghetto, and was built on land once owned by WWII hero Oskar Schindler. Holding temporary exhibitions as well as permanent displays of left-field installations, wacky photographs and vast canvasses by modish Polish artists, MOCAK’s clean white space forms a welcome contrast to the fussy splendor of Krakow’s more traditional galleries.

War Museums in Krakow

Schlinder Factory

The Schlinder Factory. Photo credit: Jorge Lascar via Flickr.

Not surprisingly Krakow has plenty to say about the dark years between 1939-1956, when the city fell first under Nazi occupation and subsequently felt the iron grip of Soviet repression. Two innovative and hard-hitting exhibitions have been opened under the auspices of the Historical Museum to detail the atrocities of war and suppression.

June 2010 saw the opening of the Schindler Factory (Fabryka Schindlera) adjacent to MOCAK in Podgorze. Oskar Schindler was a wealthy German businessman and a fully paid-up member of the Nazi Party who is nevertheless famous for saving the lives of hundreds of Jews by employing them in his Krakow enamel factory. By falsifying their papers he managed to retain them on his workforce as ‘vital to the war effort’ and eventually shipped them out of Poland to the relative safety of Brn?nec in present-day Czech Republic. Many of his work force survived the war and went on to successful lives in Israel. An alcoholic and womanizer, Schindler himself died virtually penniless in 1974; the descendants of those he saved from the death camps paid for him to be buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem – not surprisingly he’s the only Nazi to be accorded that honor.

The hard-hitting, visually stunning permanent exhibition in Schindler’s former factory certainly packs a punch. ‘Krakow under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945’ highlights the horrors endured in Krakow under German rule. Through the use of sensitive multi-media presentations, harrowing photos, flickering cinematography, and claustrophobic, intense 3-D dioramas, visitors are taken on a journey through the years of WWII. That nightmare journey starts in a thriving, sophisticated Krakow before the Nazis arrived in September 1939 and imposed ‘new order’ on the city, and progresses through atrocity after atrocity against Poles and Jews alike, the murder of 3,000 Jews trapped in the Podgorze ghetto of in 1943, and on to the final days of mass murder in the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and P?aszów. Altogether 3,000 million Poles were exterminated under the Third Reich, so it is an extraordinary act of forgiveness that the displays in Schindler’s Factory end on a conciliatory note in the Hall of Choices, where the dead of World War II are honored and the perpetrators of the Holocaust forgiven.

Krakow Gestapo Museum

The Gestapo Museum in Krakow. Photo credit: Jennifer Boyer via Flickr.

Equally thought provoking are the shocking displays in at Pomorska Street (Ulica Pomorska); the museum is housed in the former HQ of the Gestapo and Stalinist secret police and highlights the tyranny Poland and her people suffered under both regimes. The Nazi prison cells are on view, along with some disturbing eye-witness accounts of the brutality meted out to Krakow citizens from the first Nazi executions to the Communist show trials of the 1950s. Graphic exhibits include black-and-white images of those who died, striped uniforms from the concentration camps and – most haunting of all – the heart-rending graffiti still visible on the walls of the prison cells written by prisoners awaiting the death penalty.

Visit Auschwitz from Krakow

Krakow’s Aviation Museum

Krakow Aviation Museum

Polish Aviation Museum. Photo credit: Piotr Drabik via Flickr.

Continuing with the Soviet theme, and following a humungous 46 million z?oty investment, the Polish Aviation Museum (Muzeum Lotnictwa Polskiego) is back in business. In addition to its original chaotic displays of abandoned MIGs, battered helicopters, Cold War missiles and rocket launches littering a disused military airfield at Czy?ny, the museum now has a stylish glass-fronted four-floor exhibition center packed with flight simulators, interactive exhibitions for kids, a movie theater and a reference library for plane buffs. Spreading over several hectares of ground, prize exhibits among the hundreds of aircraft gently rotting away here are an incongruous mixture of WWII Spitfires, Tiger Moths and Junkers side by side with Soviet fighter jets and US observation helicopters. There are also plenty of non-military aircraft too, from training gliders to helicopters used for crop spraying on Polish collective farms during Communist times.

The museum’s four airplane hangars are stuffed with loosely themed dilapidated military uniforms, old engines, blurry photographs and rotor blades. Despite the woeful lack of English-language labeling, this place is more than worth the 20-minute journey to get there; take trams 4, 5 or 10 from Krakow Old Town to Wieczysta.

Krakow and the Polish Pope

Krakow Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II’s image, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow. Photo credit: David Berkowitz via Flickr.

As a potent symbol of the re-flowering of Catholic Church after the suppression of all religion in the Communist bloc, Poland’s only pope, John Paul II became a national mascot and is held in the very highest esteem by his people. The primrose-yellow and burnt-red Bishop’s Palace on Ulica Kanonicza contains the Archdiocesan Museum, which has been extended to encompass the cramped rooms where he lived as a young priest and the rather more palatial apartments he inhabited between 1958-78 as Archbishop of Krakow before his elevation to pope. The museum’s displays include the papal skis, gifts sent to His Holiness from across the world and a superb collection of medieval religious art; his statue stands in the lovely courtyard at the heart of the palace complex.

Follow in the footsteps of the pope on a John Paul II tour from Krakow

 – Sasha Heseltine

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