The first initiatives in favour of creating museums appeared in the first period; following the annexation of Polish territories by Russia; Prussia; and Austria; and were predominantly of grassroots character. The driving force behind them consisted mainly of private collectors or associations thereof. The first museum conceived as ‘national’ in the sense of public; and full accessibility (not in the sense of state ownership); was instituted in Krakow by the local municipal authorities; as the National Museum in Krakow. It was the first case in a mass of private collections and museums that had hitherto dominated the landscape.
The second period – of regained national independence – spanning the time between the two world wars; was marked mostly by the influence exerted by newly-founded; central state agencies; aiming at steering museums towards a more nationalistic path: propagating petrifying the ‘Polish spirit’ in Polish territories which continued to be inhabited by a multitude of diverse nationalities. A means to this aim was; among others; the promotion of the marginal University Museum in the capital; to the status of National Museum; a testimony to the continuity of Polish national consciousness and culture within what was an otherwise multicultural society.
Increased authority of the state over cultural institutions marked the third period of Realsozialismus; e.g. museums; which were subjected to near-complete nationalization. Polish national history underwent a thorough retelling; accents were redistributed; and the past was subjected to reinterpretation in light of the present. In accordance with the Marxist historicphilosophical doctrine; socialism was presented as the final stage in the development of mankind; and the idea of the nation-state – otherwise rejected by mainstream ideologists – was adapted to further the policy of complete assimilation of post-German lands into the People’s Republic of Poland; following their post-war annexation. The main role in this process was assigned to museums that demonstrated the continued presence of Poles in the above-mentioned territories.
Those were often small German museums; renamed as national museums not owing to the quality of their collections; but to the political role they were to play henceforth – not only to prove that the region they represented was by nature Polish; but also to declare that polonization was a fait accompli; and de facto irreversible.
In recent years; which belong to the latest period of the new democracy in Poland; the state has gradually released museums from this strict ideological control; and the institutions; while returning to private ownership or handed over to local authorities; were allowed to redefine their purpose; and pursue a line of work more adjusted to regional interests. The vision of central policy and national dogmatism has since all but faded away.
In 2005; the Polish government; inspired by the general policy of the European Union in the first years of the twenty-first century; decided to establish the state-owned Museum of Polish History; with neither seat nor collection of its own.
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