museum assistant: then & now

My way of thinking about museums has changed significantly since when I visited one for the first time. I was born in 1990, a year after political transformation in Poland, which made my country independent from the U.S.S.R., and began the long process of integration with other European countries. Late 90’s was a great time for Polish museums — the borders were finally open, and more and more exhibitions could be organised in a partnership with some of the most important European institutions. Polish curators, designers, and museologists could travel unhinderedly to search for good models and inspiration. I didn’t experience the time of Soviet oppression, but my family did. I watched their attitude carefully, and learned from them how to appreciate the possibilities that I had: the access to culture, the opportunity to travel, the possibility to study whatever and wherever I wanted.

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crowds inside the Natural History Museum in London

For quite a long time I used to look at museums in a 19th century manner, comparing them to the temples of art. Each visit to a museum was a really big thing for me, and required serious preparations. I had to gather some information about the exhibition, check if I already knew some of the presented artists or artworks, finally — pick the right outfit. The museum itself had an aura of mystery and majesty. Nobody had to tell me to be quiet, because I wouldn’t dare to speak up being surrounded by the artworks of old masters. I felt slightly overwhelmed, but in a positive way. That’s how I fell in love with the history of art.

Museums were very different from what they are like today. There was virtually no such thing as artistic education for kids. I can still recall guides using sophisticated vocabulary, that could literally bore to death. There were no workshops, the offer of books and gadgets created for kids was very limited. That’s probably why during most of my visits to different museums I was one of the very few kids around, if not the only one. Some years later, when I went to see the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I was surprised by the number of small children and teenagers among the visitors. There were regular school groups having museum lessons, doodling, running from one picture to another to collect some information. The museum shop was packed with creative books and toys, many of them collection-themed. It may seem odd today, but it was almost 10 years ago, and  it was all new to me. Luckily, in the meantime the situation of museum & artistic education has changed substantially in Polish cultural institutions. Artistic education became an academic discipline, most of the Polish museums have established departments of Education, and young graphic designers are busy creating illustrated books on art, design, or cultural tourism. There is still much to be done, especially on the school education level, but I’d like to stress all the good that has already happened.

Thanks to all these transformations, my attitude towards museum as a public space has also changed significantly. I no longer see it as a temple of art, but rather as an agora. Museum professionals from all over the world know perfectly well that there has always been a certain group of people that never comes to a museum. That’s what all the social media, all these museum shops and cafeterias are about: to attract people to come to a museum, even if they’re not into exhibitions and collections. I strongly believe that this is the first step to encourage people to reconsider they attitude towards museums. If they visit the museum shop or cafeteria, I’m pretty sure that one day they’ll eventually enter the exhibition, maybe just out of curiosity. Which is good enough.

Okay, I got a bit sentimental. Maybe it’s because I’m already in Barcelona, I’ve just quit my job of a Chief Curator at the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, and I’m beginning to settle in a new place, among new people. It took me very long to complete this post, but the past couple of weeks were pretty exhausting to me. The last exhibition that I curated opened in February; it was a site-specific installation created by Natalia Wiernik, young Polish photographer and interdisciplinary artist. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to end my collaboration with the Gallery. This project gave me courage, stimulated my creativity and motivation. Keep fingers crossed for my new beginning here, in Barcelona. I have a good feeling about this.

your museum assistant

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