Poland’s oldest museum reopens after a decade – and its bigger and better than ever!

Highlighting the importance of the museum for the Polish nation, the First Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński told TFN: “The collection brings together in one place exhibits that represent fundamental stages of the development of Polish history.” Kalbar/TFN

After nearly a decade-long forced absence, Poland’s premier artwork, Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, has returned home to Poland’s oldest museum, the Czartoryski Princes Museum, which has reopened its doors in Kraków after a full revamp.

The refurbishment has extended the museum’s exhibition space in the Czartoryski Palace in Kraków’s Old Town by a third and cost PLN 51 million, which was partly financed from EU funds.

The museum’s 21 exhibition rooms will feature only items from the Czartoryski collection, the largest and most valuable Polish collection, which is a national treasure and the cradle of Polish museology.

After nearly a decade-long forced absence, Poland’s premier artwork, Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, has returned.Kalbar/TFN

The reopening comes just three years after the State Treasury purchased the entire collection from the Czartoryski Foundation for EUR 100 million along with the museum building, other properties as well as claims to items from the collection stolen by Germany during WWII, at the head of which is Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man.

Highlighting the importance of the museum for the Polish nation, Piotr Gliński told TFN: “The collection brings together in one place exhibits that represent fundamental stages of the development of Polish history.”

“There are also great works of art that must be available for the whole of Polish society and as well for everyone in the world.

The museum’s 21 exhibition rooms will feature only items from the Czartoryski collection, the largest and most valuable Polish collection, which is a national treasure and the cradle of Polish museology.Kalbar/TFN

“I believe that the Lady with an Ermine is the most beautiful painting in the world, so there are bound to be many people who want to come and see it,’ he added.

The portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, known as the Lady with an Ermine, is exhibited in a separate room on the second floor of the palace on Pijarska street in exactly the same place as it was shown before the refurbishment.

It has been placed in an extended, large display case, which provides maximum security and the optimal atmospheric conditions. It is the only painting in the room, which creates an environment in which visitors can contemplate the painting.

Included among the stunning displays are the remains of top 14th-century stargazer Mikołaj Kopernik.Kalbar/TFN

Da Vinci’s masterpiece is the stand-out exhibit. However, the institution is as much a museum of Polish history as it is an art gallery.

Princess Izabela Czartoryska founded the museum in Puławy in 1796 after Poland had been torn asunder by its three neigbouring absolute monarchies. Her aim was to create a place of homage, where Polish values could be venerated and cherished through the objects she collected, thereby keeping alive hopes of Polish statehood.

The first objects in her ‘Temple of Memory’ of 1796 were trophies commemorating the victory against the Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683.

Culture and National Heritage minister Piotr Gliński said: “There are also great works of art that must be available for the whole of Polish society and as well for everyone in the world.”Kalbar/TFN

In 1798 Izabela's son, Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, travelled to Italy and acquired the Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man and many Roman antiquities.

The gallery she created in the grounds of the extensive palace in Puławy bore the inscription ‘The Past in the Future’. The journey her collection has had to make throughout its history to keep Poland’s past alive has been Odyssean.

Princess Izabela Czartoryska (pictured) founded the museum in Puławy in 1796 as a place where Polish values could be venerated and cherished through the objects she collected, thereby keeping alive hopes of Polish statehood.Kalbar /TFN

The collection was partly destroyed after the November uprising of 1830–1831 and the subsequent confiscation of the Czartoryskis' property by the Russians. Most of the museum’s holdings, however, were saved and moved to Paris, where they were exhibited, this time to keep the flame of Poland alive in the consciousness of the world.

In the 1870s, Prince Władysław Czartoryski decided to move the collection to Kraków after the city had been granted a degree of autonomy following the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867.

The reopening comes just three years after the State Treasury purchased the entire collection from the Czartoryski Foundation for EUR 100 million along with the museum building.Kalbar/TFN

He was offered the arsenal by the Old Town walls as a museum, which was rebuilt and in 1878, one hundred years after Princess Izabela set up her museum in Puławy, the new museum opened in the place where it remains today.

In August 1939, the museum was forced to prepare for war. Sixteen cases packed with the most precious objects were transported and stored in the Czartoryski palace in Sieniawa, while the rest of the collection was carried down to the cellars of the museum.

Walking through the exhibitions rooms is quite literally a journey through Poland’s history.Kalbar/TFN

The Germans found the cases and looted what they wanted. The 85 most important items from the museum collection were sent to Dresden, where it was decided that all the items would be part of the Führer's own collection at Linz.

In 1945, Hans Frank, governor of the General Government in occupied Poland and personal friend of Hitler, brought the paintings from Berlin for his own use at Wawel Castle. When the Germans evacuated Kraków in January 1945, he took the paintings with him to Bavaria. At the end of the Second World War it was discovered by Allied troops in Frank's country home in Schliersee, Bavaria and was returned to Poland in 1946.

However, the institution is as much a museum of Polish history as it is an art gallery.Kalbar/TFN

After the Second World War, the museum was reopened and run by the Communist government. The post-war law on nationalisation omitted the collection, which officially was handed to the National Museum in Kraków on a long-term loan.

In the 1980s, the Communists negotiated with the Czartoryski family and offered 6 million dollars for the collection. However, the deal came to nothing as they wanted to pay for it with coal.

The collection was partly destroyed after the November uprising of 1830–1831 and the subsequent confiscation of the Czartoryskis' property by the Russians.Kalbar/TFN

Finally, the 336,000 items that make up the collection was sold to the Polish state in 2016.

Walking through the exhibitions rooms is quite literally a journey through Poland’s history. Visitors can marvel at a richly decorated Ottoman tent seized by Jan III Sobieski at his relief of the siege of Vienna in 1683.

Da Vinci’s masterpiece, the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, known as the Lady with an Ermine, is the standout exhibit.Jacek Bednarczyk/PAP

Other astonishing exhibits include a banner of Tsar Vasily IV of Russia taken by Stanisław Żółkiewski at the Battle of Klushino in 1610 after which Polish forces would occupy Moscow.

Among the documents on display is the Act of Prussian Homage, at which the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order was demoted to a vassal duke and was forced to kneel before Zygmunt the Old in Kraków’s market square in 1525.

It is estimated that around 350,000 people will visit the museum within the next year, making it one of Poland’s top tourist attractions.Jacek Bednarczyk/PAP

Other items include the remains of top 14th-century stargazer Mikołaj Kopernik and poet Jan Kochanowski’s head.

Interest among the public to see the collection in its revamped setting is huge. Tickets for the first month have already sold out. It is estimated that around 350,000 people will visit the museum within the next year, making it one of Poland’s top tourist attractions.