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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » November 28, 2013
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Thinking Outside the Box
November 28, 2013   
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Mariusz Hermansdorfer, who has for 30 years been the director of the National Museum in Wrocław, talks to Barbara Deręgowska.

The National Museum in Wrocław has once again been ranked by Polityka magazine as no. 3 in Poland in terms of the quality of its collection. You have held the number three spot for years. How do you do it?
We are right behind Cracow and Warsaw and that’s a very good result. Those two colossal museums have incomparably larger and better collections than ours and their budgets exceed ours many times over. In order to get so close to them, we needed something to stand out with. We needed to come up with exhibitions that could win over both visitors and those who rated the museum. And how did we do that? Well, ever since it was set up the museum has naturally focused on its core assets, primarily on its collection of Silesian art. Our Gothic and Romanesque collections of medieval art and the modern art collection are really up there with the best in Europe and I do not only mean galleries in the Czech Republic and Germany, but also France, where the Gothic was born. We also have a superb collection of Baroque sculptures and pictures by Michael Willmann, an internationally famous Silesian Baroque painter.

When we became a national museum in 1970, we started exploring other areas. New opportunities presented themselves and several people who worked here at the time made the most of them. The then custodian and later deputy director Bożena Steinborn succeeded in bringing a major collection of European art back from the National Museum in Warsaw. After medieval art, these items form our second most valuable set of foreign masterpieces, which draws visitors and artists from around the world. When I became the head of the contemporary art section in 1972, my priority was to systematically collect Polish masterpieces produced after the war. I also decided to shift the focus away from Wrocław and Silesia. I assumed, and was later proven right, that the National Museum in Wrocław would gain in significance when given a broader context. We like to think outside the box, but we do remember about local artists. We seek out masterpieces of contemporary art in Poland. Today, our contemporary art collection is the best in this country. We have Europe’s largest collections of work by great Polish artists of international renown such as Magdalena Abakanowicz, Alina Szapocznikow, Władysław Hasior and Henryk Stażewski. Along with those, we exhibit work by local artists who pursue different trends in contemporary art, with a special focus on glass and ceramics. We also have a number of innovative projects under our belt, such as the Art of Books Museum established in the 1970s. When I became the director of the museum in the 1980s, I dusted off the collection of oriental art that had seldom been exhibited before. I also found an enthusiast of oriental culture in Dorota Róż-Mielecka and I created a separate section for the Orient. It is now the third largest and third most important such section in Poland. We have been working with a museum in Prague which has a similar collection and our contacts with Japan and China are getting stronger.

With such a rich history, how do you keep a record of it?
Our publishing section has done all it takes to make sure that directories of our collections, created over many years, are published on a regular basis in an attractive form. We are leading the way among Polish museums in terms of cataloguing our collections. No other museum has published so many directories and such good ones at that. Most of them will be soon published online to make them widely accessible.

The historic building which houses the National Museum has been modernized several times. As a result, more collections can be brought out of storage rooms and put on display. What further development plans does the museum have?
Halfway through 2015, we will gain over 10,000 square meters of new exhibition space in the Four Domes Pavilion, which thanks to EU funds is being thoroughly renovated and adapted to suit our museum’s needs. This magnificent building near the Centennial Hall is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and will soon turn into a huge gallery of contemporary art. It will house the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is a new, separate branch of the National Museum in Wrocław. When Wrocław becomes the European Capital of Culture in 2016, we will be an important part of events linked to that role.
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