On the museums,
or why do we say skansen in Poland

The open-air museums in Poland are known under the false name of skansen. It is being universally used however few people are aware what the name really holds. Unfortunately, few Polish people know the etymology of the word skansen. For skansen in Swedish means ‘an earthwork’ or ‘a defensive rampart’. This was the function of the museum established in 1891 on the Djorgarden island near Stockholm by Artur Hazelius – it was supposed to protect the Swedish folklore (primarily the folk architecture) from decline.

The first museum of the kind in what is now Poland was established in Wdzydze Kiszewskie (near Koscierzyna) under Prussian rule by Izydor and Teodora Gulgowski. The second museum was the “Skansen” established by Adam Chętnik in Nowogród near Łomża. It was the very Chętnik who introduced the term skansen into the Polish language. In no other country does the term occur in this context. Instead, it is the “open-air museums” (German Freilicht Museu; Finnish Ulkoilmamuseo; Swedish Friluftmuseum). The name “Skansen” is exclusively used for the museum established by Hazelius. Other expressions sometimes refer to the museums protecting the regional and local heritage. The mere expression “an open-air museum” is hard to be found even in the English dictionaries despite the existence of such museums as the “North of England Open Air Museum”, the “Manx Open Air Folk Museum” or the “Blits Hill Open Air Museum”.

In Poland, the word skansen does not always bring the right associations and this is why we think it is the right thing to go back to the original expression of museum. This is how the Gulgowscy named the first institution they established. To stress, however, the uniqueness of this type of museology let us use the universally accepted name of “an open-air museum”. For this name pertains to the institution which not only collects items but it also places them in certain context as close to the original one as possible. Therefore, there are Holy Masses being celebrated in the museum churches, the horseshoes are being made at the blacksmith workshops and there is bread being baked in the stoves according to the old recipes. Such a practice is at the same time the realisation of a contemporary idea of a live museum.

The museologists wish to present the past and the tradition in such a way that one gets an impression as if a housewife has just left the kitchen. Children can sit on a rocking horse and play the same way as the folks did a hundred years ago. The wooden horse will of course be a replica of an old toy because the toy-relic is not to be touched and as a valuable piece it is to be bequeathed to the next generations. What one gets for his use instead is reconstruction made by the local craftsmen and based on the original. It does not mean, however, that the object one gets is fake. By all means, it is as genuine and useful as the relic. Except for the possibility of making another reconstruction in case it is destroyed. Then, others will be able to use it and learn how the people who lived before us did it.