The Białowieża Open Air Museum of Wooden Architect

The Białowieża Open-air Museum of Wooden Architecture of Podlachia’s Ruthenian Population

The Białowieża Open-air Museum of Wooden Architecture of Podlachia’s Ruthenian Population boasts nine buildings. Although they are in a varying state of preservation, each and every one of them is beautifully arranged and in harmony with its natural surroundings, which makes a stroll in the museum grounds a pleasant and rewarding experience. What is more, some of the museum buildings have been adapted for tourist lodgings.

The Białowieża collection of wooden architecture was gathered gradually, over the period of several years, each stage crucial in a different way. The first building, a windmill, arrived in 1978. It is a post mill, a type in which the body that houses the grain-milling machinery is mounted on a single vertical post, around which it can be turned to bring the sails into the wind. The windmill, dating from 1925, was brought from the village of Kotły; interestingly, however, it was not the first move in its history, as initially it stood in the village of Kuraszewo, then was relocated to Kotły, and only afterwards to Białowieża. Efforts to acquire it for the museum were initiated by the owners and keepers of the windmill under the guidance of Prof. Anatolij Odzijewicz, the founding father of the museum, to whom it owes its present appearance.

When the windmill was about to be moved to Białowieża, it was necessary to purchase land on which it could be placed. A 4-hectare plot in the former hamlet of Kropiwnik, between the Narewka River and Zastawa Street was finally bought in 1983 from Alesia and Stiepan Bojko (at the time the hamlet was in the neighbourhood of Białowieża, since then it was incorporated into its administrative boundaries). The plot was fenced and slowly began to fill with exhibits. It was only in 2004, however, that the museum opened its door to visitors. The viewing of buildings and their interiors still has to be pre-arranged, and as the museum supervisors are not always available, it is best to plan the visit for the weekend.

It has to be stressed that the museum is a private enterprise. The idea was first suggested by Prof. Anatolij Odzijewicz and his students from Bialystok. In 1978 they initiated the efforts to organise a museum mainly with the intention to protect the wooden architecture of Podlachia and preserve it for future generations. Only when the “Białowieża vogue” of the mid-1990’s caused a significant increase in tourist traffic, its supervisors began to think of making the open-air museum a tourist attraction.

At the present moment, the museum functions thanks to the student volunteers, who look after its buildings. It is a venue for field trips and sessions focusing on cultural heritage of the region. A night spent in an old cottage can be an unforgettable experience. The effect is enhanced by the natural beauty of the surroundings, lush greenery, intoxicating fresh air and the all-pervading feeling of harmony between Nature and Man.

The Białowieża Open-air Museum of Wooden Architecture of Podlachia’s Ruthenian Population consists of nine well-preserved buildings, which can be divided into four groups. The first group consists of the two cottages that stand close to the gate. Their lofts have been adapted to tourist lodgings, so they differ in character from the other buildings. A visitor may be surprised to see shingled gablet roofs with PCV skylights and none-too-decorative satellite dishes. One of those cottages comes from the village of Klejniki and dates from 1893; it was moved to the museum and reconstructed in 1988. The anteroom, chamber and alcove are open to all visitors and house an impressive collection of pottery and textiles typical of the region. The other cottage comes from the village of Czyżyki and, dating from 1885, is the oldest building in the museum. The most interesting exhibit in its interior is the bread oven. Both cottages are built of round or half-round logs or processed beams. The logs are joined at the corners with dovetails, that is with notched pins and tails, into a closed encircling frame, or joined into a post-and-beam frame of short timber elements, the so-called sumik (noggins), set one upon the other, with ends fitted into notches in vertical posts, the lontka (studs).

In the one-element second group is the tchasownya, a charming wooden chapel of St. Alexander Nevsky, patterned on the chapel in Nowoberezowo. It is almost fully encircled by a shallow moat, so it appears to be standing on a little island surrounded by beautiful landscape. Two wooden crosses and a stone stand close by; the stone and the older of the crosses commemorate the millenary of the baptism of Kievan Ruthenia.

The third group consists of two windmills, both from the village of Orle, a cottage from Biala, and outbuildings: a maisternya (workshop) from Widów and a barn from Koszele. The windmills, both of the post mill type, date from the inter-war period, and are complete with millstones and supporting machinery. To enter a windmill, it is necessary to climb wooden stairs; it is worthwhile to stop at the top, turn round and admire the stunning vista. The cottage close by dates from the late 19th century. Its walls are built in a dovetail and post-and-beam techniques, and the gablet roof is thatched with straw. The thatching is not very well preserved, but this reveals the roof construction. The wooden skeleton of the roof is provided by rafters, joined in an inverted V to create the ridge. Horizontal planks are nailed across the rafters to strengthen the roof structure and facilitate thatching. Each gable is decorated with sparogy, ornamental finials of planks nailed to the first and last rafter. This type of roof decoration used to be typical for Podlachia, Kurpie and Kashubia. The interiors are furnished with metal and wooden vessels, pottery and textiles, and the large stove is quite remarkable. Near the cottage there is a well with a shadoof and a 1920’s workshop building from Widów, acquired in 1986. This maisternia is surprisingly small, almost like a fairytale house, and its diminutive charm always brings out smiles of affection. However, the solid encircling frame of its walls is built in the same technique that gives such a firm stability to the neighbouring barn. Inside the maisternia there is a multitude of planes, cutters and other tools. A few steps away stands a shingled windmill, and hidden in the greenery behind its huge sails are two beehives in hollowed-out tree trunks.

The fourth group again consists of just one element: a traditional fence constructed in the years 1983-1984 by the founders of the museum. It is a faithful copy of local fences, made of three horizontal poles with spruce branches woven vertically between them.

The landscape is practically a separate attraction. The fairytale environment of the museum itself is complemented by the surrounding vistas. In Białowieża, human interference with the natural environment is relatively limited. Although currently flourishing and increasingly appreciated by tourists, it is still a quiet village with a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere. However, to enjoy the collections of the Białowieża Open-air Museum of Wooden Architecture of Podlachia’s Ruthenian Population at one’s own pace and to spend a night in a traditional Podlachian cottage, booking well in advance is recommended.

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