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The Museum of Folk Architecture - The Ethnographic Park in Olsztynek

The Museum of Folk Architecture – the Ethnographic Park in Olsztynek

The Museum of Folk Architecture – the Ethnographic Park in Olsztynek is one of the oldest, and the most frequently visited open-air museums in Poland. Its 35 hectares contain over sixty buildings and small-scale architectural features from the area of Ermland, Masuria, the Vistula estuary region, the so-called Little Lithuania and Samland. The first three regions are in the Ermland-Masuria Voivodeship in Poland, but the Little Lithuania is now the eastern part of the Republic of Lithuania and the northern part of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast, while Samland lies entirely in Kaliningrad Oblast.

Yet it is not by accident that foreign architectural monuments are found in a Polish museum. The history of the Olsztynek museum goes back to the year 1909, when some wooden buildings were reconstructed on the outskirts of the zoological garden in Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, which then belonged to Prussia. The buildings came from the areas of Ermland, Masuria, the Vistula estuary region and Lithuania, which all belonged to the province of East Prussia. The effort was initiated by Richard Dethlefsen, the then-Provincial Monument Conservator. This was the beginning of the Königsberg Ethnographic Park, better known as the Dorfmuseum, which opened to the public in 1913. In the years 1938-1940 the museum was moved to the vicinity of Olsztynek. Twelve buildings in the Olsztynek museum are surviving copies made for the Dorfmuseum; among them is the wooden church from Rychnowa and the wooden church tower from Mańki.

In 1945, Olsztynek, with all Masuria, was incorporated into the People’s Republic of Poland. Supervision of the museum passed to the Voivodeship Monument Conservator in Olsztyn. The Ethnographic Park became a subdivision of the Museum of Masuria in 1962, and in 1969 was transformed into an independent unit renamed the Museum of Folk Architecture – the Ethnographic Park in Olsztynek .

Today, the museum grounds encompass c. 90 hectares, about one third of which is occupied by an archaeological site and cist burial mound from the early Iron Age (500 BC), and the buildings and architectural features from the former East Prussia. Nearby lies the so-called Witch Hill, where relics of Bronze Age settlement (2 500 BC) were discovered; reconstruction works have started on the Old Prussian craftsman village there.

Yet the Museum of Folk Architecture in Olsztynek offers much more than archaeological excavations and monuments of architecture. Farm animals, household gardens and traditional crops lend authenticity to the cultural landscape. Visitors can see animal breeds characteristic to the region: horses, goats and skudde sheep, which are regarded to be the oldest domesticated sheep breed of northern Europe. This breed originated in East Prussia and was recorded in the area from the northern Lithuania to Kashubia, but it was precisely in Ermland and Masuria that is was most popular. It became all but extinct during the Second World War and was saved by Ermlanders and Masurians taking their possessions, including livestock, for resettlement to Germany. Skudde sheep are still bred there, and the Olsztynek museum staff managed to bring them back to Masuria. The skudde flock is one of the skansen’s greatest attractions, especially popular among children.

It is important to notice that the majority of buildings displayed in Olsztynek dates from the mid-19th century. Brick was commonly used as building material only from the 1870’s onwards. Earlier houses were built of pinewood with the framing joined with dovetails or pegged mortise and tenon joints. The half-timbered construction technique, so strongly associated with the northern Poland, actually gained popularity only after the First World War, and even then was used mainly for outbuildings and service buildings. If there is a single distinguishing feature to the folk architecture of Ermland and Masuria as seen in the skansen, it is certainly various types of jetties: gable jetties in Masurian cottages, projecting jetties over entrances to cottages from the northern Ermland and the Vistula estuary region, or bay jetties typical for the latter.

Apart from viewing the old cottages and getting acquainted with the secrets of their construction, the visitors can participate in various workshops and museum lessons held in the Ethnographic Park or the Exhibition Salon in Olsztynek, e.g. workshops in pottery, Christmas and Easter traditions and painting on glass. Those interested in traditional folk dress will be fascinated by the lecture “Folk Costume in Ermland and Masuria” and the following presentation of original costumes.

On 30th December 2008, the museum was entered into the State Register of Museums at the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, and in 2009 received the Oskar Kolberg Award, which is the highest recognition of merit in protecting Polish folklore.

An excursion to the Museum of Folk Architecture – the Ethnographic Park in Olsztynek is not only an interesting and educational diversion during holidays in Masuria, but also an excellent opportunity for a stroll in an exceptionally charming and relaxing place.

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