Art Is Changing (a) Place

Museum – Activation

Publication: 18 August 2021

NO. 4 2011



Institutions of contemporary art, more and more rapidly invading the space of Polish cities, adopt strategies of going beyond the domain of pure art towards social participation, urban regeneration and abolishing the division between an institution and its surroundings.

In order to face the challenges of the postmodern world and new social needs, museums and art centres more and more frequently play the role of an agora, where an aesthetic experience coming from contact with art is one of the elements of the institutional offer. In the international debate on museums we hear about the necessity to redefine the museum institution, for it seems that today’s museum is something more than just a repository of national heritage; that from being an observer it is becoming an originator of changes, not just artistic, but also social ones.

The borders of the museum

According to the definition proposed by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), adopted in 2007, “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”[1] This definition, to which particular national definitions refer to and draw on, provides only the general framework for the character of the museum and its functioning. The borders of a museum are ever more frequently shifting – the exhibits disappear from sight, the museum architecture takes over the role of art and the activities leave the museum building. The specific character of the functioning of a museum brings it closer to centres of art animating artistic life, defining new perspectives, quickly reacting to the challenges of the changing world, while the centres themselves create their own art collections and organise their programme around them, which brings them closer to museums. The physical borders of museums are overcome by rows of windows on the ground floors, allowing the exhibition halls to be seen from the street level[2], while the French windows and belvederes on higher stories offer the visitors an opportunity to view their surroundings. Institutions of contemporary art, more and more rapidly invading the space of Polish cities, adopt strategies of going beyond the domain of pure art towards social participation, urban regeneration and abolishing the division between an institution and its surroundings.

A good starting point for reflections on a mature formula for a museum is the model of a critical museum proposed by Piotr Piotrowski for the National Museum in Warsaw (NMW). It has not been implemented and the eighteen-month-long battle for the reorganisation of this institution, which was to involve utilising the critical model in an encyclopaedic museum which is the NMW, was rejected by the board of trustees, which led to the resignation of the director. In his book, Piotrowski describes this episode, which has become a milestone in the Polish debate on museums. He defines a critical museum as “a museum-forum engaged in public debate, undertaking important and often also controversial problems of a given community, regarding both history and the present. A critical museum is an institution working for democracy based on argument, but also an autocratic institution reviewing its own tradition, taking issue with its own authority and the historical and artistic cannon it has shaped.”[3] Opponents of using this concept in the NMW claimed that it could be implemented in contemporary art museums, but not in ones accumulating a broad-ranging legacy of the nation, which should be politically and ideologically neutral. In my view, it stems from the misunderstanding of this concept and from an idealistic (or rather conservative) belief that a museum institution may function in isolation from politics and ideology.

It seems that every art institution focused on contemporary problems should draw on the idea of the critical museum in order to underscore the relevance of its programme and its relation with the viewer. And the location of a museum itself enforces specific strategies, especially if social and ideological problems are merged in it. They are created in postindustrial buildings, in districts burdened with social problems, in places distant from the city centre which the authorities and investors want to “breathe life” into[4]. A frequently quoted example of revitalisation and regeneration of neglected areas with bad reputation, devoid of tourist attractions, is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Even before it was opened, the capital of the Basque Country had started to play the role of a world centre of modern architecture and art, which overshadowed the not so distant and notorious associations with terrorism. The museum, inaugurated in 1997 and boasting impressive architecture and two brands recognisable over the world – Solomon Guggenheim and Frank Gehry – inscribed itself in the long tradition of regeneration through culture. Particularly remarkable for this tendency was the revitalisation of the Liverpool harbour, where one of the docks was turned into a branch of the London Tate Gallery – Tate Liverpool. The adaptation of the building and major expansion of exhibition space in the London museum preceded the much larger millennial investment in the compound of the disused electricity works in the Southwark district of London, which was named Tate Modern. The list of such examples is long, although the above-named influenced the practice of revitalising districts and cities through museums to the greatest degree. One of the most recent investments is the revitalisation of the Ruhr area, where the new cultural and scientific function in an area degraded by heavy industry was introduced not by particular facilities and institutions, but by an entire group of them.

Art changes a shipyard

This tradition, only briefly sketched, is drawn on by contemporary art institutions arising in Poland. Their scale is usually much smaller, but their scope of influence will not necessarily be such. A good example of this is the Wyspa Institute of Art (Instytut Sztuki Wyspa), created in 2004 by the Foundation Wyspa Progress, led by Grzegorz Klaman and Aneta Szyłak[5]. The Wyspa Institute found its place on the site of the former Gdańsk Shipyard in the building of the old school for ship builders. The identity of the institution and the character of the projects reflect the specific nature of the place – marked with the symbolism of epoch-making historical events, awaiting a complex transformation, from the industrial facilities within the compound to the elegant residential and commercial district bathed in the charms of the seaside. “The ambition and mission of the Art Institute Island,” we read on its website, “is to play an intellectually and artistically stimulating role on the site of the former shipyard, to join the debate on its historical role through its programme and to combine it with the history of independent artistic movements in Gdańsk and a contemporary, innovative artistic practice.”[6] The Wyspa Institute acts as a centre of contemporary art, which continuously goes beyond artistic preoccupations and offers a programme from the borderland of art, history, social matters and politics, combining local issues and problems with their international aspect.

The early projects already met with both national and international interest and acclaim, and showed how you can review history through art in an unpretentious way. “The first exhibition was called BHP (Safety and Hygiene of Work) and concerned working conditions, history of Solidarity and production on the site. Solidarity, Wałęsa, the shipyard, production, waterfront, locality and architecture – all this adds up to an extraordinary whole,” said Grzegorz Klaman, chairman of the Wyspa Progress Foundation. “We have carried out a lot of projects connected with history, Solidarity and memory, not in the sense of a eulogy, but of asking questions, linking things with events in Europe and the European way of thinking about them, of showing that we do not imprison ourselves in the Polish backwater, for it is of interest only to us. Our aim is to put these issues under an intellectual debate, under reflection, under artistic treatment. To create a certain content, which will become a common European good, rather than something for a narrow group of interested participants or politicians.”[7] The wide-ranging programme of the Island is targeted both at specialised recipients of contemporary art and participants of cultural life, and at the local community of Gdańsk and the district, the authorities, investors, public opinion leaders. In 2006 a cycle of workshops was held, devoted to the future of the so-called Young City, that is the quarter comprising the privatised Gdańsk Shipyard. Their aim was to arrange a meeting of persons and institutions interested in the future of the quarter: municipal authorities, developers, investors, politicians, journalists, intellectuals, urban planners, artists, students and trade union activists, in order to take stock of the expectations and ideas for developing the quarter. Creating such a platform for discussion turned the degraded district into an attractive point of reference. An extension of the idea behind the workshops was a project carried out in 2011 by an artistic collective Microsillons, with the aim of preparing a publication containing proposals for alternative and utopian solutions for the future form of postindustrial area of the shipyard. Secondary school and university students, employees of the Island, artists and city guides were also asked for their opinions.

The focus of the project Subjective Bus Line (Subiektywna Linia Autobusowa, 2002, 2009, 2011) has been not so much a vision of developing the site of the former shipyard, but the memory of the historical events which took place here. It is a kind of nostalgic trip to the shipyard, taken in a historical “cucumber” bus in the company of former shipyard workers. One of the assumptions behind this project is opening up this site and bringing it closer to public space[8]. The participants of the trip may see the former workshop of Lech Wałęsa, the gates on the Way to Freedom, the former BHP room, the office of the shipyard’s management, the Imperial Shipyard, slipways, U-boot Hall and the place where Wałęsa famously jumped the fence, and all this with a subjective commentary of a former employee and witness of the historical changes. As Klaman rightly said, “It may seem that some of our actions are quite removed from showing works of art. Our work to a large extent has a nature of social activism, organising workshops and public debates. In this place, on the site of the former Shipyard, one component always present in the process of revitalisation is missing, that is the inhabitants. There are people living behind the fence separating the Shipyard from the city, there is a workers’ colony there. In fact, the entire quarter was once closely connected with the Shipyard, through the inhabitants, through its function, through its proximity. But the influence of the residents on what is happening here is very weak. Virtually no one asks them for their opinion, so they are both present and absent in this relation. It is us who are making some connections, in order to activate the positive part of the local community. They are going to willy-nilly find themselves in some relationship with this site – the wall will disappear and it will suddenly turn out that they are living in a quite different district than a few years ago.” The projects mentioned above, selected from a whole range of initiatives combining art with social problems, add up to a picture of a very active institution drawing its power from the potential of a place.

Art intervenes in the capital

An equally critical place, although in a completely different aspect, is the building site selected for the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (MMA). Since the moment of announcing the architectural competition until at least 2009 – when after the crisis connected with the necessity of changing the project in order to accommodate another institution in the building, namely a theatre, the designing work was resumed – a national debate on the museum in the capital was raging. It turned around a number of issues: the symbolic location of the museum, the need for an iconic architecture, the place of the Polish museum architecture in the world architecture and the relationship of the museum with its surroundings. The museum building will neighbour the Palace of Culture and Science, it will rise on Plac Defilad, so it is a location taking issue with the history and symbolism of communism, as well as with a contemporary vision of the city centre. According to the vision contained in the conditions of the architectural competition, the museum building was to serve as a counterpoint to the monumental Palace of Culture, as well as to become an icon, an architectural treasure of Warsaw, identifying the city as a contemporary metropolis. But it has not gone this way – a restrained or even minimalist conception won the competition.

It seems that the protracted realisation of the project (a museum of contemporary art in Warsaw was first postulated soon after World War II) has made its mark on its programme. Through exhibition and research projects as well as urban and social initiatives the museum is seeking social acceptance, probing the ground on which it will be active when workers leave the building site[9]; it is identifying problems. It is doing all that in a temporary seat close to the Palace and the future museum. The exhibitions provoke important questions, but they are only a part of the programme based on lectures, discussions, debates, seminars. The museum has become involved in the creation of the Sculpture Park in Bródno. This is a long-term project conceived by Paweł Althamer and carried out by the district authorities. Its aim is to revitalise, through contemporary art, a district far removed from the city centre – since 2009 sculptures and installations have been filling the green space of the park surrounded by blocks of flats. Also, since 2009 the museum has been organising the Warszawa w budowie (Warsaw in Construction) festival. As the museum director, Joanna Mytkowska, says, “The festival aims at inspiring the social development of the city. The events show the possibilities open to a developing metropolis and they will also make an attempt at ordering the city space.”[10] The festival features meetings with experts, discussions, film screenings, lectures, exhibitions, thematic walks. The festival is testing the needs and analysing the problems of the city, as well as initiating debates between various communities reflecting on Warsaw of the future[11]. An important theme for reflection is the future of Plac Defilad and the question of urban and architectural ordering of the city centre. The festival also offers the possibility, during the weekly forum The Department of Proposals, of making suggestions for improvements in the city by the inhabitants.

On the border of art, commercialism and localism

In 2008 a new seat of the Muzeum Sztuki (Museum of Art) in Łódź was opened in the commercial and entertainment centre “Manufaktura.” The building of historical textile works handed over by the investor of the entire complex was adapted for the requirements of the museum now presenting a permanent collection of modern and contemporary art and temporary exhibitions. During the adaptation work and after the opening of the museum, media people expressed many doubts if the location of the museum would not adulterate the ambitious programme and make it more “ludic.” “For some, locating a museum in the vicinity of a commercial centre may seem controversial. But in my view it is a chance for abolishing the artificial frontiers between the so-called high culture and the day-to-day experience of ordinary people,” explained the director of the Museum, Jarosław Suchan. “The frontiers, which intimidate many people, making them stay away from art museums. Therefore in the ms programme[12] we are planning various projects attempting to show that art is an important part of our lives rather than a sophisticated hobby of a handful of aesthetes.” The museum works as an open space, if only thanks to the arrangement of space and the artistic procedures. The main entrance, from the courtyard of “Manufaktura,” is marked by Jarosław Kozakiewicz’s sculpture called The Door to the Museum – several metres high steel form shaped like a blind arch, aimed at highlighting the entrance against the background of shopping and services facilities. The other entrance, on the opposite side of the building adjoined by the parking lot and the street, is accessed by way of a ramp made of metal and glass. It does not lead to a ticket office or an exhibition room, but to the museum coffee shop. This simple manoeuvre with a buffer space of the entrance makes the visitor feel familiar with the space of the “temple of art.”

The process of familiarising is not limited to structural tricks. In 2009 an exhibition, or rather a project, was mounted which aimed at increasing the competence of our society in the perception of modern art through engaging the viewers in the process of creating, collecting, presentation and interpretation. The ms³ / Re:akcja project, during which the exhibition was being born in the presence and with the participation of viewers-participants, was aimed at – as the organisers put it in the promotional materials, “Integrating disadvantaged groups, excluded from the community of museum guests: neighbours of ms2 – residents of Ogrodowa Street and the quarter around Gdańska Street (through their social and economic situation) and the customers of the nearby »Manufaktura« commercial centre (through an ideology of consumption), thanks to the implementation of the idea of a living museum as a space of joint activity.” In 2011 a project called Urban Ecologies was launched, where by various means of expression – music and movement, performance, action – attention was called to marginal and neglected areas of Łódź, located in the vicinity of the museum seats. The project encompasses the revitalisation of a small square at 6 Wólczańska Street – close to the renovated main building at Więckowskiego Street and not far away from “Manufaktura” – by planting of greenery, cleaning the soil, creating a seating zone, building a toilet for dogs and realising artistic programmes there.

Transformation of Zabłocie and art

The opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow (MOCAK) in 2010, and of the first exhibitions in the following year was an event of national importance. For it is the first Polish contemporary art museum housed in a specially designed modern space[13]. The museum found its place in the production halls of the former German Factory of Enamel Vessels owned by Oskar Schindler and is neighboured by a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, opened a few months before in the administrative building of the factory. The permanent exhibition presents Krakow during World War II – including a reconstruction of Schindler’s office with an installation made from prefabricated elements for making the vessels and a cylinder with the names of people saved by Schindler. The museum, representing the dialogue of contemporary architecture with historical brick and mortar, carries a heavy symbolic load. During the media debate on its location, Schindler’s factory was criticised as a potential place for presenting contemporary art. Many people expressed the view that a historical museum should be created there, while contemporary art, due to its uncompromising nature, may turn out to be inappropriate for a place of memory. The mayor decided to divide the site between the two institutions. The first large-scale exhibition organised by MOCAK, called History in Art, showed that the location predisposes the museum to take issue with the past, including the history of World War II and the Holocaust, and hence to engage in dialogue with the adjoining Historical Museum.

The factory is located in the neglected Zabłocie quarter, which in the early 20th century experienced rapid industrialisation, and even towards the end of the century was avoided as one of the “worst” parts of the city (crime, litter, lack of tourist attractions). Placing cultural institutions here is meant to revive the quarter and to create an alternative cultural centre in Krakow (Tadeusz Kantor Museum is being created in the vicinity of the factory). New housing estates are built and the footbridge across the Vistula, joining Podgórze (of which Zabłocie is part) with Kazimierz, makes Zabłocie more accessible. During the construction the museum made a film documenting the character of the industrial quarter. The filming is to be regularly repeated in order to register the changes occurring there. “Since its inception MOCAK aims at making the post-factory, neglected area of Zabłocie a place friendly to contemporary art,” said Maria Anna Potocka, the museum’s director. “Through cultural and educational activity we attempt to build a friendly relation with the inhabitants and to actively participate in the process of revitalising this part of Krakow. […] We also want to contribute to neutralising the negative effects of gentrification, as our concern is a balanced development of the quarter, which would make it possible to integrate the past of the area with its presence marked by contemporary art.”[14] It is to be achieved through educational initiatives planned: the Zabłocie Project, which is to contribute to redefining the local identity, and workshops for children, which are going to feature painting murals on walls of old houses under the supervision of artists.

Museum is changing (a) place

The institutions above were chosen for the discussion on change because of their programme, which goes beyond their seats and places artistic issues in a wider social context, and because of their important location in four large Polish cities. Of course, this selection does not exhaust the subject, although they are the largest or widest-ranging institutions of their kind in Poland. The terminology used requires certain justification. The Island Institute of Art is nowhere near the eponymous museum, but the word “museum” was utilised here in order to provoke a discussion on the contemporary role of museums. The Island accumulates a collection, although it is calling it an impossible collection. It is an agora where rival views are confronted – not only artistic attitudes, but also social and political ones; it integrates the audience around common matters, questions and causes, allowing a look from various perspectives, initiating debate, offering cognitive tools. Has the Wyspa Institute changed the Shipyard? Even if the change has not gone in the recommended direction – the recommendations discussed during the workshops on the Young City were not taken into account by the developer and the municipal authorities – the shipyard has become a living, active place, which instead of receding into history books with the mythology of Solidarity, has been engaging in the dialogue with the past creating the horizons for a “second life” of this site. The Wyspa Institute offers a unique artistic and critical potential, referring to the existing place on many different levels, and it will also serve as a counterbalance to the European Solidarity Centre created nearby. It is a catalyst of changing the way of thinking about the past – instead of sacralisation and glorification it proposes discussion and critical reflection. The future of the shipyard is determined – elegant apartment blocks, promenades, services and cultural facilities will be located here. The Wyspa Institute’s initiatives force various interest groups to reflect on the specific course and character of the great process of revitalisation.

Has the MMA been changing the centre of Warsaw? Also in this case only an affirmative answer is possible, although in the very heart of the capital the transformation certainly will not be so visible. Especially that we can speak about it only when the building will be completed. The architectural expression of the museum has become part of a wide-ranging discussion on planning the city centre, while its activity – asking questions, confronting social problems, identifying urgent issues around which various groups of interest gather – changes the way of perceiving the museum institution, which is becoming a living place, looking for links between the past and the present. Does Muzeum Sztuki change the surroundings of “Manufaktura?” It seems that it should rather be described as motivating for change, encouraging step by step to participate in the life of the museum, not necessarily focused exclusively on contemporary art. But the location of the museum in a place so characteristic for contemporary times, that is a commercial centre, makes the public and consumers aware that a museum is part of daily experience. Has MOCAK been changing Zabłocie? It has been active so briefly that it is impossible to speak about any change. This institution has certainly undertaken to document the change, which will be possible to perceive no sooner than in a few years, when people will move into the elegant apartment blocks built today and the former industrial facilities and dilapidated houses change their appearance and function. New places, new people, and attracting tourists to the quarter make it inevitable that the character of the place will change. MOCAK has an ambition of neutralising negative consequences of gentrification, but the question arises whether this will be fully achievable when the whole period of preparation was lost in this respect. The competition for a museum in this place was announced in 2007, while the institution was called into being only in mid-2010. In the intervening four years there was no single meeting, discussion, debate, seminar or workshop on the initiative comparable to the Island or MCA. And yet, since the beginning of the discussion on a museum of contemporary art in Krakow, that is since 2004, this very important place has provoked heated emotions.

To go back to the question from the title of the article – perhaps trivial, partly rhetorical – I will answer it in the following way: a museum of art (for this is what we are concerned with here) should modify its surroundings, identify problems and activate the public around it. Involvement in public and social life, playing the role of an agora, going beyond the museum building, combining art with life and everyday problems – given the enormous need to raise the level of cultural and artistic education of society – seem to be the criteria of an institution’s success and change generated by it.


[1] This largest and most prestigious international museum institution was created in 1946 and since that time it has been regularly updating the definition of a museum, which should be adequate to the challenges of contemporary times.

[2] Not the first, but perhaps the best-known example of this tendency in the world is the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin designed by Mies van der Rohe, opened as early as 1968.

[3] Piotr Piotrowski, Muzeum krytyczne, Poznań 2011, p. 9.

[4] One of the first investments of this kind was the construction in 1893-1897 of the Tate Gallery building in the Millbank district of London. At this time it was a gloomy and dangerous area meant to be sanitised by the palace of art.

[5] The Wyspa Institute of Art is a separate undertaking, but it should not be analysed in isolation from earlier initiatives of the foundation. Since 1990 Klaman directed the Wyspa Gallery in Gdańsk, and from 1992 he was active in the historical municipal baths with a group of artists. In 1998, with Aneta Szyłak, he created the Centre of Contemporary Art Łaźnia (Baths) there, focused on provoking changes in the neglected district of Gdańsk called Dolne Miasto (Lower City). In 2001 Szyłak was recalled from the function of director and slightly later the Wyspa Gallery was closed as a consequence of the scandal connected with the exhibition of Dorota Nieznalska’s works. The search for a new seat began and it brought the foundation to the shipyard. In 2002 Modelarnia was opened and then the Institute of Art was created. Under the new leadership, the Centre of Contemporary Art Łaźnia continues, though undoubtedly in a different manner, the mission of artistic and social involvement in the life of the district.

[6] Wyspa: historia,,Historia,pid,52.html (28 July 2011).

[7] From my interview with Grzegorz Klaman, which took place on January 30, 2011, in the seat of the Wyspa Institute of Art in Gdańsk.

[8] As there are two buildings open to the public – the Wyspa Institute of Art and the exhibition Drogi do wolności – the site of the shipyard is accessible, but fenced in ogrodzony and may be entered through the porter’s lodge.

[9] Despite the original optimistic plans of opening the museum in 2011, later moved to 2013 and 2014, the huge cost of the investment makes it certain that the building will not be completed before 2016, and in some quarters even the date 2020 is mentioned.

[10] mkw/PAP, Festiwal „Warszawa w budowie”,,1,3705098,wiadomosc.html (6 June 2011).

[11] Marcel Andino Velez, Sebastian Cichocki, Wprowadzenie, in: Warszawa w budowie 1, M.A. Velez (ed.), Warszawa 2010, p. 18.

[12] Krzysztof Kowalewicz, „ms² czyli sztuka spotęgowana,” an interview with Jarosław Suchan, Gazeta Wyborcza – Muzeum Sztuki” – a supplement to the Łódź edition of Gazeta Wyborcza, November 14, 2008,
p. 2.

[13] The Museum of Contemporary Art started functioning in 2007 in a temporary seat. The Wyspa Institute of Art opened in 2004 and the Centre of Contemporary Art “Znaki Czasu” in Toruń are not museums, while the Museum of Art in Łódź ms2, opened in 2008 as part of the “Manufaktura” commercial centre is not a new institution.

[14] From a statement for Herito, July 29, 2011.

About authors

Katarzyna Jagodzińska

Graduate of art history, journalism and social communication, Ph.D. in European Studies, lecturer in public relations. Specialises in museum-related issues in Central Europe. Publishes academic articles and essays in cultural and artistic magazines. She works in the International Cultural Centre in Krakow.


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