What Open-Air Museums Can Teach You about the Life of Your Ancestors?

 

This article was originally published in “Rodziny” – The Journal of the Polish Genealogical Society of America, issued in winter 2021.

 

As a tour and research manager in PolishOrigins, one of my main tasks is to create itineraries
for our guests. I am an ethnologist and ethnographer by education, so for years I have been recommending everyone to visit open-air museums during their stay in Poland. In this article I seek to convince the readers of Rodziny, descendants of Polish emigrants, to do the same.

I remember the first time I visited an open-air museum; it was on a school trip when I was a kid.

 

The Museum of the Masovian Countryside in Sierpc.

 

 

I remember the very specific smell of old wood and pleasant coolness inside the old houses which, with
their low doorway and small windows, felt as if these houses were made for children or dwarfs. Only many years later I found out that these narrow and dark rooms were because of the poverty in which most peasants lived. At all costs, they wanted to keep warmth in the main room where they lived with their families, often with their cows, goats or poultry.

Open-air museums often evoke mixed feelings. One, encountering an exotic, different culture, connected with the rhythm of nature and magical beliefs. The other, a sense of familiarity in the everyday objects: pots, spoons, lithographs that I remember from my grandparents’ houses. Above all, however, let us treat these museums as invaluable scientific and cultural institutions, extremely useful also for us – genealogists.

 

Inside the rich landlord’s house. The Museum of the Masovian Countryside in Sierpc.

 

You can easily find a museum that represents your ancestral area:

I prepared a list of the biggest and most characteristic open-air museums in Poland:

• Kashubian Ethnographic Park in Wdzydze Kiszewskie

• The Folk Architecture Museum and Ethnographic Park in Olsztynek presenting the architecture from
Warmia, Mazury, and Powiśle regions

• Wielkopolski Ethnographic Park in Dziekanowice (near Poznań)

• The Museum of the Masovian Countryside in Sierpc

• The Kielce Countryside

• Museum – Ethnographic Park in Tokarnia (Świętokrzyskie Mountains, Kraków-Częstochowa Highlands, Sandomierska Highland, Nida river valley)

• The Museum of the Opole village – Opole region, Silesia

• The Museum of Folk Architecture in Sanok – Podkarpackie province, Galicia

 

Of course, these are only a few of the ones I consider the most representative. Several larger cities in Poland also have open-air museums almost in their centers, such as Lublin, Toruń, or Łódź. These are
the easiest to access.

If you are planning your itinerary in Poland on your own, this website might be useful: https://openairmuseum.pl/.

It is also worth mentioning the Park “Shevchenko Hai” in Lviv, which is one of the largest in Europe. It includes 120 monuments of folk architecture: houses and farm buildings, churches, road shrines, workshops and many others. If your ancestors were from Eastern Galicia, it is definitely worth spending some time there.

 

A Little History

 

The first open-air museum opened in 1891 in Skansen park, Stockholm. The idea was to present the traditional architecture and culture in a holistic approach. This was the beginnings of the so-called “living museums.”  The first institution of this kind in Poland was the open-air museum in Wdzydze Kiszewskie, opened in 1906.

After World War II, the landscape of the Polish countryside was rapidly changing. The concept of saving the former material culture by creating a network of such institutions was born. The goal was to embed buildings in an environment similar to where they originated.

In open-air museums, the traditional layout of the village is usually recreated with a centrally located church, houses surrounded by gardens and fields, and farms imitating the originals with a house, granary, barn, and other farm buildings.

 

Farmstead with the house, barn, well and even the windmill far in the background. The Museum of the Masovian Countryside in Sierpc.

 

Exhibits represent the different material status of their inhabitants, from the manor house, through homesteads of village leaders and rich farmers, to the poorest cottages without chimneys. Small architectural objects are also important, such as wayside crosses and shrines, wells,
benches, and fences.

 

Road shrine and fields surrounding the museum in Sierpc.

 

Seasonality is key to understanding the exhibits. Keep in mind that most of our ancestors were peasants. They lived in close association with the cycle of nature, religious celebrations and local traditions. In museums, we can often see temporary exhibits related to specific activities during the calendar year. Christmas decorations appear in December and January. Harvest wreaths and dried armfuls of herbs are found in Summer. Sometimes the calendar year is shown in full in different houses. You might walk between the wedding celebrations in carnival time, through Easter rituals, to the traditional plucking of feathers or spinning that took place in autumn.

 

Traditional decorations made from straws and paper, called “pająki” – “spiders”.

 

Larder with preserves in Olsztynek.

 

Drying apples over the stove in Olsztynek.

 

There are no open-air museums without nature. Plants popular in a given region grow in gardens. There are fruit trees and sometimes also vegetables and herbs. Some museums also keep animals.

 

A stork walking in the garden in Sierpc.

 

Animals in the open-air museum in Olsztynek.

 

Another key to telling the story about people’s lives is hidden in the items they used. Look around carefully because each item served something specific and is purposefully placed in the exhibition. Try
to guess the use for each, and if you do not know, just ask people working in the museum.

 

A tool for making shingles in Nowy Sącz.

 

Meeting with Fascinating People

 

First and foremost, in open-air museums there are wonderful guides who know every nook and cranny of the place and share fantastic stories. Sometimes a specific person is assigned to one farm and when you enter you meet them as if they were the farmer.

Open-air museums usually cooperate with a multitude of creators and craftsmen who try to save from oblivion the disappearing professions such as weavers, blacksmiths, potters, and many others. It is possible to arrange workshops; or there are some occasional presentations on summer weekends. It is worth checking this before your visit. If your ancestor was a shoemaker or a blacksmith, you can try to make an appointment with a representative of this profession in the museum. They also organize large events: festivals, historical reenactments, handicraft fairs, and rituals related to holidays such as an Easter palm competition or caroling.

 

Bread making in Nowy Sącz.

 

Museum gardens require constant work. Open-air museum in Nowy Sącz.

 

Learning to spin in Nowy Sącz.

 

Sitting in the House of Your Great Grandparents.

 

Lastly, when created, the open-air museums bought the old buildings found in that region. Before being moved, the history of a structure was documented by the village of origin along with photographs of
it and its surroundings, data about the last and previous owners, sometimes the names of the carpenters who built it were known, plus other stories. The museums keep this data that sometimes might be useful to your genealogy research. On the websites of the ethnographic museums there is usually a list of all the buildings with a description of each. It would be a great deal of luck to find your ancestral original house there, but at PolishOrigins we witnessed such a case!

You can read the story on our blog: Sitting Down In My GGGrandfather’s House.

Even if this will not be so in your case, you can still sit on a small bench in front of a wooden hut, look at the country road to imagine the carts driving along it, people returning from hard work in the fields, children running with a herd of geese or grazing cows, women carrying water from a well, or daughters
bringing dinner to their father. You can really feel the village atmosphere of your ancestors of over a hundred years ago.

 

Agnieszka Pawlus

 

Soon we will publish the second part of this article posted: an interview with Maria Grabowska,
Tour Guide at  The Museum of Folk Architecture in Sanok.

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