The Exhibition of Antiquities and Monuments of Art in Cracow remained for a long time in the memory of the inhabitants of the city and of the Polish elites from all three partitions. Organised a few years before Galicia gained its autonomy, it stood as a testimony to the development of Polish culture, craftsmanship, and art.
The exhibition enjoyed immense popularity and was considered a national cultural manifesto. While fitting in the romantic fascination for the distant past and the search for the Slavic roots of the nation, in the first place it was driven by academic goals. The main aims of the event were the documentation of the artefacts preserved in private collections and the enlargement of the collection of the Museum of Antiquities of the Cracow Learned Society (henceforth CLS) –the exhibition’s organiser. Moreover, it was a fundraising initiative with the goal to rise funds for the construction of the new seat of the CLS and the restoration works of the Dominican church in Cracow, an important medieval monument badly damaged during the great fire of 1850.
Organised by the members of the Archaeology and Fine Arts Department of the CLS, the exhibition was primarily inspired by the success of the Warsaw Exhibition of Antiquities and Objects of Art (1856). The organisers were also driven by the same ideas and initiatives that circulated at that time in Europe. In June 1857, for example, the CLS section was planning to delegate one of its members to the archaeological exhibition organised in Liegnitz (modern-day Legnica, Poland). At that time the plans for the Kraków exhibition were already advanced and the names of the potential lenders of artefacts identified. This exhibition initiative resurfaces again in February 1858. Within the framework of the CLS activities, the Society appointed an exhibition committee and a special clerk to supervise the exhibition preparations. As the CLS did not have their own headquarters, the Lubomirski family proposed their prestigious family palace in Świętego Jana Street for the exhibition venue.
The committee began the exhibition preparations by corresponding extensively with collectors, potential lenders and sponsors. Letters requesting loans of historic objects were sent to influential aristocrats from Galicia (Prince Adam Sapieha, Prince Władysław Czartoryski, Counts Jan and Edward Stadnicki, Count Ksawery Zamoyski, Count Włodzimierz Dzieduszycki, Prince Jerzy Lubomirski from Rozwadów) and the Polish Kingdom (Count Maurycy Potocki, counts Załuski), as well as to various guilds, presidents of cities and communes in Galicia, the town council and church authorities of Cracow, and to the Jewish community in Kazimierz.
Having ensured the cooperation of the main Polish collectors, the committee issued an Appeal addressed to the wider public asking to send items for the exhibition and explaining what kind of objects are of particular interest to them:
‘Among objects that can be displayed in the intended archaeological exhibition we include all ancient excavated objects, items of ancient attire, clothes, jewellery, armour, any weaponry, maces, sceptres, standards, all household items, vessels, tools, musical or scientific instruments, whole or partial horse trappings; moreover, ancient manuscripts, diplomas, documents on tablets or their imprints, woodcut engravings and sketches, drawings and plans, incunabula of Polish prints until 1540, seals and their imprints, signatures of historic personages, rare old currencies and medals, old national paintings whose value is not lays not so much in their artistry, as in the historic subjects they depict, ancient tapestries, sculptures, statues and majolica, and all that regardless of the material from which or on which the object was made.’
The response was enormous. Just two months after the Appeal had been published a choice of over 1500 historic objects were gathered by the committee, not to mention the items only described in the correspondence.
The official opening of the exhibition took place on September 11, 1858. Initially, the show occupied just the entrance hall and three rooms on the first floor of the Lubomirski palace. As more items were sent in, other rooms were opened to house the exhibition. For example, the fourth room housing fifty seals from the collection of the Pawlikowski family from Medyka, parchment documents, and a set of coins and medals were arranged only in mid-October. The items from two important collectors in the Prussian partition – the Dzieduszycki in Kórnik and the Czartoryski in Gołuchów – were made available to the public even later, in December. At this point the exhibition reached its maximum size and was occupying six rooms and the large entrance hall.
Art and crafts were predominant at the exhibition, though there were also archaeological artefacts in the modern understanding of the word. An important share of them was lent by the Museum of Antiquities of the CLS: clay urns, fragments of Phoenician sculptures, a ring, and the famous Zbruch idol (Światowid). The archaeological part was small, but it attracted the attention of the wider public. The Cracow daily Czas informed:
‘Excavated objects are also plentiful, whether vessels, tools or jewellery, partially Slavic, and partially foreign, as there are Greek and Roman mixed among them. But it does not matter, as it gives an opportunity for comparisons. What a difference there is between items from “very antique” and a piece of flint stone crudely hewn, or between an Etrurian jug and a Slavic urn.’
The exhibition was a true success and its committee in accordance with the CLS department supported the idea of prolonging it ‘as long as the public crowding the rooms and the work on the scientific catalogue require it’. Moreover, several important displays, like the items from the Kórnik and Gołuchów collections, were inaugurated only after the exhibition was open. Therefore, the initially established closing date of the exhibition (December 11, 1858) was changed to January 8, 1859. Till than the show had been visited by around 16 thousand people. In the Cracow cultural and social reality this was a tremendous success.
The Exhibition of Antiquities and Monuments of Art, which nowadays would be perceived as an oddity, in the 1850s was not only a significant cultural event, but also a vital scientific achievement. While the main aim – the enlargement of the CLS collection – was not really achieved (no valuable set of artefacts from among those presented at the exhibition was donated to the Museum of the CLS), many objects on display and the exhibition itself became truly iconic and had a great impact on Polish antiquarian, artistic and literary culture.
An important role in affirming the iconic national status of the exhibition was played by its visual documentation. The display was open to visitors every day, between 10am and 1pm. In the afternoons the rooms were left at the disposal of artists and photographers. These afternoon openings attracted numerous students of the Cracow School of Fine Arts, among others the then 20-year-old painter Jan Matejko (1838–1893). At the request of Józef Ignacy Kraszewski (1812–1887), an influential historian, writer and artist amateur based in Vilnius, a Warsaw photographer, Karol Beyer (1818–1887), made a large photographic documentation of chosen items and exhibition arrangements. 81 from Kraszewski’s set of a hundred photographs were issued by Beyer as the Album from the Exhibition of Antiquities and Monuments of Art staged by the k.u.k. Learned Society in Cracow 1858/1859. Among the afternoon visitors one could also find scholars and amateurs, both local and from the whole Empire and beyond. Many of them made sketches, drawings or commissioned photographs. The visitors could also purchased plaster casts, drawings or photographic reproductions of the chosen exhibition objects.
Possibly, during one or more of the afternoons Zygmunt Gloger (1845–1910), the collector, ethnographer and archaeologist living in Jeżewo in the Russian partition, made a watercolour documentation of the military items on display. This documentation, preserved today in the National Archive in Cracow, is truly academic. The drawings, provided with an accurate description including provenance and size, present the objects from various viewpoints with close-ups on the main decorative elements and with realistically rendered colouring.
Matejko’s and Gloger’s drawings as well as Beyer’s photographs constituted a unique documentation and most importantly in the following years served as models for the illustrated scholarly publications, albums, and even paintings. For example, Matejko used the realistic sketches of armours made at the exhibition as a kid of pattern book for his history paintings and engravings. Beyer’s pictures of archaeological items were reproduced in chromolithography in one of the first Polish antiquarian atlases, the Patterns of Medieval and Renaissance Art in Poland. Finally, Gloger’s drawings were later reproduced in his various illustrated publications dedicated to the Polish material culture.