Understanding Others

17 December 2021

We talk to Agata Wąsowska-Pawlik about European dialogue and the significance of heritage.

Agata Wąsowska-Pawlik
She has been working at the International Cultural Centre since 1994, becoming its director in 2018. She graduated from the Jagiellonian University in history of art (1996), and she is a member of the board of several museums in Kraków. She was Poland’s national coordinator of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018.

Grzegorz Słącz: Ten years ago, Prof. Jacek Purchla summarised the publication marking the anniversary of the International Cultural Centre by saying that the three themes which have been present throughout its existence have been culture and development, heritage and remembrance, and Europe and dialogue. How do things look from the perspective of another major anniversary?
Agata Wąsowska-Pawlik: Of course we are continuing with these themes, although most likely in different proportions: we are always striving to be alert and sensitive to things around us. In recent years we have been working hard on dialogue across Central Europe. Our series The Central European Library introduces Polish readers to the history of individual countries, for example Romania and Croatia; we are also presenting a more synthetic approach with Emil Brix and Erhard Busek’s Central Europe Revisited. The series, numbering close to twenty volumes, has been growing over the past decade. It also features authors from beyond Europe, such as the American historian Larry Wolff (Inventing Eastern Europe). In the last decade we have also founded our quarterly magazine “Herito”; its 43 issues published to date serve as a compendium of knowledge about Eastern Europe. It is bilingual and available electronically, reaching readers beyond our borders.
And while we’re on the subject of the intertwining spheres of culture, development and heritage, I should mention our project HOMEE presenting a list of recommendations for politicians, decision-makers and organisers of major cultural events which have an influence on cultural heritage in cities such as Kraków.


The Central European Library series, photo by Łukasz Kozak

What cultural events are we talking about?
We discussed events such as the European Capital of Culture and the EXPO fair, as well as analysing cities including Wrocław, Hull (UK City of Culture) and Genoa and Matera in Italy. The project HOMEE is the result of a collaboration with the Polytechnic University of Milan, the University of Hull and the Neapolis University in Paphos, Cyprus. The HOMEE charter lists 13 recommendations in four domains, applicable to major events as well as small festivals and one-off projects.
I’d also like to mention the 2015 report Cultural Heritage Counts we prepared on commission from the European Commission, also with several partners. Although it’s been six years since the publication of report, most of it remains valid. The conclusions from the report encouraged the European Commission to hail 2018 as European Year of Cultural Heritage, combined with a social campaign. Awareness of the potential of culture and cultural heritage has made a major shift in the way we think about city development. We are currently preparing for a competition for Poland’s candidate for European Capital of Culture 2029, encouraging us to reflect on the programme of accompanying events and learning from past mistakes.


5th Heritage Forum of Central Europe: Heritage and Environment, photo by Paweł Mazur

How does the International Cultural Centre want to be perceived?
As somewhere to learn about others. Our exhibitions bring important artists and phenomena from all over Central Europe to Kraków. The International Cultural Centre is not a museum and it doesn’t have its own collections; we work by building close relationships with partners abroad. On occasion, our partners present the result of our work, as was the case with the recent exhibition The Myth of Galicia, first shown in Kraków and later in Vienna.


The Myth of Galicia exhibition, 2014–2015, photo by Paweł Mazur

The idea of a multinational Galicia remains a symbol of peaceful coexistence in Central Europe…
We have been thinking about this project since the late 1990s. In 2010, we held a working conference as a round table debate with experts from Austria and Ukraine to discuss the phenomenon of Galicia, its impact on our present identity and its significance for the parts of Poland, Austria and Ukraine which once comprised it. Our work with our partner Wien Museum on devising the programme was a milestone in our understanding of Galicia. We presented the region from four national perspectives: Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish and Austrian.
This also forms an important element of cultural diplomacy by showing Polish visitors the most fascinating phenomena from other parts of Central Europe and, conversely, exporting our achievements to our partner institutions. Another recent exhibition, Photobloc. Central Europe in Photobooks, was presented at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius. We are also hoping to take it to other cities, perhaps Budapest and Bratislava.

Are you also making similar plans for the ongoing exhibition Ukraine. A Different Angle on Neighbourhood?
That’s an interesting question. We are in preliminary talks about taking it to Kyiv, but we are aware that it would need to be adapted to the local audiences. The exhibition is rooted in The Myth of Galicia. In 2016, one of our colleagues Dr. Żanna Komar, co-curator of the exhibition, presented The Myth of Galicia at a conference in Kharkov as part of a series of regional meetings held throughout Ukraine. She met Dr. Oksana Barshynova from the National Art Museum of Ukraine in Kyiv; the two quickly became friends and started discussing a joint project. When we went to Kyiv in 2019, we struck an official partnership with the museum, and the exhibition has been developed in close collaboration between curators representing both institutions.


Ukraine. A Different Angle on Neighbourhood exhibition, 2021–2022, photo by Paweł Mazur

Why is the idea of “discovering others” so important? Is it so that we can learn more about ourselves?
Even more so: so we can look at ourselves in the mirror and ponder our own identity and history. It is important to consider concepts such as sensitivity, empathy, the desire to understand others. It’s not about always being in full agreement and finding consensus; being able to understand is hugely important. It was a lucky coincidence that the 30th anniversary featured an exhibition of German photography from the interwar period and an exhibition focusing on Ukraine. It cast a look at the culture of our perhaps most important neighbours. The German exhibition formed an extension to previous presentations, such as Years of Disarray exploring art of the avantgarde in Central Europe and Architecture of Independence in Central Europe, both of which examined the culture and architecture in countries founded after the end of the First World War.


More than Bauhaus. German Photography Between the Wars and Polish Parallels exhibition, 2021, photo by Paweł Mazur

You frequently explore architecture, in particular that of the 20th century…
That’s right, both in our exhibitions and in “Herito”; we published an edition on post-war architecture and held a conference on “problematic heritage” exploring Third Reich architecture remaining in Poland. Additionally, we are preparing an exhibition focused on Kraków in this context, due to be launched in spring 2022.


“Herito” magazine, fot. photo by Łukasz Kozak

The International Cultural Centre is located in a building taken over and rebuilt by the Nazis during the war.
That’s right. Our conference room dates back to those days, when the Nazis built it to host their own conferences. By the 1990s the room was so dilapidated it had largely fallen out of use, although it was featured in the film Top Dog and it had hosted an acclaimed dance school.
I should add that our renovation works are a perfect example of our mission and how we have adapted the building for contemporary needs while carefully preserving all the complex strata of its historic elements. It is important for us to be aware of our heritage and to feel responsible for it.

Is the exhibition on Kraków’s problematic heritage going to reveal any surprises?
We will look at the city under occupation through the prism of architecture and urbanism. We will ask questions on the infrastructure left behind by the Third Reich in Kraków, our attitude towards it and what this heritage means today. We will expand our understanding of how much the Nazis left behind in Kraków, which we don’t usually notice yet continue to use every day; we will also remind ourselves that this infrastructure is frequently the result of forced and slave labour by prisoners. We will also presents plans which never came to be, such as the project to rebuild Dębniki prepared by Hubert Ritter – an excellent architect and urbanist of the era – to create a governmental district opposite Wawel. Certain strategic decisions made by the Nazis have remained in place, for example the significant expansion of Kraków’s borders… However, we will make sure the exhibition is balanced – after all these were the most tragic years in Poland’s history. Yet, if we deem some heritage to be problematic, it doesn’t mean it is no longer heritage and subject of study or reflection.


General Urban Development Plan for Krakow, 1941 © Architekturmuseum der Technischen Universität München, Nachlass Hubert Ritter, sygn. FS/Regal/Ritter,Hubert,K29, rit_hu – 1–1

What else has the International Cultural Centre got in store for us in 2022?
Many plans are still under wraps because discussions are ongoing. We are hoping to present works by the acclaimed Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani and the fascinating Polish-Romani contemporary artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas. We are working on an exhibition introducing the Amsterdam school – an architectural phenomenon parallel to Bauhaus and important in its exploration of social housing. 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the UNESCO convention concerning the protection of cultural heritage, and in June we will host a major conference, prepared in partnership with ICOMOS, to discuss its influence on the preservation of historic monuments in Europe, on the benefits of a UNESCO listing and how it has shifted our perception of cultural heritage. And of course we will continue our activities which have put the International Cultural Centre firmly on the map of Kraków, Poland and Central Europe as an institution promoting understanding and helping our visitors “understand others”.

The text was published in the 4/2021 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.

 

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