Seeing Anew

30 June 2022

We talk to Prof. Andrzej Betlej, director of the Wawel Royal Castle.  

Grzegorz Słącz: The last two pandemic years have put a major strain on cultural institutions worldwide. How has the Wawel Royal Castle coped with the situation? 

Andrzej Betlej: Recently a colleague said I should envy my predecessor, Prof. Jan Ostrowski, who served as director for 30 years. “Then you turned up and you started with one year of the plague followed by another, and now you have war.” No-one could have predicted in early 2020 that Wawel Castle would have to deal with such extraordinary circumstances entirely beyond our control. But, actually, I think warmly about this period. To be honest I think the Castle didn’t just survive the difficult situation, but it managed to achieve great things. And I want to be clear: this isn’t just my achievement – it has been accomplished by everyone who works here and who I have been learning from since joining the team.
When you look at cold, hard facts, during the first pandemic year we were able to restore the exhibition of Turkish tents without much difficulty, and take the opportunity to present many other artworks dedicated to Ottoman culture. In 2020, we achieved something many thought impossible: we opened the archaeological excavations of the Church of St Gereon. This extraordinary space whose significance reaches way beyond Kraków has long been something of a mystery and a taboo, since it is said to hold the Wawel Chakra, sought by curious tourists from the world over. In 2020, we were also able to introduce other changes which have served us well since. 

What kind of changes?
We created a department dedicated to organising exhibitions, and expanded our technical department which allows us to develop a significant part of our exhibitions without the need of external contractors. This may sound pedestrian, but it helps us achieve major goals. Back in 2020, we started working on a major exhibition displaying all the tapestries in the Castle’s collection, curated by Magdalena Piwocka, Magdalena Ozga and Jerzy Holc. They oversaw the development of the exhibition I don’t hesitate to call monumental, recalling the tradition of major presentations in the castle space, such as that commemorating the 300th anniversary of the Battle of Vienna. It was more than just a presentation of tapestries – it was a story of history, education and conservation. It was viewed by 116,000 visitors making it the most frequently-attended museum exhibition in Poland in 2020, and certainly the most popular in the history of the Wawel Royal Castle. It was accompanied by a work by Marcin Maciejowski presented next to an installation by Mirosław Bałka – a perfect example of how we understand the idea of open Wawel. 

So was the launch held during the pandemic?
The concept of open Wawel can be embodied by us all – myself, our custodians and colleagues – without limitations. The first symbolic evidence of this launch was the opening of our gardens, adorned by sculptures by Józef Wilkoń. 
I always say that Wawel has two fundamental, intertwined spheres of function. As a space and former royal residence, Wawel is an important element of our social and national identity – it is written in our very DNA. But Wawel isn’t just the destination of occasional day trips or walks with kids or family visiting from outside Kraków. It must be a friendly space where visitors can learn about Poland’s history and discover something new. I’m not talking about trying to follow the latest trends: Wawel has enormous potential and significance, so it can and should continually show its extraordinary collections and bring forward all opportunities offered by being a museum. For example, it shows obvious objects but not necessarily in obvious ways, as was the case with the tapestries. When I hear someone say they’d seen them already, I reply, “No, you haven’t – come back and see them again!” 
Last year we held nine temporary exhibitions, including a presentation of Flemish and Dutch paintings. We also installed contemporary display windows in the historic chambers which turned out to be a major attraction. The idea of open Wawel means that history written in the Castle’s collections becomes something public and universal. In spite of the ongoing pandemic, in 2021 our attendance was similar to that from 2019 – 1,582,000 visitors vs. 1,282,000 in 2021 – while the period between July and October last year were record-breaking in our history. And that’s surely not the end… 

This year there is a new factor: you are presenting two major exhibitions Wawel has always been famous for, shown in completely new settings.
On 30 June we will all witness an extraordinary event prepared during the pandemic: the opening of a new Crown Treasury, now given three times the space it had before. We are expanding our exhibition with contemporary stories told in unusual ways. For example, until recently, King John III Sobieski’s stunning cloak of the Order of the Holy Spirit had been squeezed into a display case. Now you will be able to walk around it to see it in its full glory, with the right lighting and commentary. There will be more surprises because the exhibition also presents many artworks for the first time; there will be a brand-new cabinet of curiosities, and even… horses! The venue is specially adapted for people with motor and visual impairment.
On the same day we will fully open the royal chambers and apartments in a new arrangement. There will be new signage, lighting and fresh arrangement of the Senators’ Hall, around 30% more exhibits, and a stunning collection of Renaissance painting donated by Prof. Karolina Lanckorońska in the late 20th century. We will also start showing paintings from the former collection of the Lanckoroński Foundation. They include masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum and the National Gallery shown on the first floor, the latter including the Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon from 1470. All these and more events comprise our Opening Festival, held between 30 June and 3 July.  

So much has happened this year already… 
We started with a studio exhibition of works by Andrzej Radwański prepared by Natalia Koziara-Ochęduszko with a terrific catalogue. We also launched a small but popular presentation Ancient History of Wawel. I should note that it was prepared on the initiative of our archaeology department.
In May we launched the exhibition Wyczółkowski Rediscovered. We were inspired by having recovered Tatra Highlander Girl (Country Girl in a Yellow Kerchief), one of his artworks lost during the war, but in fact we hold a total of 11 of the artist’s paintings. In turn, The Dragon’s Garden. Bronisław Chromy’s Works at Wawel forms a part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the unveiling of the statue of the dragon at the foot of Wawel Hill and follows the direction set out by the exhibition of Józef Wilkoń’s works.
In late summer we will receive The Polish Rider by Rembrandt, going on display on 18 August. I should also introduce the exhibition of works by Jacob Mertens, deeply Cracovian from the outset since it focuses on the reconstruction of the former altarpiece from the Basilica of St Mary.
We should note the Castle’s numerous top quality catalogues and publications, including a series of educational comic books with a pair of young protagonists named Karol and Karolina. They are dedicated to one of our important donors, Karolina Lanckorońska, whose memory is celebrated at Wawel in many ways this year.  

The Castle collection has also been significantly expanded.
We are especially proud of items whose history is closely tied to Wawel Castle. Last year we were fortunate to acquire a beautiful tazza from a service belonging to King Sigismund III Vasa. Willem Claesz’s still life and Pieter II Brueghel’s Saint Michael’s Tavern are paintings enriching our collections. Both masterpieces are on show on the first floor at the Royal Private Apartments. 

What will we see at Wawel next year?
The main event will be the monumental exhibition dedicated to the Jagiellon dynasty, presented on all three floors. It will include hundreds of items brought in from all over the world, from Europe all the way to the US.
All being well, we will also launch another underground trail beneath the castle. This extensive story takes part in the grand Renaissance cellars of the eastern wing. It will serve as a bridge between Lost Wawel and Wawel Recovered – a permanent exhibition dedicated to the castle’s history during the Renaissance and Gothic periods. 
We will turn our attention towards the new Armoury to start preparing projects and concepts. I am also really hoping to open an extensive porcelain studio; we have a beautiful collection including many examples of Meissen china. 

Which of the recent events have you found to be most moving?
There are things which really etch themselves in your memory. When our latest acquisitions arrived at the castle, I felt that something really important was happening. I am constantly fascinated by the latest instalments of the new exhibition of the Crown Treasury, changing every day. The very process of creating this important exhibition is exciting, from the earliest, rough designs, via more detailed plans and the final vision starting to take shape. I was truly emotional when I saw the sword of Hetman Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny lying on this very table. This great relic of the Ukrainian nation couldn’t head out for its planned visit to Kyiv, so we put it on display at Wawel in accordance with the wishes of Ukraine’s prime minister. It is a gesture symbolising Polish and Ukrainian solidarity and our contribution to ongoing events.

  • Andrzej Betlej
    Ph.D., art historian, professor at the Jagiellonian University and author and editor of numerous academic books and articles. He served as director of the university’s Institute of History of Art between 2012 and 2016, director of the National Museum in Krakow between 2016 and 2020, and he has been the director of the Wawel Royal Castle – National Art Collection since 3 January 2020. 

photo by Anna Stankiewicz

The interview published in the 2/2022 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.



Kraków Travel
Kids in Kraków
Close We use cookies to facilitate the use of our services. If you do not want cookies to be saved on your hard drive, change the settings of your browser.