Restoring the Nation: Highlighting Reconstruction & Marginalizing Discussion, the Case of Wawel Castle

Restoration of old buildings on the basis of their aesthetic and monumental values became prominent in the late ninetieth century. Some scholars argue that the restoration of iconic sites is closely linked to the demonstration of preconceived notions of medieval origins of nations and the construction of a linear national history.[1] However, sentiments to preserve old buildings from an aesthetic, historical and national point of view can also be associated with a reaction to rapid modernization processes. To determine the intents and effects of restoration, it is important to scrutinize the narratives surrounding and reflected in restoration works, rather than relying on vague and general phrases. This paper is an attempt to look at the restoration of the Wawel Castle, Krakow in such a deconstructive manner.

The destruction of Wawel castle in previous centuries led to important reconstruction works, which involved an interplay of various political agendas and conservation ideologies. This research is mainly based on site analysis and data collection through means such as guided tours. The format of a guided tour allows us to reflect on the institutionalized representations of both the site and the restoration works, while simultaneously opening up questions related to target groups, audiences, and presentation style. To achieve this however, it is important to first give a brief overview of the restoration history of Wawel castle and the debates connected to these phases of restoration. This overview will help to understand the findings of subsequent site analysis.

Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle has a long history of transformation and has been used for a myriad of functions during the centuries of its existence; ranging from a royal residence, to barracks, a poorhouse, a military garrison, and finally a national museum.[2] Wawel  Hill served as a military fortress and the castle itself as a garrison since 1848, but it was much earlier  that the former  residence of the monarchs of Poland and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth had ceased to be a grand residence. Wawel Castle was handed over to the Galician authorities in the early twentieth century by the Habsburg army.[3] At this point the castle’s former interior as a royal palace, had all but disappeared. Similarly, architectural changes to the castle’s exterior, such as the walling up of the castle’s arcaded courtyard, had been made during the period of the Free City of Krakow. After signing a contract in 1903 to transform the Wawel castle into a royal residence, the restoration work started.[4]

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It is interesting to note that the general public during the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century, did not perceive Wawel castle to be symbolically important in any national sense. Public discourse about its renovation, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, was limited to the elites only and did not concern the highly diverse general public.[5] In fact, it was not until the interwar period that the castle came to be widely recognized as a potential national symbol. The debate surrounding restoration work therefore itself contributed to the establishment of a grand narrative of a Polish state in public discourse. Krakow city however, at the time, was not only inhabited by Poles but also by Ruthenians. The hefty sum of money required to transform the castle into a royal residence and into a potential Polish national symbol, therefore led to widespread protests by Ruthenian members of parliament.[6] The site was increasingly viewed as having clear symbolic power for the Poles, and the restoration of its ‘splendour’, was viewed as a potential threat to the political claims of Ruthenians on Galicia.

From 1905 to 1939, major reconstruction work took place. Questions of what to be saved, what to be removed, and what to be restored seemed difficult to answer, but Tomkowvicz, chairman of the commission of conservator-restorer of western Galicia stated that ‘the renovated residence should regain its “original” appearance existing at the time of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth’s peak of power. [7]The castle should thus immortalize the past glory of the nation and act as a visual representation of the greatness of Polish history. The project was drafted to bring back the early seventieth-century appearance. This approach, however, was a highly controversial one, included the demolition of additions to the building that were added in later time periods, and faced widespread criticism for not accounting for historical reality, disregarding natural developments of architecture, and as a form of utter creationism. It is further important that referring to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a purely Polish history, inherently includes the national (re)appropriation of a far more complex multinational history.

In 1939, restoration work was stopped under the German Nazi occupation, during which Wawel castle housed the occupational authorities of the German Nazi government. Hans Frank, the Nazi army general, further started to live in the castle with his wife.[8] After the cessation of hostilities, however, the restoration work on Wawel Castle continued, it became a national museum again, and a commission was established in 1986, which assumed full responsibility for the historic complex of Wawel. [9]

Restoration of Castle & Nation

The main part of this research is to conduct a site analysis by visiting the site and taking necessary guided tour(s). To analyze restoration, a detailed visit to the permanent exhibition of the Royal private apartments was conducted. This analysis further includes a visit to the Wawel Cathedral.

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Prior to our visit to the site, we were unsure if the restoration process to the castle would be addressed at all, or if it would be presented as unchanged and natural. Interestingly enough, however, the process of restoration was itself inherent to the narrative of the site. The restoration process on the site was highlighted and presented within a larger narrative of the restoration of the nation. Restoration in itself, therefore, highlighted the symbolic importance of the site and the importance it has in religious, political, and national terms for the Polish nation. The emphasis on this process of restoration, and the importance it is given, is visually made clear through a wall of plaques dedicated to individuals who made financial contributions to the restoration of the castle, at the Castle’s main entrance. This wall of plaques, highlights the restoration processes, while simultaneously revering those that made it possible, presenting their contribution in almost patriotic terms. By revering these contributors, however, the wall also acts to present the restoration, and its particular form, as something natural and not to be questioned.

This was further reflected during our tour of the Royal private apartments, where the tour guide started his tour by briefly emphasizing the restoration that had taken place, but did not discuss any of the controversies or critiques that had surrounded this process. The tour further effectively avoided any further discussion of this process of restoration by solely focusing on the objects in the restored rooms, all of which are based on a re-enactment of the royal palace, rather than authentic to it. From architectural elements to wall hangings, everything is representing history but at the same time, nothing belongs to the history. Most of the objects were actually donated by the Polish elite to create an artificial reflection of the long-lost glory of the Polish empire during the seventieth century. As we walked into the different rooms such as living, meeting and dining, luxurious display of ornamented objects made it very clear that this restoration is an affirmation of Tomkowvicz conservation ideology-bringing back the royal Polishness through restoration.

National Appropriations, Visitor Perceptions & Customized European Frameworks

As noted before, the representation of the periods of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth as purely Polish also includes a national re-appropriation and simplification of far more multi-national and complex historical periods. When we addressed this point, the guide admitted that many of the historical figures referred to during the tour, could, and often were, also very important in Lithuanian and other (national) histories. This was further exemplified by the reality of one ‘Polish’ royal figure, who after just a few years, had assumed the royal title of a different ‘national’ entity. Of further importance is the emphasis within the tour on the trans-national character of the objects, which were continuously presented as originating from different parts of Europe such as France, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and even Persia. The tour hereby seemed to simultaneously re-appropriate and represent a multi-cultural and complex past as purely Polish, while also positioning this purely Polish past within a larger (contemporary) European framework.

Emphasis within our tour on these ‘European’ elements, however also raises questions about potential differences in focus between tours of the exhibition, as related to different target groups and audiences. This is especially prevalent when one considers the amount of Polish primary, middle, and high school groups that seem to visit the castle complex as part of their education. It is therefore questionable of such groups of Polish students would receive the same ‘Europeanized’ presentation of the exhibition that our group of international students from the University of Amsterdam received. The tours that the Polish students follow further seems to also include tours of the cathedral, which raises the question if the site and the tour of the exhibition might be presented in more national and religious terms to these groups. Due to lack of time and lack of knowledge of the Polish language, this, however, sadly remains an open question.

Display, Marginalized Discussion & Presented Continuity   

The tour finally ended with, what might be the most revealing aspect of the tour, namely a series of display panels, outside of the castle itself, which detailed the restoration process. Most importantly these panels showed images of the completely empty castle before the process of restoration. These images, therefore, could potentially work to raise questions of authenticity and presentation style among visitors.

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Their placement at the end of the tour however largely obstructed such questions. This was further strengthened by the fact that the tour guide did not actively discuss these panels, instead merely mentioning them to highlight the large efforts of reconstruction. In terms of the actual reconstruction that took place, the most informative moment, also becomes the most ignored during the tour. The necessity, nor the specific format of reconstruction, where thus questioned by the tour, and instead the large changes made were once again framed as a necessary part of the reconstruction of the nation. In terms of this reconstruction of the nation, it is also important to note the ongoing element of reconstruction on the castle, which within this narrative, works to highlight a continuity in nation building.

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In relation to the cathedral, this more contemporary aspect of nation building, is similarly reflected in the inclusion of the grave of Lech Kaczyński into the crypt of the Cathedral. The inclusion of this nationalist and conservative Polish president, who died in a plane crash in 2010 while on his way to a commemoration of the Katyn Massacre in Russia, into the crypts of Wawel castle containing national Polish heroes and royalty, was once again a highly contentious and debated choice. The debate surrounding this choice however is once again not reflected in the presentation of his grave. It hereby once again highlights the continuation of nation building efforts on the site, and the ways in which the site functions to construct and represent a linear national timeline and narrative. When one considers the conspiracy theories surrounding Lech Kaczyński death, initially implicating Russia, and more recently even pointing to Donald Tusk, it is more than likely that a visit to Wawel Castle, and to Lech Kaczyński grave in particular, can hold a whole a range of differing meanings and levels of importance, dependent on who the visitor is. The political implication and politicized meanings of his inclusion might be completely lost on an international visitor who is unaware of who Lech Kaczyński was. The way the inclusion of Lech Kaczyński is represented to the previously mentioned tours for Polish students, could furthermore tell us a lot about the potentially national and religious character of these tours.

Conclusion: Tautology of Restoration and Nation building

Our site analysis of Wawel Castle thus points to several important, and often paradoxical, themes. Instead of hiding the act of restoration, Wawel Castle, highlights it, and connects it to a narrative of the restoration of the state. At the same time however, the Castle silences the process of restoration and the debates that accompanied it. A similar paradox can be observed, where the castle re-appropriates its multinational and complex past in national terms, while also placing this ‘national’ past within a European context. Thirdly, it is clear that nationalizing processes are ongoing on the site. Continuing restorations and the contemporary inclusion of Lech Kaczyński into the crypt of the cathedral point to current attempts to place recent events and personas into a constructed Polish timeline. Any contention or criticism of these events, is once again not present, hereby naturalizing the decisions and highlighting their ‘taken-for-granted’ – qualities. Processes of nation building, as connected to Wawel castle, should thus not be limited to the restoration processes of the early twentieth century, but instead should be recognized as an ongoing process.  A performative dimension of this ongoing process of nation building, as stated before, could potentially be found in the tours offered to Polish students. For further research it could be interesting for Polish speakers to analyze the representation of the castle and the cathedral in these tours. Specifically, it could be interesting to focus on the representation of Lech Kaczyński tomb and the various reactions the tombs inclusion might garner among Polish students. More generally, it would be interesting to see how European and national frameworks interact at the site, and how representation of the site to various audiences might influence their (non)recognition of these frameworks and narratives.

[1] James-Chakraborty, Kathleen. “German Architecture for a Mass Audience.” June 2002, doi:10.4324/9780203449448.

[2] Blobaum, Robert. “Nathaniel D. Wood . Becoming Metropolitan: Urban Selfhood and the Making of Modern Cracow . DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. 2010. Pp. Xiv, 272. $40.00.” The American Historical Review, vol. 117, no. 2, 2012, pp. 633–634., doi:10.1086/ahr.117.2.633.

[3] Kisiel, Piotr. “The Difficult Relationship between Nationalism and Built Heritage: the Case of Late Nineteenth-Century Krakow.” Nationalities Papers, vol. 45, no. 3, Sept. 2017, pp. 410–424., doi:10.1080/00905992.2016.1262339.

[4] Szymański, Tomasz. “Architectural Restoration.” Architectural Restoration | Wawel Royal Castle | Wawel Krakow Poland, wawel.krakow.pl/en/index.php?op=26.

[5] Kisiel, Piotr. “The Difficult Relationship between Nationalism and Built Heritage: The Case of Late Nineteenth-Century Krakow.” Nationalities Papers, vol. 45, no. 3, Sept. 2017, pp. 410–424., doi:10.1080/00905992.2016.1262339.

[6] Dörpinghaus, Hermann Josef. “Wiedereröffnung: Zweigbibliothek Der UB Heidelberg.” Bibliotheksdienst, vol. 29, no. 7, 1995, doi:10.1515/bd.1995.29.7.1152b.

[7] Mentioned in Stanisław Tomkowicz article which he published on the restoration of Wawel Castle in Krakow’s conservative daily, Czas [The Times] (23 December 1905, 7–8)

[8] Hoffman, Steven. “Looking Back 70 Years: Wawel Under Occupation.” The Krakow Post, 8 July 2018, www.krakowpost.com/8702/2015/02/looking-back-70-years-wawel-under-occupation.

[9] Szymański, Tomasz. “Architectural Restoration.” Architectural Restoration | Wawel Royal Castle | Wawel Krakow Poland, wawel.krakow.pl/en/index.php?op=26.

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