Anything can be a relic. Interview with prof. Jacek Friedrich

On April 18, we celebrate International Monuments Protection Day. For us, Poles, this holiday is especially important because of the destruction and reconstruction that our precious objects and buildings have undergone. We talk to dr hab. Jackiem Friedrichem, prof. UG, Director of the National Museum in Gdańsk and lecturer at the Department of Modern Art, about whether it is worth preserving all monuments and why spittoons cannot be found in Polish museums.

Marcel Jakubowski: - Poland has a certain contribution to the international protection of historical monuments, as the author of the label which universally marks the place of cultural heritage is a Pole, Jan Zachwatowicz. Is this contribution of our country to this process of protection of historical relics a result of some intensive activities in this field? 

Sign of the Hague Convention, international marking of monuments by Jan Zachwatowicz

Sign of the Hague Convention, international marking of monuments by Jan Zachwatowicz

Dr hab. Jacek Friedrich, prof. UG: - This is connected with the fact that Poland's position in monument conservation was high after World War II. The post-war experience is both a blessing and a curse for Polish conservation. On the one hand, thanks to enormous efforts historic cities such as Gdańsk or Warsaw, the historic city centres of Wrocław or Poznań were rebuilt. However, these successes of Polish conservatorship were so great that we have become a little desensitised to the powerful force of the original. In Poland, we are used to the idea that everything can be reconstructed. In Poland, more than in other countries, the boundary between an original monument and its replica has become blurred. Despite appearances, this has very far-reaching consequences. In my opinion, this makes us less sensitive to the real thing.  

If I look at the 18th century portal of the Gdańsk City Hall, it is easy for me to imagine the history of this place and the people who have been entering it for generations. In a sense, it is a clasp that binds our contemporaneity with what once was. However, if I am in another place and I see a portal that I know is a post-war replica, it no longer has this, as Walter Benjamin would say, aura.  

However - and this seems very important to me - this replica, which was built, for example, in 1954, is also a monument, only that it is not a monument of Renaissance or Baroque, but a monument of the reconstruction of Gdańsk. This process, which we could call 'historicisation' is still going on - sometimes slowly and imperceptibly, sometimes more visibly. You can see it well in the example of communist Poland. The mass of people, including myself, remember communism very well. At that time, certain things were produced, publications were published, buildings were constructed, and all of this was part of life. Suddenly, when communism ended in Poland, everything that was created during those times became a monument to communism. Both exceptional things and ordinary things. 

- You made an album of Christmas cards from the communist era. Are these also relics? 

- Yes. The word 'relic' generally seems very serious to us, we associate it with some very high value. When we hear 'relic', we think of St. Mary's Church in Cracow, the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Artus Court and Neptune's Well. And yet, a monument may also be a very humble object, something that survived from the old, bygone times, which is a material trace of the past (we also have immaterial monuments, such as historical street names, but this is a slightly different topic).

Christmas cards are monuments to a culture that no longer exists. They were printed in times when censorship was in force when publishing houses were financed from the state budget and did not have to worry about commercialism, but could only focus on artistic values. In this sense, they are a monument to the People's Republic of Poland. At the same time, they are a monument to Polish art, to Polish design, which produced the so-called Polish school of posters or the Polish school of illustration, but also to the excellent graphic design of postcards and the equally excellent designs of postage stamps, which we find on the reverses of these postcards. Finally, they are a relic of a culture that has actually already disappeared or is disappearing before our eyes. Hardly anyone sends postcards to their loved ones for Christmas nowadays, even though 50 or even 30 years ago it was the basic way of sending wishes. The humble object of an old postcard is a relic of many different processes that belong to the past.  

This example touches on another very important issue. There is an adage that 'the trash of one is the treasure of another'. And so it is sometimes literally true. A plate with a crack on it may end up in a dustbin because it is no longer usable, and then someone will find it and put it on sale at a flea market. Someone else will discover that the plate has a mark identifying it as a product of some Warsaw company from the end of the 19th century. For a person who collects Warsaw faience, it will be a treasure, because he or she has not had this particular design in their collection before. For the people of Gdańsk, the relics that survived the destruction of the historic Gdańsk are more important than the relics that survived the bombardment of the historic Rotterdam. And vice versa. These are obvious things, but it is important to realise them. Historicity is strongly connected with knowledge, but perhaps even more with emotions, attachment and sentiment. These are group, national and environmental emotions.

- Well, yes, but if everyone can care about everything, shouldn't we try to preserve every relic?

- This is obviously impossible to do. And here comes the problem of valuing. Some things are rarer, others more common. Some are more important, others less important. Time is also an important element. The greater the distance separating us from an era, the greater the risk that its monuments will be lost. The monuments we are talking about today are material objects, which means that they are exposed to destruction by fire, flood or war.  

It is impossible to think of how much antique furniture, crockery, paintings and family heirlooms were lost in all those raids in Ukraine. It will still be some time before we take stock of these terrible misfortunes. Let us hope that the most valuable and magnificent monuments, such as the Cathedral of Divine Wisdom in Kyiv, will survive. On the other hand, an enormous number of material monuments important to individual families or social groups will certainly be lost. 

But things disappear not only in cataclysms. Above all, they disappear in ordinary, everyday, unnoticed use. This leads to a certain paradox, in that it is often easier to find something that was once an exception, a rarity, and more difficult to find commonplace items. An expensive liturgical vessel a parish will keep for centuries. Nobody will throw it in the rubbish, and the longer it lasts the more it is protected. This is why unique, rare, expensive works of art have a better chance of survival than common objects. 

One of my colleagues was once preparing an exhibition about common things. He could not find a spittoon anywhere. My generation still remembers them. They stood in schools, hospitals and offices. Those were the times when tuberculosis was being fought against and so that people wouldn't spit on the floor, there were such enamelled spittoons, which were later somehow disposed of. 

American ceramic spittoon from the early 1940s.

American ceramic spittoon from the early 1940s.

- Sounds like masks.

- Well, yes. These spittoons were very common. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them in Poland. At some point (some fifty, maybe forty-some years ago) they were withdrawn because tuberculosis had been defeated. And then this ordinary, common object disappeared. No one thought of hiding the spittoon in a museum, and no one probably created a private collection of spittoons in the 1970s. And that is why this type of object, once so common, can now be very rare and valuable relics. Museums wanting to prepare an exhibition on everyday life in the People's Republic of Poland will probably have to go to a lot of trouble to acquire such a spittoon. 

This shows the paradoxes related to the fact that we often fail to notice the moment when a certain process ends when a historical formation comes to an end. The objects associated with it still seem very ordinary to us. They disappear and only in the perspective of the next 10, 15, 20 or 50 years do we see that this formation has come to an end, and we suddenly lost these artefacts, because we didn't take care to collect and preserve them. 

On the other hand, coming back to your question, it is impossible to put a whole life in a museum. That is the case with individual existence. It is hard to imagine that a grown-up person would collect everything in his house. Every piece of clothing, every document, every letter, every packet of food. If someone does this, we can all agree that it is a kind of mental aberration. It is the same with our collective life. Here, too, we cannot archive and protect everything. But we do make a choice. And this is what conservators, art historians and museum workers are for. They are the ones who observe the situation and think whether we should add something to our collections. This is another important subject when it comes to the pro

- We are at the National Museum in Gdańsk, an institution that collects these various monuments, but which is also 150 years old and is also a monument in itself, right?

- The museum as a type of institution is a relatively new monument if we want to call it that. Such institutions did not exist 300 years ago in Europe. Art was created in a different way than it is today, and it was also perceived differently. In our museum, we are showing the exhibition 'The Pious and the Virtuous'. We wanted everyone who sees it to realise that in the pre-modern era works of art were not made to hang in museums. They were created to be found in churches, town halls, the headquarters of merchant fraternities and private homes. It was only after the old reality began to fade that modern man began to create special places where works of art were collected for their artistic quality or historical value. Modern museology, comparable to today, is only about 250 years old.  

Coming back to the protection of historical monuments, let us be honest and say that maintaining all monuments is simply impossible, both for practical and financial reasons. This is the problem of Italy, for example, which has a huge number of monuments. Almost every town there has magnificent palaces, churches, altars, paintings or sarcophagi. If the Italian state was to take care of all this, there would probably not be enough money or time for anything else. 

In a country like Poland, affected by various historical disasters, wars, destruction, theft, etc., we are very sensitive to monuments. Maybe they are not as natural as in Italy, but also in France or the British Isles. For us, any object which is several hundred years old, which has survived wars and plunders, is already some kind of treasure. Moreover, as I have already mentioned, in Poland most of us treat a reconstructed monument in the same way as the original one. This is probably why we are still so eager to discuss the reconstruction of subsequent buildings, even though the effects can sometimes be appalling, as in the case of the reconstruction of Przemysł Castle in Poznań, for example. 

Boards with 21 demands of MKS / Source: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Krzysztof Korczyński

Boards with 21 demands of MKS / Source: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Krzysztof Korczyński

However, the reconstruction of the Royal Castle in Warsaw is much easier to justify. It took place in a different historical situation, in a different way, and probably all in all, with many reservations, it can be considered a success. So we have two reconstructed castles and at the same time two completely different cases. Here I recall the excellent classes on restoration works that we had as a part of our art history studies at the Jagiellonian University. They were conducted by Zbigniew Beiersdorf, who said a sentence which I still remember: there is no absolute standard in the protection of historical buildings. The only general rule that can be formulated is that in the protection of historic monuments each case should be considered separately and individually. 

And this is indeed the case. It is impossible to say that something that is more than 50 years old or more than 100 years old is a monument. Sometimes something that is 5 years old or even a year old can be a monument. For example, the tablets of demands from August 1980. After all, when they were a year old, they were already priceless monuments. It was a material document of something extraordinarily important, which, yes, happened right before our eyes, but immediately went down in history. On the other hand, we can have a thing that is 100 years old and is one of the very many repetitive objects of no great importance. 

- Zieleniak? It doesn't fit into the landscape a bit.

- And we come back to the question of historicity. Certainly, the panorama of old Gdańsk is a very valuable and wonderful monument. Only certain processes have already taken place and caused this panorama to change fundamentally. After the war not only Zieleniak was built, but also the Hevelius Hotel and other high-rise buildings. They completely changed the historical panorama. 

Former Panorama of Gdańsk

Former Panorama of Gdańsk

Let us assume that someone now comes up with a demand for a historical panorama of Gdańsk. In other words, they want to demolish everything that rises above, say, the height of a tenement house in Gdańsk, and that was built in the 19th or 20th century. Then we are faced with a difficult choice. What is more important? The restoration of this panorama, which of course is (or rather was) a great value, or the preservation of a monument of later architecture - for example, Zieleniak or the neo-Renaissance railway station from the beginning of the 20th century. After all, it does not belong to the historical panorama of Gdańsk either. We would have valuable monuments on both sides of such a potential dispute. And it is precisely such dilemmas or even conflicts that we must sometimes resolve. 

- Indeed, these conflicts occur in many dimensions. Pragmatism versus historicity, historicity versus antiquity.

- And sometimes history versus aesthetics. I was once walking around Leipzig with my good friend Arnold Bartetzky, an excellent architectural historian. We're looking at the buildings there and Arnold shows me some postmodern office buildings built after the reunification of Germany. 'Look how ugly it is,' - he says. We walk from one building to another and each time we say 'how ugly, how ugly' until finally, at the next one, he says 'What an abomination. It should be torn down before we have to protect it.'

In our country, a good example of such a conflict is the famous, or perhaps notorious, Solpol in Wrocław. It is a monument of the political and economic transformation of the early 1990s. It symbolises the beginnings of private initiative in post-communist Poland, but it is also evidence of the catching up of architecture with the West, with the postmodernism that was fashionable at the time. If you asked me whether I liked it, I would say 'no' without hesitation. I find it ugly. If you had asked me whether it was a valuable monument, I would have said yes. Without a doubt. If I had to choose whether to keep it or demolish it, I would be faced with quite a dilemma. I think, however, that individual taste would then lose out to the conviction that it is an important document of the times. And a very special one at that. Treating a monument as a document of historical processes is perhaps a little safer than relying solely on taste, which, after all, often changes. 

This is the difficulty of this work, that we have to make such decisions. We must also anticipate. We have to imagine what might be important for the next generation. This is very difficult because we think in contemporary terms and we cannot guess what will happen in 20, 50 or 100 years. So sometimes we think in this way: 'If we can, then let's preserve it and let the next generation decide whether this monument has value for them.'  

Marcel Jakubowski / Press Office UG; title photo by B. Bańka for Agencja Gazeta