/...Dziedzictwo i transformacja

Heritage and transformation – the experience of Poland


For the heritage of Central Europe a new era began after 1989. The question of the owners of this heritage became one of the most topical issues in this area. And it is an ambiguous question, especially since the lesson of communism, as Central Europe is a part of the continent where political borders, especially in the 20 th century, have changed far more often than cultural frontiers. Yet the core of this post-1989 experience cannot be separated from the broader context of our specific experience in the long historical perspective1 .

Central Europe can be described in many ways. As a historian I would like to draw attention to two associations characteristic of this region. The first – so popular a hundred years ago in Vienna and so useful in describing the Kafkaesque reality of the Habsburg monarchy – is ambivalence. The other, often overlooked, is the serious complex of the inhabitants of Central Europe , a peculiar trauma that generates a need to seek support from history, and strength and identity in the past. This was the reason why throughout the 19 th century both the romantic need to nurture the past and a profoundly deepened attitude towards what today we call heritage were cultivated in this part of Europe. This attitude was a response to important aspects of the unique position of the Central European nations in the 19 th century, such as their lack of independence and the late advent of the industrial revolution, and hence the prolongation of feudalism, backwardness and stagnation. This meant that for a long time we lacked the conflict between modernisation and accelerated development on the one hand and heritage on the other that was characteristic for the societies of the industrial era. It also prompted escape into the past and the intensification of historicism, which in the second half of the 19th century led to a characteristic sacralization of the monument. And since the monument was then perceived as a sacrum , it also came to represent the antithesis of practical value.

The political need for support from history is clearly visible in the development of many Central European cities. The resulting attempt to turn them into museums, as in the case of Nuremberg or Cracow, ended – inevitably – in a great conflict at the beginning of the 20 th century that is discernible in all, especially the biggest, cities of the region, such as Prague.

Paradoxically, World War II petrified this attitude. In Central Europe, where historical fabric was subjected to catastrophic destruction, a new political and economic system was introduced in which heritage functioned in an ideological rather than a practical dimension. The reconstruction of Warsaw became a symbol of the successful dictate of politics. Yet the Old Town in Warsaw is also a prime example of the fact that the communists totally ignored the issue of property. Today problems of ownership are one of the most burning issues in Central European cultural heritage, and often the key to effective heritage preservation. This is intertwined inseparably with the fact that after World War II heritage in Central Europe was once again detached from economics. This was the case in both cities that had been devastated, like Warsaw , and those that had remained untouched, such as Cracow . It also affected the heritage of the landowning culture, which fell victim to the agricultural reform. And it should be emphasised that Poland is a country where ownership relations are one of the most complicated legacies of the past. For the fifty years of communism, the monuments of Central Europe lacked both what the British call maintenance , and what we can read in Article 4 of the Venice Charter: monument preservation assumes first of all the obligation of proper and continuous upkeep.

What is the essence of the change that ensued after 1989? 1989 brought a change in the rules of the game, including the rules of heritage management. Today, monument is no longer only a sacrum but also a marketable good that is increasingly the subject of a market game, which is especially visible in the centres of many cities. There has been a rapid departure from the static model of preservation. Equally rapidly it transpired that everything connected with heritage preservation – especially in big historic cities – is a true minefield, a field of conflict in which new actors have made their entrance, above all private proprietors and local governments.

The rapid privatisation, commercialisation and commoditisation of space are important aspects of the changes we are experiencing today. The close relationship between cultural landscape and social and economic system can be seen particularly clearly in the period of transformation, i.e. in that transitional state where preservation is still managed using old instruments although the reality is entirely new. The first symptom of that situation was the appearance of aggressive advertisements in the historic tissue of our cities, against which conservators have often been defenceless. This is not only a sign of the change in ownership relations and the return of the mechanisms of ground rent, but also evidence of the failure of the principles and instruments of protection used so far. In a way, those old methods were more effective within that system based on economic stagnation and total control. Today the main problem is that they are not equal to the confrontation with the dynamics of city life. There is the other extreme also: heritage bereft of a function, such as the Catholic churches in Volhynia (now Ukraine ), abandoned after 1945, the result of a total dislocation from market forces and deprivation of function to such an extent that it could be termed "disinherited heritage".

Of course, conservators may complain about this mounting conflict between function and form, especially in big cities, and about the dictates of commercialisation, motorisation, suburbanisation, standardisation, and above all the conflict between the individual and the public interest as regards heritage. It is often a new and surprising experience. The most important thing is, however, that irrespective of those objective processes a change is also taking place in our thinking about heritage.

Here it is worth recalling the CSCE symposium organised in 1991 in Cracow2. This was the first great meeting of East and West devoted to culture and heritage. That symposium introduced the notion of "our common heritage", replacing the previous conception of heritage that dated from the 19 th century, when heritage was first of all understood in categories of nation.

Today heritage means much more than it meant even only a dozen years or so ago. We often forget that the experience of Central Europe in this respect, i.e. our experience, is a value in itself. We forget, too, that we can pass this value on. It is not only a matter of our experience in connection with the fall of communism and the transformations, which is alien to the West. It is also the strong presence of history in our time , the cult of defeated heroes, and a different understanding of progress than in the West. It is also the different understanding of geography, geopolitics and cultural diversity, the great process of revival experienced by the societies of Central and Eastern Europe after 1989, and the question of political and cultural borders.

It would be legitimate to ask why Poland 's cultural and heritage policy of the last few years has seemed so ineffective. One of the reasons is precisely this: the deep-seated romantic myth of culture, which is treated as an ivory tower, a sacrum detached from the rapidly changing reality. The fact that culture is still seen as a non-productive sector in a way fans the flames of the conflict between what we define as heritage and what we define as development. Effective, all-embracing preservation of cultural heritage involves creating what the Germans call the Kulturgesellschaft . We must not forget that the cultural sector also has an economic dimension.

Heritage protection has to mean first of all the wise management of changing function and changing potential. It also requires an integrated approach to the question of the cultural landscape as a vastly complex system of communicating vessels. As such, not only the form of historic monuments – whether individual objects or systems – which the previous mode of heritage preservation thinking already encompassed, but also their function, today determine the effectiveness of preservation. Heritage is not only the sum of the preserved historic objects within an area. On the one hand it is a symbolic dimension, connected with the interpretation of heritage as a sacrum , but on the other it is also a market product. In this sense effective management of heritage resources means providing accurate answers to the questions of its availability and its consumers.

Modern heritage preservation must consist in the wise management of heritage potential and in a continuous search for compromise between preservation doctrine and inevitable change. This requires increasing knowledge of economics, management theory, marketing, and also law and public administration on the part of the conservation services. At the same time the new philosophy of preservation – which should be free of cultural nationalism – should strongly accentuate the issues of identity, individual tradition and the vernacular character of individual cultures.

The contemporary standard of state policy on monument preservation in Europe boils down to a few principles. The first is equality between the notions of "cultural assets" and "cultural heritage". The aim of this approach is to create, on a state scale, an objective system of monument classification based on a tradition dating from the turn of the 19 th and 20 th centuries, devised by Max Dvořak. This should preclude the menace of selective monument preservation according to ideological or political criteria and guarantee equal rights for all monuments, including those belonging to national and religious minorities, for instance.

Another key issue for effective monument preservation in a democratic state of law is the principle of restricted ownership for the sake of the public interest. This restriction of ownership must not, however, violate its essence. If it subordinates private interests to the public interest, the state must also create a system of aid as recompense for the additional obligations that this imposes on the owners of monuments. Different European countries use different practices in this respect. It often means employing tax mechanisms (tax breaks for monument owners) and creating a legible system for subsidising preservation work on historic monuments out of public funds.

The high standard and apoliticism of the conservation services is also a precondition for effective state policy in the area of monument preservation. Monument preservation cannot be separated from its broader context – it should include not only state patronage of culture, but also the principles of town planning policy, social education on heritage preservation, and systemic factors.

The Constitution of the Republic of Poland provides a natural foundation for creating a state monument preservation strategy in Poland . In articles 5 and 6, which refer to the preservation of cultural assets, we read that "The Republic of Poland [...] guards the national heritage", and also that it "creates conditions for universal and equal access to cultural resources. Culture is the source of the identity of the Polish nation, its survival and its development". Other constitutional principles that should also be taken into account in constructing the statutory model of cultural asset preservation include the following:

  1. The principle of a democratic state of law practising social justice (art. 2)
  2. The principle of a state guaranteeing environmental protection based on the principle of sustainable development (art. 5)
  3. The principle of the decentralisation of public authority (art. 15 par. 1)
  4. The principle of local government participating in the exercise of public authority (art. 16 par. 2)
  5. Binding constitutional standards also formulate the principle of protection of ownership and the right of inheritance (art 21. par. 1). The constitutional legislator introduces an exception to this right in the institutional form of expropriation, which "is permissible only in the service of public aims and for fair compensation" (art. 21 par. 2). It is important to answer the question of whether the institutional forms of cultural asset protection enshrined in the act and incorporating restrictions on ownership rights in terms of the extent and form of exploitation of cultural assets are consistent with the constitutional standards formulating freedom and human and civil rights and obligations.

The issue of monument preservation was in essence codified in the act of 15 February 1962 on the protection of cultural assets. This act has been amended several times, and a few years ago issues relating to museums were struck out of it. As such, in comparison with the original text, it constitutes a disordered, internally inconsistent system of legal standards. Moreover, economic development has rendered it more inconsistent still with the reality of the contemporary state. It has therefore become a matter of pressing urgency that a new model for contemporary protection of cultural assets be formulated. The system currently in place is a typical example of administration by regimentation, functioning chiefly on the basis of orders and bans. It takes no account of economic mechanisms that could improve the efficacy of cultural asset protection.

The new Monument Preservation Act passed by the Polish Parliament on 23 July 2003 provides only a partial foundation for a new model of monument preservation in Poland . However, it does introduce new material and legal concepts that will significantly broaden the scope of cultural heritage preservation. Pursuant to the Act, cultural heritage is not simply a national legacy, but rather a joint achievement of the European community. The concept of "cultural parks" is among the new notions for which specific institutional protection mechanisms have been put in place. The broadening of heritage preservation to include intangible cultural assets, something long requested by conservation circles, should also be stressed.

The new Act approaches contemporary conservation doctrine in the Polish context in a modern way, but it fails to settle a fundamental issue, change to the legal and financial aspects of monument preservation in Poland . It is worth noting that the original draft of the act drawn up by the Office of the General Conservator of Monuments and dated 11 January 1999 did incorporate proposals for implementing such mechanisms4 .

The lack of a tax relief system that would provide a real incentive for the protection of cultural assets is of particular importance. Moreover, in recent years the system of financing monument preservation in Poland within the national budget has practically collapsed. There is still a striking asymmetry between the system of protection of natural resources, based on the Environment Protection Foundation, and the lack of such a mechanism in the area of monument preservation. The 1999 draft included the proposal to establish a National Monument Preservation Fund in order vastly to increase the effectiveness and scope of authority of the General Conservator of Monuments. The introduction of tax relief on tourist services could make this an instrument of a new heritage preservation philosophy in Poland , based on active management of heritage potential. This question, however, still remains one of the fundamental objectives of state policy waiting to be implemented.

Organisational issues of cultural asset preservation in Poland still remain an open matter. This is a fundamental structural question concerning the definition and position of "conservation administration" within the framework of the public administration system. It is of prime significance, since equipping provincial conservators of monuments with certain categories of entitlements and powers, and above all with organisational independence, is the guarantee of the effectiveness of their work. It could even be said that the effectiveness of conservation depends on a combination of the conservator's independence and the extent of his jurisdiction. Ideally, cultural asset preservation should not be the domain of the provincial governor, since such a systemic solution makes the provincial conservator of monuments (the governor's subordinate) entirely dependent on his superior. The optimum solution and that postulated for the position of the provincial conservator of monuments is therefore the principle of separate authority (specialisation), instead of the principle of linking conservator and governor that has been adopted in legal regulations including the above mentioned new act. The rule of voluntary devolution of cultural asset preservation to local government and in particular to the gmina [borough] is, however, both rational and consistent with the constitutional principles of decentralisation. The currently binding act on government administration in the province enforces a dual system of competences accruing to the provincial conservator of monuments. On the one hand he has statutory competences that he performs on behalf of the governor, and on the other he has his own sphere of authority, also defined in the act, in which the governor may not interfere; liability for taking the correct decisions is the conservator's, while the governor's liability is exclusively political. In this respect, recent years have seen the position of the conservation services in Poland weakened considerably. Not only has the "autonomy" of the separate authority of conservation administration at provincial level been withdrawn, but the office of the General Conservator of Monuments, until 1998 a specialist position, has also been politicised, which is unprecedented.

As regards spatial planning, for the real and effective protection of cultural assets the introduction of a powerful model that would secure the active, direct participation of the provincial conservator of monuments in protection of cultural assets in local zoning plans at borough level is indispensable. In this context, the effectiveness of conservation depends on the active participation of the provincial conservator of monuments at each stage of the procedure of drawing up and approving the local plans. It also depends on the extent of his entitlements and powers in terms of formulation of the content of these plans. As such, the introduction of a system of effective conservation instruments into the area of town planning is vital.

Spatial planning in Poland today exposes all the weaknesses of the so-called "soft state". The weak system of control of public space and the consent of the state to the degradation of that space (such as the recent attempt to legalise illegally built structures!) show clearly that problems of monument preservation go far beyond the competences of the minister of culture. On the other hand, however, the conservation services are today the last bastion of law and order in the area of monument preservation. In comparison to other countries, they are relatively understaffed (about 700 employees). Yet it is a special branch of administration with the highest percentage of staff with a university education in Poland ; it should be well-paid, depoliticised and independent. The return to such a situation should be one of the strategic aims of state policy in monument preservation in Poland .

I am profoundly convinced that the most important strategic aims of the state in terms of monument preservation should include first of all · the design of an effective legal and financial system of monument preservation; · commencement of work on a comprehensive system of heritage education; · the search for instruments that could improve the effectiveness of the work of the conservation services; and, in the longer term, · the preparation of a national programme of cultural heritage preservation. This programme should become one of the pillars of the cultural policy of the state. The last such document – drawn up by the Suchocka government in 1993 – is of but historical significance now.

The new strategy of monument preservation should be based first of all on a mechanism that would link monument preservation both with the development of the tourist market and with the process of decentralisation of the state and the strengthening of local government. Still unregulated ownership relations (including the issue of the reprivatisation of many monuments) remain a major barrier in this area; others result from "the dictates of ministerial Poland".

Monument preservation strategy cannot be addressed in isolation from the fundamental issue of institutional crisis in culture. This crisis particularly affects many museums that house movable objects of historical significance. The asymmetry between the achievements of transformation and the increasingly anachronistic model of sponsorship of culture is growing, revealing a glaring contradiction with contemporary views on culture as one of the most important factors in development. The lack of a modern cultural policy in Poland is a simple result of the ignorance of the political classes in this area ("everybody knows about culture!"). It is paradoxical that in comparison with educational or health reforms the reform of cultural policy is a relatively easy political and economic task. It just needs to be tackled! The lack of a conception for harnessing the enormous potential of the cultural sector as an agent for development in the broadest meaning of the word is more and more damaging not only to culture itself, but also to Poland. This is especially true of cultural heritage.

Tourism, which to a large extent is rooted in the cultural context of heritage, is today – especially for our historic cities – both an opportunity and a threat. It also has the opportunity to become not only an important mechanism for the development of many centres, but also an effective instrument of protection. This, however, requires an integrated approach to the questions of cultural heritage, urban functions and market. The local authorities in historical cities and regions in Poland realise that tourism is an important factor in economic growth. They often do not see, however, the related risks and negative effects. Tourism is a dynamic element in such a system. The speed and selectivity of tourist consumption presents a serious hazard to heritage. If heritage is a stock of values, then tourist consumption of heritage can cause that stock to dwindle seriously. Authenticity, that which constitutes the value of heritage, is today also forced to confront the globalisation and macdonaldisation of cultural space. Uniformisation is not only a threat to heritage; it can also reinforce its value and importance, even in the market dimension. In the face of globalisation, "local" becomes a value in itself.

Therefore, the skilful combination of heritage with the sphere of the economy is a guarantee of the effective preservation of the cultural heritage of historic cities and regions in the free market system. The creation of a new financial and legal framework is vital if historic areas are to function properly. This entails the necessity of finding a compromise between the canons of preservation and the demands of life and economics. Today, effective monument preservation is impossible without an effective strategy for managing heritage potential. In this respect we should remember that heritage is a non-recyclable resource.

Today the complexity of cultural heritage issues in Central Europe is forcing rapid progression from directed conservation and preservation to systemic heritage planning, to a change in the hitherto passive philosophy of preservation. It is also forcing significant broadening of the scope of heritage preservation, in both the chronological and spatial senses, i.e. both material and non-material heritage. In this sense it is a continuous process, founded on constant reinterpretation. Therefore this is not the end, but rather the beginning of a new era, where heritage will cease to be only ballast, a problem, one that often pushes peoples and nations into conflicts, and will prove to offer potential for development. On condition, however, that it will be our common heritage.



  1. See also: J. Purchla, " Dziedzictwo a rozwój. Zarządzanie miastami zabytkowymi a prawa rynku w doświadczeniach Europy Środkowej" , [in:] Miasto historyczne. Potencjał dziedzictwa (ed. K. Broński, J. Purchla, Z. K. Zuziak), Kraków 1997 .
  2. "Final Documents and Proposals Submitted by the Delegations of the Participating States", Kraków 1991.
  3. For more on this subject see also: A. Tomaszewski, "Cultural Identity and Diversity in an Integrating Europe. Cultural Ecumenism?", International Cultural Centre Yearly , No. 11, 2002, pp. 7–10.
  4. Cf.: J. Purchla, P. Dobosz: "Cultural Resources Preservation Act. Opinion on the bill of 11 January 1999, commissioned by the Legislative Council" [in Polish]. Parts of this opinion are used in this article.
  5. Cf.: J. Purchla, A. Rottermund, "The Reform Project of the Public Cultural Institutions in Poland" , International Cultural Centre Yearly , No. 8, 1999, pp. 58–67.


[Translated by Jan Maciej Głogoczowski, Jessica Taylor-Kucia]

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