The Princes Czartoryski Museum is not only a treasure house of works of art; it is also an institution of great significance to the history of European museology. This, the first museum to be opened to the public on the soil of Poland, although that soil was under the rule of the Partitions at the time, was forged and honed as a work of the Princes Czartoryski family during the 19th and 20th centuries. It began with the Temple of the Sybil, built in Puławy in 1801 by Princess Izabela and followed a few years later by the Gothic House. Together, they formed a sanctuary for Poland’s glorious past, a sanctuary contrived against the backdrop of prevailing history and holding mementos and relics of heroes and other illustrious personages. A romantic and patriotic concept of collections quite unique in Europe, it found expression in the vivid picturesqueness and mysteriousness of the exhibition.
In 1831, the threat of confiscation by the Russians which came hot on the heels of the November Uprising triggered what would become more than half a century of wanderings for the collections. The end to their exile was signalled by the gradual transfer of the museum to its current home, which began with the city of Krakow’s handing over the Arsenal building for that purpose in 1874(Krakow lay within the Austrian partition, which was rather more liberal than the Russian one, within which Puławy fell) and was finally completed in 1901. At that time, several neighbouring houses were converted to form the museum’s base and were fitted with specially designed furniture. What was then the Princes Czartoryski Scholarly Institution encompassed an enlarged collection, an archive and a library, in line with the ancient tradition of the musaeum as the seat of the Muses, guardians of the arts and sciences. Under the directorship of Marian Sokołowski, Poland’s first history-of-art university professor, the new exhibition, more artistic than sentimental and fitted and furnished thanks to Prince Władysław’s efforts, was generally based on systematic criteria.
During the communist era of the People's Republic of Poland, a library building was erected for the Czartoryski Museum, which had by then become a department of the National Museum in Krakow, and, between 1982 and 1993, a new permanent exhibition was set up. Some of the rooms reflected the patriotic tradition of Puławy, whilst, in others, the art collections were arranged in accordance with systematic criteria.
In the same way, the present-day exhibition echoes the museum's great traditions; the historical and patriotic ‘Puławy concept’ can be seen in the courtyard and on the first floor, as can the artistic and systematic ‘Krakow concept’ on the second floor, together with the palace's historical interior, which was extended to incorporate several new exhibition rooms during recent modernisation work. Choosing to set out from the first floor rather than the second will take you to an exhibition based on the glories of Poland’s past, inviting you to begin by immersing yourself in the most ancient period of the museum’s history, the Puławy era. On the other hand, the artistic exhibition on the second floor, reached via two flights of stairs, can be viewed in line with individual preference, in other words, just like many an art museum the world over.
The interior décor retains the atmosphere of a private collection in bygone times, making use of showcases that have survived the ravages of historical events, as well as other furnishings, and reflecting the arrangement customary in the late 19th century, whereby works were displayed in close proximity to one another. However, objects of particular significance, lost amidst a multitude of less important items in the former exhibition, are now displayed to their full advantage. The exhibition of the entirely new sections, such as the prints and manuscript room, or the display of Oriental art, is scholarly and systematic in nature, making no avoidance of modern forms.