Wooden architecture is one of the hallmarks of Podlasie’s cultural identity as it preserves its regional character to this day. Unfortunately, over the last decades wooden manors, huts, barns, granaries, smithies, mills and windmills, Catholic and Orthodox churches and many other buildings have been disappearing from the region’s landscape at an increasing pace, even though they seem to remain such an integral element. That is why all forms of maintaining culturally significant wooden buildings play substantial roles in preserving Podlasie’s cultural heritage for future generations. The most common method of protection involves relocating wooden structures to special open-air museums, which in Poland are commonly referred to as “Skansens”. The idea originated in Sweden at the end of the 19th century and was successfully adopted in many other countries. Its main advantages include the possibility of preserving buildings that are unique in their architectural or historic value and which would otherwise deteriorate in their original locations. Also, gathering multiple such objects in a natural setting makes it possible to create an impression on visitors that the buildings are actually in their original location. The Podlaskie Folklore Museum presents old wooden architecture from the regional countryside, which today can only be seen in open-air museums. The Museum has both large buildings as well as elements of the so-called landscape architecture such as crosses, shrines, wells, bee-hives, and many, many more, making it possible to fully recreate the atmosphere of Podlaskie’s countryside of old.
The Podlaskie Folklore Museum was created in September 2016. Establishing it as a new and separate institution of culture was mainly aimed at providing the museum with appropriate conditions for development. Combining the collections of the Białystok Village Museum and the Ethnography Department resulted in the largest assortment of ethnographic exhibits in the region. The vast collection makes it possible to prepare permanent displays of Podlasie’s folk culture and, as a results, fills the significant gap in the region’s museum offer. The museum’s budget and funding from EU programmes makes it possible to renovate buildings and obtain new objects as well. It must be noted that these actions are possible thanks to the museum’s strong personnel potential and its technical infrastructure. Professor Marian Pokropek, the originator of the Białystok Museum concept, had this to say about the creation of the new museum: Open-air museums have multidimensional objectives. It is not only about protecting various forms of architecture and objects, but it is a museum of the countryside in the broad meaning of the term. It is a museum of rural history and culture in all its various aspects, along with the spiritual and folk culture, often called folklore. These challenges can only be faced by an independent institution which is able to take up all the responsibilities inherent to an open-air museum.
Podlaskie Folklore Museum continues the traditions initiated by the Białystok Village Museum, which started off in 1982 as a branch of the Białystok District Museum. The first projects aimed at preserving valuable wooden architecture in the Białystok area which involved the creation of an open-air museum date back to the 1960s. One such programme was developed by Ignacy Tłoczek, who also worked on the project of the open-air museum in Ciechanowiec. The project that was ultimately accepted was that of professor Maran Pokropek, who assumed the recreation of complete settlements prevailing in north-eastern Poland, such as row and linear housing, minor gentry’s hamlets, colony settlements, as well as manor and forest complexes. The programme assumptions laid down by professor Pokropek, the Białystok Village Museum was supposed to represent various forms of settlement in north-eastern Poland, with no clear reference to specific geographic and cultural regions or ethnic groups. Implementing such a programme was intended to provide “neutrality” and, consequently, faithfulness to Podlasie’s genuineness as a borderland, where various influences of neighbouring nations as well as ethnic and religious groups, such as Jews or Tartars, mixed. The newly created open-air museum was formed into a “village” which best reflected the native landscape of settlements north-eastern Poland as well as its natural environment background. The museum was situated in an area of a triangle formed by the river Supraśl to the north, the Białystok-Sokółka railway line, and the Białystok-Suwałki road. The site is characterized by a rather diverse type of land with a vast amount of forest coverage.
Based on the assumptions outlined above, the construction of the Białystok Museum begun, facing along the way various difficulties, mainly stemming from a shortage in professional museum and technical personnel, as well as a lack of office, conservation and storage facilities. During this hard period of establishing the museum, a significant involvement in all activities was shown by the then deputy director of the District Museum in Białystok, Tamara Samul, who was actively supported by consultations with the director of the Museum of Agriculture in Ciechanowiec, Kazimierz Uszyński. Sourcing architectural objects in field and supervision of their relocation was the duty of the Ethnography Department, headed by Halina Jakubowska. At the same time, the museum started gathering historical items with the aim of filling and furnishing the buildings.
In 1984 the first building was moved to the open-air museum – a forge from Gródek. Intense construction work lasted until 1990, when the Museum’s development funding was drastically cut. Until then, three complete farmhouses recreating a minor gentry hamlet were moved, a forest enclosure and a manor and granary was moved to the future sector presenting manor architecture. The Museum also had a windmill, a watermill, and a forge. Service buildings were also created, with space for offices, storage, and a carpentry workshop. In November 1994, a fire broke out which consumed nine buildings. One building was saved, but it no longer was used for display. Among the lost buildings was the oldest object in the museum – a barn from the mid-18th century, and two extremely rare structures used for sheltering wooden horse mills. The loss of almost one third of the museum’s exhibits combined with the lack of capacity resulting mainly from limited funding made it necessary to modify the ambitions assumptions laid out in the 1980s. The area of the open-air museum was reduced to almost 30 hectares, abandoning the plans of expansion to other settlement systems outside the existing sectors of forest architecture, manors, and small gentry’s hamlets.
Over the next several years, new objects were relocated to the museum: a farmhouse from Stara Grzybowszczyzna, four barns, two granaries, and two small windmills. Several other object wait their turn to be assembled in the museum, such as a presbytery from Narojki near Drohiczyn, a house from Malowicze Górne, intended for the Tatar pen, and a Białystok town villa from the interwar period.
The creation of the Podlaskie Folk Culture Museum is a warrant of the open-air museum’s further development. Additional objects were purchased which will form the eastern Podlasie architecture section, comprising in three enclosures with ten buildings total, arranged like a linear village. The new section will fill a significant gap in the museum’s display of settlement systems which prevail in Podlaskie. It is also worth noting that the change of the name, from Białystok Village Museum to the Podlaskie Folklore Museum, indicates the direction in which the institution develops, namely significantly expanding its substantive activities. The museum will be an institution which is the largest ethnographic museum in the region, and at the same time create the foundation for building an urban architecture section which will collect wooden houses from the city of Białystok.