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The Polish Museum of America
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Chicago, IL 60642-4101
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Historical Collections


In the beginning, the Museum and Archives of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America concentrated, above all, on gathering historical mementos. It had been established with the conviction that documents, books and all kinds of items of importance to the history of Polonia in America, as well as to the history of Poland, should not be subjected to dispersion, and, with time, to destruction, and inevitably forgotten. Materials reflecting the activities of Polish organizations, societies, and fraternals that had existed and/or still exist, began to arrive, and still do, from all regions of the United States. In addition to printed materials are seals, banners, pennants, sashes, badges of each organization, honors, diplomas, medals, trophy cups, and other awards granted or won.

There is no lack of photo albums and press clippings, portfolios of drawings (often humorous) by chroniclers and cartoonists of Polonia, which illustrate the life, holidays and achievements of Poles in America. There are souvenirs of prominent activists of Polonia, such as their insignias and awards, documents, letters, photos, and all kinds of mementos which they had liked. A separate group of mementos consists of religious articles kept in homes:  pictures, crucifixes, statues and medals; and from houses of worship:  chalices, monstrances and banners. Also preserved are gifts from Poland sent in gratitude for aid received, testifying to the close bond between Polonia and the Mother country during moments of crisis, as well as when times were normal.

It has been stated in the introduction that the historical collection was divided into two parts:  that of mementos of the history of Polonia (enumerated above), and those directly connected with the history of Poland. On the whole, the latter commemorates battles for independence that were fought from the moment Poland lost its independence to its rebirth, that is, from the second half of the 18th century to 1918. The dates of 1772, 1793, 1794, 1795, 1830, 1848 and 1863 embroidered on fabric recall the most important and tragic events for Poland:  the three partitions among Russia, Prussia and Austria, and the successive insurrections and defeats of Kosciuszko insurrections, the November Uprising, interventions of the People's Spring, and the January Uprising. But the "White Eagle" stitched beside the dates—the emblem and symbol of Poland—inspired hope for eventual victory. Much of such embroidery was found in Polish homes during the period of "National Mourning," which followed the defeat of the Insurrection of 1863.

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The Museum has comparatively few mementos of Kosciuszko. Most interesting is a landscape drawn in pencil, most likely during his stay in the U.S. There are several objects that relate to the Kosciuszko Insurrection in Poland, including printed instructions for the Regulatory Commission and conferment of office of lieutenant for Jan Brach 4 IV 1794, signed by Kosciuszko. Other objects connected with the “hero of two continents” are, chiefly, pictures, graphics, sculptures, and medals of his likeness.

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The permanent exhibit of Shakespearean actress Helena Modjeska in the Museum’s Great Hall consists of a display case of mementos and a wall display of theater posters. Located near the monumental Jurgielewicz stained glass, the showcase contains a portrait of the poet, Adam Asnyk, sketched by Modjeska, her designs of three costumes, letters, and notes (one of which is written to Sarah Bernhardt) autographed by Modjeska. There are photographs; a poster announcing her performance, printed in Buffalo around 1890; and programs of plays in which the actress performed with stars of the American stage, Maurice Barrymore and Edwin Booth. We also have a number of other souvenirs which are kept in our stockrooms and archives.

Removed from the permanent exhibit are two theater costumes donated by Anthony Czarnecki, an editor, and a black dress worn in the last act of Mary Stuart, by Friedrich Schiller, in which the Queen of Scotland, with rosary in hand, approached her destiny. The faces on the mannequins are masks of Modjeska’s face, executed by her nephew, the artist, Władisław T. Benda. Facing damage from long-term exposure to light and heat, as well as strain on the ageing fabrics from hanging on the mannequins, these items were reluctantly removed from display in January 2010.

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The highlight of the archival collection at The Polish Museum of America is the extraordinary repository of memorabilia documenting the multi-faceted career of Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860–1941). After the death of Paderewski, the Museum received numerous personal items and memorabilia which initiated one of the largest collections dedicated to the pianist. This collection is now housed in a special room that was the original 1937 Museum. 

From the summer of 2007 to the fall of 2009, the Paderewski Room and its artifacts were unavailable for public viewing due to major renovations. The renovations having been completed, however, one can now view any number of artifacts and personal items related to this extraordinary individual. Among these are: the furnishings of the Buckingham Hotel suite, New York City, where the Maestro last resided; a piano which was a gift from Steinway and Sons; the concert stool which the Maestro carted with him in his travels around the world; many personal items, including scissors, comb, bottle of cologne, razor, cigarettes, cigarette-holder, and a cigarette case inscribed, “Ukochanemu Prezydentowi I. J. Paderewskiemu/ Warszawa 31 lipca 1919” (To Our Beloved President I. J. Paderewski/Warsaw 31 July 1919) with the signatures of his cabinet members.

In addition, there are the more official mementos, such as the gold pen in the shape of a goose feather which Paderewski is said to have used in signing the Peace Treaty in Versailles. Photographs, autographed copies of books, paintings, sculptures and medals with the likeness of Paderewski, by Józef Aumiller, Alfons Karny, Stanisław Sikora and Paul Strayer, complete the exhibit.

Though the 2007–2009 renovation incorporated several design features that optimize the preservation of artifacts on display, we are still compelled to rotate more delicate and important items into storage from time to time in order to maximize their lifespan. While this may be an unfortunate, though necessary, inconvenience to visitors from more distant locales, those fortunate enough to live in proximity to the Museum can return again and again to gain a more comprehensive understanding of this great man. The exhibit space is kept at a relatively low temperature of 69 degrees for conservation purposes.  Please keep this in mind when planning your visit.  The last update to the Paderewski collection on view to the public was November 6, 2009. 

When visiting the Paderewski Room, one can make a more thorough examination of this “artist, statesman, and friend” by using the interactive touchscreens. The touchscreens present more in-depth and varied material than can be displayed in the exhibit cases:  audio-visual media, articles about the Maestro, his accomplishments and acquaintances, and more.

Finally, since the Paderewski Room is the original Museum space, which opened to the public on January 12, 1937, the Museum provides an area in this Room in memory of its first curator, Mieczysław Haiman. His desk, published books and other items are displayed. The Museum believes that Paderewski would have approved.

Entry door to the exhibit

Window showing photo of Augusta Blvd circa 1918

First Curator Haiman's desk

Paderewski's performance clothes

Bedroom furnishings from the Buckingham Hotel

Paderewski's business suit

Uniform - Polish Army in France

Display on Madame Paderewska

Exhibit cases - Versailles Pen

One of the touchscreens in the Room

Paderewski's last piano and chair

Playing card display

Breakfast table setting

Recordings display

View of Room to the right of entry

View of the furniture display

View of the center display


Background of the Collection

Paderewski purchased a villa at Morges, Switzerland around 1900 and became a citizen of that country. He was living there when World War II started on September 1, 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. In late 1940, Paderewski decided that he could no longer continue helping his beloved Poland from Europe. Rather, he would need to travel to the United States and continue his work there. At age 79, this would not be an easy trip as it required a long automobile journey across Vichy-controlled southern France, across the Pyrenees Mountains, through hostile Spain and finally across neutral Portugal to the port of Lisbon. Probably sensing that he would never return to Europe, he took with him those things that he considered to be most important.

He arrived in New York City on November 6, 1940, by coincidence his 80th birthday, and eventually settled into a suite of rooms at the Buckingham Hotel. After a brief bout with pneumonia, he died there on June 29, 1941. The management of the hotel offered the furnishings to Paderewski's sister, Antonina, to dispose of as she saw fit. While a number of prominent institutions expressed an interest in obtaining the "collection," Antonina eventually decided that the collection should go to The Polish Museum of America. The Museum quickly cleared out the room that had originally housed the entire Museum at its opening in 1937 and re-dedicated the space in November of 1941 as the "Paderewski Room." Sadly, Paderewski's sister, Antonina Wilkonska, died before the official opening of this new exhibit.

After World War II, the villa in Switzerland was in a state of poor repair and was sold. His ranch at Paso Robles, California was also sold to pay back taxes. The new Communist government of Poland was not very friendly to the memory of Paderewski so there was only one place, The Polish Museum of America, where his mementos were preserved. That is to say, if someone had an item related to Paderewski and wanted to donate it for preservation or exhibit, there was only one place to consider, The Polish Museum of America.

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The military collection, which constitutes a sizable portion of the Historical Collection, dates from the 19th and 20th centuries, and consists of three basic divisions: the participation of the Poles whenever the United States was at war; the paramilitary organizations of Polonia; and the Polish military formations around the world during World Wars I and II. However, the beginning of the military aspect of the exhibitions in the Great Hall recalls a much earlier event—the victory of the Polish King, Jan III Sobieski, over the Turks at Vienna in 1863. Two relics of the Polish Cavalry’s winged armor are on exhibit. They were produced for the Polish Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

The revolution of the British colonies in America (1775–1782), which resulted in the establishment of the United States of America, is the earliest period of Polish-American cooperation on the battlefield, but it’s rather meagerly represented in the Museum’s collection. Documentation of the participation of Poles in the American Civil War, or War of Secession, (1861–1865) is considerably better. There are replicas of the Civil War uniforms in the Great Hall—the blue uniform of the 58th Infantry Regiment of New York, and the gray uniform of the 14th Infantry Regiment of Louisiana.

The second division of the military artifacts pertains to paramilitary organizations of Polonia, such as the Polish Falcons Society and the Knights of St. Casimir, which participated, in times of peace, at patriotic manifestations organized on the anniversaries of national events, and at celebrations of religious holy days, especially Good Friday.

The third military division is the largest and contains unique artifacts. A significant part is from the World War I period, the mementos of the Polish Army in France (also known as the Haller’s Army, from the name of the commander, or the Blue Army, for the color of its uniforms) and its soldiers. The largest number of uniforms and a variety of mementos, however, is from the World War II period.

Due to a lack of space, only small displays of uniforms and military artifacts are exhibited in the Museum. Most of them are in storerooms and are presented on occasion. The last exhibit, “On the Field of Glory 1939–1947,” was organized in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of demobilization of the Polish Armed Forces in the West.

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The artifacts that are associated with the ocean and other items presented in the Maritime Room mostly come from the Polish Pavilion of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and specifically from the room, “Poland on the Sea.” There are 1:100 scale models of the Merchant Navy of inter-war period sailing under the Polish flag, belonging to various shipping lines: Gdynia-America Sailing Lines LTD (GAL), Polish Sailings, Polbryt, and Polskarob.

The legendary history of the twin, large transatlantic liners built on the order of GAL, M/S “Piłsudski” and M/S “Batory”, uncommonly colorful and stormy, full of comic and tragic moments, has been presented many times in popular Polish literature, as well as educational reading, but mostly in memoirs, of which the most popular were the tales of Captain Karol Olgierd Borchardt, gathered in two books, Znaczy kapitain (It Means Captain) and Szaman morski (Shaman of the Sea).

Smaller ships, among them those belonging to Polish Sailings and the Polish-British joint venture shipping lines, Polbryt, are also shown as models: M/S “Lewant”, S/S “Lech”, S/S “Lublin”, S/S “Lida”, as well as the three-masted sailing ship, “Dar Pomorza” (Gift of Pomerania), which, because of its white sails, was poetically called “The White Frigate.”

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Mission Statement

The Mission of The Polish Museum of America, an integral part of the dynamic mosaic of Polish life in Chicago, is to promulgate the rich cultural history of the Polish people by collecting, preserving, interpreting, and displaying materials related to this heritage; and to integrate these resources into appropriate programs, activities, and exhibitions that enrich the intellectual and artistic lives of all members of society.

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