The Polish Museum of America was established in 1935 as the “Museum and Archives of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America.” The first public display area opened on January 12, 1937 in a specially designed and constructed room within the headquarters building of the PRCUA. From that date the Museum’s collection and importance grew very rapidly and quickly gained autonomous status as “The Polish Museum of America” with its own governing board of directors.
There were two events that caused the rapid expansion of the Museum’s collections. The first originated from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, New York. The year 1939 marked the 20th anniversary of the Second Republic of Poland and the government of Poland marked that anniversary with a large exhibition at that World’s Fair.
Unfortunately, in September of 1939 Poland was invaded and war had gripped Europe. At the close of the World’s Fair, it became clear that the Polish exhibits could not return to Poland and their disposition was uncertain. In order to preserve at least a portion of the exhibits the directors of the Museum determined to purchase from the government of Poland nearly three fourths of the exhibits. Display of these exhibits required a very significant expansion of the Museum’s public display areas into the 3rd and 4th floor auditorium facilities of the PRCUA headquarters building. In June of 1941 this expanded display area opened to the public. Thus, the Museum was able to preserve a very significant collection of art from the Polish inter-war period, 1919 to 1939, as well as significant Polish historical items.
The second significant event was the donation to the Museum of the personal possessions of Ignacy Jan Paderewski following his death in June 1941. Both Ignacy Paderewski and his sister, Antonina Paderewska Wilkonska, were enthusiastic supporters and generous sponsors of the Museum. Antonina, executor of Ignacy’s will, decided to donate these personal possessions to the Museum. In addition, the management of the Buckingham Hotel in New York City, where Ignacy spent the last months of his life, allowed Antonina to obtain the furnishings from the suite of rooms he had occupied. These furnishings were also donated to the Museum. With the assistance of Ignacy’s personal secretary, the furnishings and his personal mementos were arranged for public display in the room that had been the first display room of the Museum in 1937. This revised space was officially re-opened with a special dedication ceremony on November 3, 1941. Today this collection remains in the original space, but has been remodeled to become one of the Museum’s most memorable and fascinating exhibit spaces.
During those first few years of operations the Archival collections also grew substantially through very aggressive acquisition policies. Under the direction of Mieczyslaw Haiman, a large collection of books and pamphlets about Poland and by Polish authors was collected. Later, this collection was catalogued into “Polonica Americana” and “Polonica in English.” Complete collections of Polish-language newspapers, religious records, photographs and maps were also acquired.
The maps, mostly of Eastern Europe, turned out to have some significance. It seems that the Archives had the only detailed maps of the area outside of German occupied Europe. The visitor’s logbook records, without other comment, that on May 7, 1943 twenty employees of U.S. Navy Intelligence Service spent some time in the Museum’s facilities. There are no further entries in the logbook after that entry on May 7 until May 17, 1943. During those ten days all our maps were microfilmed. At the end, the Museum was given two steel storage cases to properly store the maps in a flat configuration. The cabinets still have the labels “U.S. Naval Intelligence” on them.
During the succeeding decades, the Museum has continued to acquire many books, other publications and other artifacts as well as a great deal of works of art. The Museum has, from its beginning, and still does benefit from the generous support and sponsorship of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America.
Today, the Museum is a recognized resource for materials pertaining to Poland and the Polish-American community. Managing this eclectic collection is a very challenging and complex task. Only a relatively small portion of the Museum’s assets are on display at any given time. The remainder must be preserved and stored in ways that allow for convenient reference and future research. The Museum is determined to continue its mission to Polish and Polish-American past for the benefit, instruction and education of current and future generations.
January 14, 2017
Jan M. Lorys