Monday, July 18, 2011

Lublin's Open Air Village Museum

Photo by lucassith source

Yesterday my excellent hosts here in Lublin took me to the Muzeum Wsi Lubelskiej, or Open Air Village Museum in Lublin. Museums like this, that preserve traditional peasant culture and crafts, are vital. We won’t always have unending access to cheap and readily available fossil fuels that do everything for us. Skansens, or outdoor museums like Lublin’s Open Air Village Museum, preserve technological solutions to human problems. They show us how our not so distant ancestors harnessed energy from wind and water, how they heated, lit, and cooled homes without air-conditioning or central heating, and how they lived rich, full lives without plastic or computers or television. They are evidence of traditional people’s ingenuity and depth, and they offer us clues about how to solve our own problems. And they are very fun places to be on a bright, sunny summer day. I am very grateful to Professors Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska and Chris Garbowski for introducing me to this fascinating museum.

I have been lucky enough to live traditional life in traditional villages, in Slovakia, Poland, Africa, and Asia. I lived in Africa and Asia for years, without electricity, running water, or reliable motorized transport.

I remember one day watching my next door neighbor in Nepal. He began the day by squatting on the ground and looking at a pile of stuff that, to me, looked like random dirt and plant material. Within a few hours, using his bare hands and a khukri, or traditional Nepali knife, and material he acquired from surrounding woods, he had put together a sturdy, vermin-proof platform to dry and store grain over the winter. I was astounded.

Similarly, I remember watching my Uncle Jan, or John, in Slovakia, when he was in his sixties, shimmy up a tall, frail sapling, insert his bare hand into a ball of bees, and bring that ball down to the ground, to place it back into the hive, from which it had escaped. My uncle was a small farmer. He smoked his own pork in his basement. He was most amazing with bees. He could do anything with bees, without protective gear. He and I went for a walk in a forest one day. He found a basket-full of delicious, edible mushrooms, where I found only brown leaves and forest floor. He could interpret every sound in the forest, pointing out that we were just steps away from wild boar that I didn’t even hear. He casually picked bits of edible plants, and encouraged me to eat them. All this bounty, which he saw so readily, was invisible to me.

Peasants are not “Bieganski.” They are not stupider than we, not coarser, not different species. They have our intelligence and aesthetics and our same questions. We can learn from them.

In early July, at the Galicia Jewish Museum, two master carpenters, neither Polish nor Jewish, talked about building a traditional Polish-Jewish wooden synagogue, from scratch, with just an ax. They said that reanimating the skills possessed by Polish village carpenters was a worthy goal. Human technology, especially technology able to create a work of great beauty like a wooden church or synagogue, should not be allowed to slip into extinction. We become different, better, broader people when we exercise traditional skills. On June 15th, 2011, the New York Times ran an article about bringing the three hundred year old Sanok synagogue back to life here. I know that acquiring food by making contacts with neighbors, bringing it home, making a wood fire, also gotten from neighbors, and cooking that food over a wood fire I had to make myself taught me something about being human that I don’t get from cooking food bought in a supermarket over an electric stove.

I’d like to invite Polish Americans who are uncomfortable with their own peasant ancestry, or who think that the only face Poles can and should show to the world is the face of aristocrats, Nobel prize winners, and flawless heroes, to reassess peasantry. Look closer. You will find worthy, intelligent, creative human beings, people worthy of your pride, not just in their ability to survive, but to thrive, under harsh and demanding conditions.

Some lovely photos of the museum by Lukasz Sitarek here.

A detailed shot of how clothes used to be made found here.


  1. Danusha,
    Your photos are beautiful, and your words suit them perfectly. We went to a skansen in Wdzydze last July, and met a wedding party in the chapel who graciously allowed us to take their pictures. Your post brought back wonderful memories. Thanks for alerting us to these wonderful open air "museums!"

  2. Off Kilter -- I love your handle! Thank you for reading and commenting. I'm so glad you have had a good experience in a Polish skansen.

  3. Here is a webpage with fab photos from the Wdzydze skansen Off Kilter mentions, above:


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