Fot. Jacek Złoczowski, Pracownia Fotograficzna MNK

How we built trenches in the Museum

While developing the script of the exhibition titled Polish Legions 1914-1918, displayed in the Gallery ‘Arms and Uniforms in Poland’, I suggested including a reconstruction of a trench with a dugout from the times of the First World War as one of the elements of its design.

This element, which constitutes one of “Touch the History” sites spread throughout the Gallery ‘Arms and Uniforms in Poland’, is intended to serve multiple functions. First of all, it functions as set design which complements the theme of the exhibition. To us, the First World War brings the images of a trench war, with a continuous string of ditches with shooting stands and dugouts which became soldiers’ homes. However, it was also a place of work for artists-legionnaires, who created their works in the front, surrounded by fellow soldiers. That is why this trench features recently made replicas of the uniforms of the Polish Legions and their allies – the Austro-Hungarian and German army. The uniforms were recreated on the basis of photographs from that period, whose large collection is preserved at the National Museum in Krakow, and on reproductions available in literature and on the Internet. And here we come across another aspect of this place. We would like the trench and the dugout to help our visitors – often young, looking at history from behind their computer screens, tablets and phones – to visualise what it could look like in reality.

The construction of this display was not a simple project. Since we wanted it to be as realistic as possible, we decided – together with the designer – to use raw unseasoned wood. It forced the use of various substances which would preserve the wood and prevent the development of microbes and insects. At the same time we had to remember that the building houses tens of thousands of works of art in storerooms and exhibitions, and make sure we don’t accidentally cause biohazard. Thus, we used synthetic fillers instead of sand to fill jute sacks, and we covered the trench ground with seasoned slag.
The omnipresent smell of raw wood endows this place with a unique atmosphere. And I think that it fulfils its role. While I was giving a guided tour of the exhibition to our visitors, a gentleman who had been standing for a long time near the shooting stand shared his extraordinary personal memories. His grandfather, who served in the Austro-Hungarian army, was seriously wounded in exactly this kind of place and lost an eye when a bullet hit the sack, and its fragments, along with the sand, hit him in the face.
The only thing we weren’t able to recreate was the mud and water so frequently found in the trenches. However, one nook of our trench became a temporary home for a rat – an inseparable companion of soldiers’ life.

Piotr Wilkosz – historian, specialist in early firearms, employee of the Department of Militaria of the National Museum in Krakow, curator of the exhibition titled „Polish Legions 1914-1918”.

The exhibition titled „Polish Legions 1914-1918” can be visited in the Main Building of the National Museum of Krakow until 30 September 2015.

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