Visitors explore the rich history and cultural contributions of Polish-Americans at this museum through art, artifacts, and exhibitions
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Photo credit: Julita Siegel
About Polish Museum of America
The 1939 World's Fair in New York promised good things to come. Its slogan, "Dawn of a New Day," encouraged everyone to look to the future, with exhibits introducing innovations like nylon fabric and TVs as proof of progress and evolution. It also included a very large Polish pavilion, made spectacular by hundreds of works of art and important cultural relics. Yet before the fair had even closed, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany, precipitating the start of WWII.
The rapid descent of Europe into war threw one question into stark relief for Polish-American communities: What should be done with all of the relics on display in America? Sent back home, they could be lost or destroyed. At this point, a small Chicago museum, which had opened its doors only two years prior, stepped up. Its directors bought what they could of the exhibit, saving almost three-fourths of the artifacts from near-certain destruction.
Thus, with one acquisition, the Polish Museum of America grew from a modestly sized institution to one boasting a large and impressive display of cultural importance. Over the next 78 years, its collection would become even more robust, containing over 100,000 books including a rare books collection with books dating back to the 16th century. The art gallery contains paintings and sculptures from the 19th and 20th century by Polish and Polish American artists and they have a gift shop to stop in before leaving. The archives house documents that include letters by Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski, proclamations by Polish kings, correspondence by Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln, old maps, and archival documents of the Polish American community. And yet, being situated not among the skyscrapers of downtown, but rather occupying a modest building at the eastern edge of West Town often referred to as the "Polish Downtown", it remains a hidden gem tucked away in the city's interior—a rare, highly condensed collection of artifacts detailing Polish history and the Polish-American experience.