Sunday, 16 May 2010

Warsaw's Museum Night

A truly wonderful institution! For one night only, Warsaw's musuems, art galleries and other public institutions open their doors to visitors for free, to which lots of other attractions are added (vintage buses and trams). Most places are open to one am, some to three. The metro and several tram lines run on well into the night, extra night buses are put on. The result - the whole city was out in force, enjoying a night of culture and history. (Full programme in Polish here.) Tearing themselves away from the TV set, games console or beer can, families and people young and old were making the most of what Warsaw had to offer.

We all went out to make the most of the night. I went with Eddie, his friend Sabina and her dad Chris, taking in Sejm (the Polish parliament), the Mennica (state mint), railway musuem, then by vintage bus to Plac Narutowicza for an exhibition of old trams. Along the way we passed huge queues waiting to go into the Warsaw Uprising musuem and the Institute of National Memory (IPM). In both cases, the queues looked way too long.

Above: A lad in Sejm - Eddie's idea to visit the Polish parliament was a hit and worth the wait. Last night, the principal institution of Polish democracy proved to be in finest fettle, attracting huge interest from Varsovians of all ages. The Sejm buildings were open to three am. Below: packed interior of a 1960s vintage Ogórek ('cucumber') bus. This particular one was a Czech-built Skoda, but many licence-built examples of this type of bus were built in Poland by Jelcz, and were a familiar sight on the streets of Warsaw's cities in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s.

We jumped on this bus outside the Railway Museum and went to Plac Narutowicza (below) for a display of vintage trams - the oldest dating back to 1907. All maintainted by volunteers, as is the case in the UK, where the heritage transport movement is thriving thanks to the countless hours put in by enthusiasts to keep old buses, trams and trains moving. A sign of a strong civil society.

My wife queued to get into the Chopin museum on ul. Tamka. They were letting people in 70 at a time, once an hour on the hour. She didn't get in at seven pm, nor indeed at eight; after an hour and 40 minutes she'd had enough, and not fancying another hour of queuing, departed. We too had our disappointments. We turned up at the Warsaw waterworks (Filtry) having discovered that you needed an invite to get in (available two weeks earlier), so that was a dead loss too. Moni and her friends managed to visit the most museums, crossing into Praga, Warsaw's right bank district, as well as visiting Sejm, and by the time she got home it was already light!

The trick to getting the most from Warsaw's Museum Night is to be aware that massive crowds will be inevitable, and to prioritise places that aren't ususally open to the public rather than trying to save on the entry price of museums that can be visited at any weekend. Plan ahead (in our case of the waterworks - we didn't know until the day that invites were necessary), and bear in mind the distances between attractions necessitates a 24-hour bus ticket (or bicycle).

It was a glorious evening - the epitome of civilisation (in the sense of its Latin root from the word for 'city'). The museums went out of their way to welcome people, staff made an effort to go the extra mile, we encountered no surliness. Everyone was happy, no disturbances, rudeness or unpleasantness, an urban ideal. This is what cities were made for. Praise to the organisers. Urban policymakers in cities without Museum Nights should copy the idea (which originated in Berlin) - the benefits are enormous.

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