Polish Museum, Rapperswil, Switzerland

The Polish Museum, Rapperswil, was founded in Rapperswil, Switzerland, on October 23, 1870, by Polish Count Władysław Broel-Plater, at the urging of Agaton Giller, as “a refuge for historic memorabilia dishonored and plundered in the [occupied Polish] homeland” and for the promotion of Polish interests.

Except for two hiatuses, the Museum has existed to the present day—an outpost of Polish culture in Switzerland, a country which, over the past two centuries, has given refuge to generations of Poles.

The Polish Museum in the Swiss town of Rapperswil was established in 1870 upon the initiative of the Polish political emigrants. The main founder of the Museum was Count Władysław Broel-Plater, an insurgent of the November Uprising, who later became a political activist in France and Switzerland. The history of the Museum and its collections gives the Museum a special place among other museums worldwide. Housed in the old Rapperswil Castle which was restored by the Polish expat community, the Museum represents a joint effort of the Polish and Swiss people, an example of the co-existence of two cultures, and a proof that culture may facilitate closer links and understanding between nations. The Polish Museum’s holdings include a collection of old prints, the oldest of them dating back to 1494, a collection of 19th and 20th century painting, a gallery of late 18th century miniatures, collections of prints, militaria, numismatic items, orders and medals, as well as a rich cartographic collection.

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The Museum owes the nature and great diversity of its collections to its donors – Swiss nationals and Polish emigrants for whom the attachment to the Polish art and culture was a reference point in their new existence away from homeland. In addition to its art collection, the Museum also houses a library and an archive. The library has a large collection of old prints and Polonica. The archive contains the records of the rich history of diplomatic, scientific and economic relations between Poland and Switzerland. It also stores the records of the social life of Poles abroad.

In 1936 a Museum of Contemporary Poland was established at the Rapperswil Castle, to popularize the art and achievements of independent Poland.
In 1940, after some 13,000 Polish Army soldiers who had fought in France were interned in Switzerland, the Museum supervised educational and cultural work at the internment camps.

The Museum’s founder, Count Plater, had bequeathed the collections to the Polish people. In 1927, after Poland had regained independence following World War I, pursuant to Plater’s wishes the Museum collections were transported to Poland in fourteen railroad cars: 3,000 works of art, 2,000 historic memorabilia, 20,000 engravings, 9,000 coins and medals, 92,000 books, and 27,000 manuscripts.

The greater part of these collections, especially the library and archives, were deliberately destroyed by the Germans in Warsaw during World War II.

In 1945, at the conclusion of World War II, the Museum was taken over by the Polish People’s Republic. In 1952 Rapperswil’s local government, fearing that the Castle would become a center for communist propaganda, closed the Museum.

A notable object that survived was Tadeusz Kościuszko’s heart, which now reposes in a chapel at Warsaw’s Royal Castle, rebuilt in the 1970s from its deliberate destruction in World War II.

The Museum, reopened in 1975, now features permanent exhibits on:
The Swiss in Poland, and Poles in Switzerland;
History of 19th- and 20th-century Polish emigrations to the West;
History of the Polish struggle for national independence;
Distinguished Polish scientists, artists and Nobel laureates;
Paintings by 19th- and 20th-century Polish artists;
Jewish culture in Poland;
Polish folk art.

Additionally, the Museum organizes periodic special exhibits on Polish history and art.

The Polish Museum also features a library, now housed in the Burghof house (seat of the Polish cultural foundation “Libertas”), down the hill from the castle and at the top of a flight of broad steps leading up from the town. The library holds some 20,000 volumes on Polish history and culture, including works in western-European languages. The library’s book catalog is accessible on the internet.

The library’s memorabilia cover several centuries and include items associated with Tadeusz Kościuszko, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Władysław Reymont and Jan Nowak-Jeziorański.

In 2008, some Rapperswil residents petitioned local authorities to evict the Polish Museum from its home in the Rapperswil Castle. The Museum is conducting a petition campaign to retain the Museum in the Castle.