Architecture : Silesia’s new museum successfully combines the old and the new

This month I was fortunate to be able to visit the Museum of Silesia (Muzeum Śląskie) in the Polish city of Katowice. The collection has found a dramatic home on the site on an inner city coal mine. The mine closed in 1999 and, after extensive construction, the new museum opened in 2015.

Surface architecture re-using buildings from the former coal mine

A stunning piece of architecture

The most impressive element of the site is the use of the industrial relics of the coal mine. The pithead tower has now become a viewing platform, while other beautiful brick buildings (circa 1900) have been renovated to contain the museum entrances and the museum restaurant. Rusted steel has been used to complement the architecture of the coal mine, and large mass plantings have softened the landscape.

Design details in the Museum of Silesia

Underground galleries

The building project involved excavating the site to make way for an underground museum, leaving the existing heritage buildings in place above ground. The main galleries are up to 13m below the surface. A series of glass ‘light towers’ allow natural light to permeate the depths. The architects have paid attention to the details, from the etched patterns on the exterior glass to the use of feature windows in the old buildings to frame views of the site.

One floor is dedicated to the Galleries of Polish Art, the Gallery of Silesian Religious Art, and the Gallery of Non-professional Art. The galleries feature the works of many iconic Polish artist.

Carefully positioned spot lighting ensures the works ‘pop’ from the wall in the softly lit rooms.

The displays follow a fairly strictly chronological history. I would be curious to see more mixed displays, such as works depicting the same themes from different eras, or works of different media inspired by the similar ideas.

The permanent exhibitions include some brilliant use of projected films. This large scale diorama of a 1970s apartment block includes projected films visible through some of the windows. Each film depicts life in one apartment.

Working on accessibility

3D reproduction with Braille description for the sight impaired
Multilingual descriptive text with swipe gestures to turn pages

The museum has made a significant effort to be accessible to people with motor and sensory disabilities and to people on the autism spectrum. The ‘Art by Touch’ tour provides touchable 3D replicas of key artworks with Braille descriptions on the replicas.

Careful use of ramps and lifts has ensured that all of the museum is easy to visit. There are plenty of chairs to rest during your visit, a feature often missing in museums.

Signage in the museum is in Polish, German, and Braille. The interactives are bilingual, including one with short historical narratives presented as a digital book with swipes gestures to turn the pages.

Challenges for the future?

Around half of the historic coal mine buildings are yet to be restored. These are fenced off and have had minimal preservation work. Large missing windows have been walled in and missing sections of roofs have temporary covers. Getting the funding and resources to preserve these will be a challenge.

Heritage buildings on the site which are yet to be restored

The permanent social history galleries are complex and probably cannot be easily changed, so these may feel dated in another ten years.

Each ticket has a unique scan code that can be used in the galleries to collect objects you would like to return to online. I found it hard to get back to this information offsite and also had problems searching the online collection.

However, these problems were small within my visit. Overall the museum is an achievement for the region and it is an absorbing experience to learn about Silesia within the historic industrial setting.

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