The National Museum in Krakow was established by a resolution of the Krakow City Council on 7 October 1879, as the first national museum institution at a time when the Polish people were deprived of their own statehood and country, which had been appropriated by the partitioning powers.
Until the end of World War I it was the only such large museum accessible to the public in the Polish lands, and to this day remains the institution with the largest numbers of collections, buildings and permanent exhibitions.
The collection of the National Museum in Krakow was begun with Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradzki’s painting presented to the city of Krakow by the artist himself on 5 October 1879 with the intention of creating a gallery of national art in the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall). The following day (6 October 1879), 39 artists attending the celebration of Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s 50 years of work as an author gathered in Konrad Wentzl’s townhouse at the Main Market Square and promised donations of their works to form the initial collection of the newly formed museum. The artists’ example was soon emulated by private individuals, who began to send donations to the museum in the Sukiennice.
Just how strong the need to create such an institution was is exemplified by the fact that, soon after the opening of the first museum exhibition in September 1883, the volume of donations grew exponentially: not only single objects but whole collections were donated.
From the outset, the museum gathered works by contemporary and historic Polish artists from wherever they had lived and worked. The items collected included national mementoes and objects connected with individuals recognized for their services to the country, or otherwise relevant to national history and culture, including art prints, manuscripts, old prints, numismatics, decorative art objects, and militaria. As far as possible, examples of foreign art, including Far Eastern art, were collected as well.
The turn of the new twentieth century coincided with a change of director at the National Museum. Following the unexpected death of Professor Władysław Łuszczkiewicz (23 May 1900), the Committee of the National Museum announced a competition, which selected Dr Feliks Kopera, until then the director of Count Emeryk Hutten-Czapski’s Museum in Krakow, and his appointment followed on 25 April 1901. In the same period the museum doubled its floorspace, after the Friends of the Arts Society vacated the other wing of the Sukiennice. Following renovation work, an entirely new, considerably larger modern exhibition was arranged which, in addition to showing artworks chronologically and thematically, also included archaeological and ethnographic objects. The collecting of the latter was discontinued soon thereafter due to shortage of space and in light of the rise of institutions specializing in these areas.
Already by the first years of the twentieth century, the museum had run out of space to store and display its collections (which had by then grown to over 100,000 items). The management of the museum initiated efforts to obtain one of the buildings on Wawel Hill, but this came to nothing; the situation changed when Poland regained her independence. Soon plans began to be made to build a new home for the museum, called the New Museum Building.
In 1934 the construction of the New Building began, based on a design hailed as one of the most modern museum projects in Europe. Regrettably, the outbreak of World War II prevented its completion, and the building was used in its unfinished form till 1970. Its extension was resumed the following year but was not completed until 1990.
On 1 January 1951 the National Museum in Krakow subsumed the Princes Czartoryski Museum as a branch, together with its library and archive (the oldest private museum, opened to the public back in 1801 in Puławy, transferred to Paris after the fall of the November Uprising in the 1860s, and brought to Krakow in 1876). The National Museum has managed the collections and buildings of the Princes Czartoryski Museum ever since, despite the fact that in 1991 they became the property of the foundation incorporated by the heir and representative of the Czartoryski family, Adam Karol Czartoryski.