Robert Kostro: The Polish History Museum is unique on a European scale

An interview with Robert Kostro, Director of the Polish History Museum

A movie theatre, concert hall, conference rooms – all this in the vicinity of exhibitions presenting exhibits that are unique to Poland and sometimes even globally. The Polish History Museum boasts one of the largest and most modern museum buildings in Europe. Robert Kostro, its director, talks about the museum’s unusual approach to telling history and its plans for development.


polishhistory: The grand opening of the new Polish History Museum building took place several months ago. What are your impressions after the first months of work at the new headquarters?

Robert Kostro: Mostly positive, we are very happy that we can finally use the full potential of our team, we are able to organise exhibitions, create various organisational projects, and develop cultural activities. And that we finally have somewhere to receive our guests. We have our own home.

Signing a letter of intent for the building of Polish History Museum, 21 July 2015 (photo:

There appears to be no shortage in visitors – the Polish History Museum reports that, in its first months of operation, it welcomed nearly 100,000 people. Is that a lot or a little?

A lot, but certainly not the maximum we can afford. We are constantly expanding the museum’s offer and creating new projects. We expect the number of visitors to our museum to increase significantly after the opening of the permanent exhibition.

This is still two years away – the official inauguration of the permanent exposition is planned for spring of 2026. Some critics say that the PHM is basically a ‘museum without a museum’. Is there any point in opening a museum that does not yet have a permanent exhibition?

Of course there is. Sure, we would also prefer to ceremonially open the new museum building and immediately present the permanent exhibition to our visitors – that would be the ideal situation. But the installation of an exhibition usually takes many months after the building is completed – and this is not only specific to us. Many museums, especially large ones, start out without a permanent exhibition. This is the strategy adopted, for example, by the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, or the Slovak National Gallery Bratislava. They, too, first inaugurated their activities and later created or expanded their permanent exhibitions. So we are no exception in this respect.

Besides, the lack of a permanent exhibition does not mean that nothing is happening in our museum – quite the contrary.

Robert Kostro, Director of the Polish History Museum (PAP/A. Lange)

What does this mean? What has happened at the Polish History Museum since the opening of its new premises in late September 2023?

A great deal. It is worth starting with the inaugural exhibition entitled Big and Small Stories. It showcased nearly 500 of over 60,000 objects that we have in our collections – it was a foretaste of what would go into the permanent exhibition, but under a completely different guise. The idea was to exhibit the work of museum professionals in building up the institution’s collection. We made available a variety of objects – received as donations, purchased or acquired through cooperation with archaeologists, or as part of the recovery of heritage that Poland lost due to the Second World War. Works of art and craftsmanship, artefacts of key importance to our country, as well as objects of everyday use – we have tried to present the widest possible range of exhibits.

The second exhibition is much more modest, but also extremely interesting. Between April and June of this year, it shows unique architectural fragments of the Villa Regia palace, built between 1637 and 1641 during the reign of King Władysław IV. The building was destroyed and plundered during the Swedish Deluge (1655–1660) – Swedes plundered it at that time, taking what was most valuable. As fate would have it, they did not manage to steal everything – some of the boats bearing the loot sank in the Vistula, through which the invaders transported the stolen treasures northwards. Several years ago, archaeologists managed to unearth fragments of the stone façade – these make it possible to reconstruct the palace’s former appearance. Its reconstruction will become a component of our permanent exhibition.

Robert Kostro (photo:

It would be tempting to use the palace as a pretext for a story about the Old Polish Commonwealth…

Exactly. That is why, in addition to those fragments of the palace recovered thanks to the work of archaeologists, we have also presented many other unique exhibits from our numismatic collection – including the gold coin belonging to King Sigismund III Vasa with the face value of 50 ducats. This is among the largest and rarest coins not only in Poland, but also in the world. It is one of the signs of the magnificence of the then Polish-Lithuanian state.

It is no coincidence that there were many representatives of the youngest generation among the first visitors to our new exhibition. We have a very well-developed cooperation with schools, and we have been carrying out cyclical educational projects for years, such as the Independence Station. We used to organise such events at various locations around the Polish capital, but today we can do so at our headquarters at the Warsaw Citadel. Another example of our diverse activities was a concert of film music, organised as part of the celebrations marking the 160th anniversary of the January Uprising.

A concert at a museum? At first glance, this is a rather unusual idea.

Over the past 20 years, the role of museums has changed considerably – from purely exhibition-based institutions, they have largely become centres of cultural life. Many museums perform this function in the ordinary course of business, in a museum setting. We have taken a different approach, we have decided to combine this. We have a hall that is designed to be used for both conferences and concerts. We also have a cinema and theatre hall.

Director Robert Kostro during the inauguration of a new building of Polish History Museum (photo: M. Cioch / MHP)

So there is also room in the museum for a cinema and theatre?

We want to expand the possibilities offered by the exhibition activities, to go beyond the usual ways of telling history. Cooperation with theatres is very important to us, especially with the Polish Classics Theatre – many of the plays naturally refer to history; are some form of interpreting it. However, we are also aware of the enormous influence that film has on the perception of history. Many interesting historical productions have been made recently. Not all of them depict the past strictly according to the historical truth, but they often present some interesting interpretation of the past. It is worth supplementing them with a commentary, a context. By organising film screenings, supplemented by discussions with filmmakers, historians and film experts, we are trying not only to reach a wider audience with history, but also to teach a critical approach to it and to different historical narratives.

So a combination of history and education with pop culture.

Not only with pop culture, because we also have theatre performances and classical music concerts by the excellent Sinfonia Iuventus orchestra made up of talented young people. This was the idea from the beginning. A modern museum has to reach out to the people and we are trying to do that. We want to create a place where we show history, but also reflect on it more broadly, including in the context of the present.

Director Robert Kostro and President Andrzej Duda during the inauguration of a new building of Polish History Museum (photo: M. Cioch / MHP)

In addition to its cultural and educational functions, the museum can also be a commercial building. The website features a declaration that it wants to become an ‘important centre of social life in Warsaw, open to visitors from all over Poland and the world’. Is there really interest in renting space at the museum?

Yes, and quite a lot of it. Due to its high functionality and modern architectural design, the museum building is particularly attractive to external contractors. We are being approached with requests for quotes by many institutions – both public and private, from Poland and abroad. We recently hosted King Frederik of Denmark, who was here on his first trip abroad following his enthronement. The occasion was a major business meeting organised by the Danish Embassy in Poland. Among others, the BBC, Vogue, YouTube, Huawei and many others have benefited from renting space at the Polish History Museum.

In addition to the functionality of these solutions, it is not without significance that the museum building is one of the largest and most modern of its kind in the whole of Europe. It is simply an architectural gem. The building has, in fact, been nominated by a jury of several architectural competitions, including the Polityka weekly competition and the competition for the Warsaw Mayor’s Award.

Why should foreign tourists visit the Polish History Museum?

Firstly, because we present very interesting exhibitions, where you can find absolutely unique exhibits, important for the history of Poland and beyond. Secondly, as I have already mentioned, it is an extremely interesting place aesthetically; a perfect example of modern Polish architecture.

Thirdly, the museum has a great observation deck, from which you can admire the panorama of the whole of Warsaw. Finally, the museum’s very surroundings are worth noting – friendly and full of greenery. There are other important facilities nearby – the recently opened Polish Army Museum, as well as the Museum of the Tenth Pavilion of the Warsaw Citadel and the Katyn Museum. Together they form one of the largest and most modern museum complexes in Europe. It is an attraction not only for the Polish capital, but also for the entire region.

The building of the Polish History Museum (photo: M. Cioch / MHP)

We have talked about the exhibition devoted to the Villa Regia palace. It can be viewed until June 2024. What next?

We are just in the process of mounting another exhibition. It will show how Polish history has been told from the Middle Ages to the present day. One sometimes gets the misconception from school that history is a closed pool of facts and interpretations. This is not entirely true, history changes – not because facts change, but because in each era we are interested in something different, and we have different tools for telling the story.

In the Middle Ages, history was told by chroniclers; in subsequent eras, paintings and sculptures became the carriers of history; later, historical novels and films. In our exhibition, we will take a look at how the history of Poland has been presented during different epochs. We invite you to view it from 13 June 2024.


Interviewer: Michał Przeperski
Translation: Mikołaj Sekrecki