The Future of the Past

6 September 2023

The 45th anniversary of Kraków being listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites is the perfect opportunity to look back at how far our city has travelled since 1978. It also allows us to answer the question whether present-day Kraków is as ambitiously self-aware as it was almost half a century ago.

Krzysztof Żwirski

From the ruins
UNESCO was founded in 1946 in a narrow historic context. According to its constitution, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”. Kraków’s coat of arms shows an open gate, showing the city to be an antithesis of the very idea of war. Its sustainable development since ancient times until the present day, enduring traditions surviving even the devastation of the Holocaust and its authenticity, integrity and imposing beauty all comprise the “universal value” which is the main criterion of UNESCO’s list.

Kraków has over 1200 registered historic monuments and around another 7000 listed in myriad other records, while around a quarter of exhibits in all of Poland’s combined museums can be found in our city. But all this is our contemporary knowledge and understanding. Poland’s post-war authorities were shaping their own social reality with Kraków serving as ballast, while the rapid industrialisation led the city to an environmental collapse. The world was being taken by storm by the US-centric ideal of a car-centred city.

According to Prof. Bogusław Krasnowolski, at the time when Kraków was added to UNESCO’s list, “the city was in a sorry state”. Many of us still remember the statues by the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul damaged by acid rain, the near-deserted Kazimierz under an all-too-real threat of demolition, and even the film Nights and Days whose sets featured several tenement houses being burned down especially for effect.

“Kraków wasn’t restored in a day!”*
The story has many protagonists. Collectively, this includes Polish conservators, raised on the ideals of reconstructing Warsaw and perceiving heritage as an endangered public good. In Kraków, all we have to do is to recall the remains of the walls of the Old Town preserved by Feliks Radwański and the Society of Lovers of the History and Monuments of Kraków founded in 1896.

When the UNESCO commission started working on its first list in the 1970s, Poland’s delegation led by Prof. Krzysztof Pawłowski decided to gamble it all. At the summit in Washington DC in 1978, they submitted five applications: Kraków, Wieliczka (industrial heritage), Warsaw (restored heritage), Auschwitz (remembrance site) and Białowieża (natural heritage). Today, all these sites are on UNESCO’s list, but only Kraków and Wieliczka were given the privilege at the time. The inclusion of two Polish sites on the original list of 12 was soon discussed the world over. For Kraków it was of a similar importance as the election of the Polish Pope or the birth of the “Solidarity” trade union.

“We decided that aside from the traditional inclusion of (…) Planty Park and Wawel, we should also include Stradom and Kazimierz. It was a bold move, especially given the state Kazimierz was in at the time, but it’s fair to say that it had a major impact on its later fate”, wrote Prof. Pawłowski. The conservation campaign which followed and the foundation of the Social Committee for the Restoration of Kraków’s Monuments and its listing in the National Fund for the Restoration of Kraków’s Monuments were the result of the bold vision which saw the entire urbanist system as relevant to world heritage.

In spite of the fluid, constantly changing political realities, the committee provided a stable financing system, supplemented by municipal subsidies for the renovation of private tenement houses in the early 21st century. Prof. Jacek Purchla wrote, “While monuments belong to the past, heritage serves contemporary aims.” This is why many of the Social Committee’s original projects have new functions today, such as the Rynek Underground, the Bishop Erazm Ciołek Palace, the former tram depot in Kazimierz and the main building of the Kraków University of Economics. Kraków has changed beyond all recognition.

Changing heritage
Today we know that inclusion on heritage lists can have negative effects, such as a mass influx of tourists attracted by UNESCO’s prestige and depopulation of centres. Yet we also know that heritage is about far more than simply ancient walls; it’s also the concept of the “universal value” and its authenticity bolstered by the presence of local residents.

It is this drive for authenticity which has given rise to the creation of Kraków’s cultural parks bringing order to public space. This was the motivation behind the campaign for the title of UNESCO City of Literature and the creation of a programme of literary circles. This is supported by decentralising cultural events, promotion of places linked with traditions, protection of nonmaterial heritage (of which the Cracovian tradition of making nativity scenes has been listed by UNESCO) and initiatives such as the Małopolska Cultural Heritage Days. Although this is clearly not enough to reverse any negative trends, at least we are taking the first steps.

Robert Piaskowski, Deputy of the Mayor of Kraków for Culture, recently wrote about the “deep awareness of Kraków’s community and the city itself as to the significance of the 1978 listing”. The 45th anniversary coincides with Nowa Huta being officially recognised as a monument to history, following efforts by residents and municipal authorities to acknowledge its difficult yet important 20th-century history.

Works on a plan to manage the world heritage site are also coming to an end. Written by authors including Prof. Jacek Purchla, Prof. Bogusław Szmygin and Dr. Andrzej Siwek, the document aims to bolster the authenticity of the centre from the perspective of revitalising public services, investing in communal spaces and preventing “façade” renovations to supporting traditional professions. This plan is Kraków’s missing link and a new vision of the city’s heritage as a universal value.

All these activities have long been accompanied by Kraków’s presence on the international stage, highlighted by events such as the city hosting the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee (2017) and the 15th World Congress of the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC). This knowledge and experience are here to stay.

In lieu of a conclusion
Not that many people are aware that in the early 1990s, the president of the Social Committee for the Restoration of Kraków’s Monuments was none other than Stanisław Lem. What better symbol of change and continuation in Kraków than this inspired author and futurologist heading a committee promoting heritage! It could be said that the challenges of managing the heritage of present-day Kraków require minds and sensitivities as great as that of the author of Solaris.

Kraków on the 45th anniversary of the UNESCO listing

  • We recently launched the Kraków Heritage Portal on
  • Between June and September, several squares across the city will host the Treasures of Kraków exhibition recalling the circumstances of the original listing
  • Celebrations culminate on 7 and 8 September with the launch of the Europa Nostra Heritage Hub, opening of the exhibition celebrating the Social Committee for the Restoration of Kraków’s Monuments and a special concert
  • The brand-new signs bearing the inscription “Kraków UNESCO World Heritage City” at roads leading into the city replace those welcoming to the “City of Polish Kings”. After all, Kraków’s heritage is about far more than the history of Polish royalty!

*Title of Prof. Franciszek Ziejka’s paper on the 30th anniversary of Kraków’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Krzysztof Żwirski

photo by Kinga Kowalska

Cultural manager with long ties to KBF and the Kraków UNESCO City of Literature programme, as well as co-founder of the programme supporting Kraków’s bookshops. At the Kraków City Office, he focuses on non-material heritage. Author of the essay August (Austeria, 2021).

The text was published in the 2/2023 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.

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