THE FADING CULTURAL LANDSCAPE OF EASTERN EUROPE IN HISTORICAL PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLECTIONS. REPATRIATING A EUROPEAN HERITAGE WITH THE MEAN OF DIGITALIZATION

Gallery - East Prussia
Gallery – East Prussia

The Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences holds a large collection of historic survey photography of the region placed between the territories of two EU member states (Poland and Lithuania) and the bordering countries of Belarus and Ukraine, called within the Polish historiographic tradition  ‘the Eastern Borderlands.’ This is a mosaic of small, often vestigial collections from the turn of the 19th century up to the outbreak of the Second World War, once belonging to various institutions, societies, amateur photographers etc. Dominated by architectural and artistic heritage, it includes folk art, ethnography and landscape. Alongside the predominant Polish surveys there are also German, Lithuanian or Jewish ones. Among the most capturing we should name several surveys of Jewish synagogues from the turn of the 20th century in the Pale of Settlement (the Western provinces of the Russian Empire where permanent residency for Jews was allowed) and in Galicia, the late 19th century survey of Protestant churches in East Prussia (a region in the north-eastern territories of present-day Poland, Lithuania and the Kaliningrad Oblast), the pre-World War II documentation of wooden Greek and Orthodox churches in the south-eastern regions of the former Second Polish Republic, a captivating ethnographic documentation of Polesia (a historical and  geographical region within the territories of present-day Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia), as well as pieces from a much larger photographic World War I documentation of bells in Galicia.

Gallery -Polishchuk region
Gallery -Polishchuk region

The complex history of these Borderlands has been characterized by their permanent peripheral (topographical, cultural, political) position from the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth through the era of the great 19th century European empires up to the present EU-centric perspective. It was also marked by strong and often dramatic political uphevals, in particular by the theatres of the two world wars: destruction, killing, massive population movements. Over  time these lands were inhabited by an intermixed mosaic of nations and peoples: Catholics, Jews, Russian, Greek Orthodoxs, Protestants, Muslims, Poles, Russians, Germans, Lithuanians, Belarussians, Lemkos, Huculs or Polishchuks. The cultural landscape was rural and provincial and one of its main features was wooden architecture. Timber was used not only for the most common rural buildings, but also as the material of the main edifices in the village: the warehouse, the town hall, the synagogue or the church. By its very definition, such buildings were fragile, prone to damage, fires and deterioration. Arguably, long before the ravages of the First World War they constituted an endangered and fading heritage. Thus, the history of many among the provincial churches and synagogues within these territories are marked by destruction and restoration. Even today, the few preserved examples of such architecture are seriously endangered. Like the Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God in Komańcza, which belonged to the small group of wooden Greek Orthodox Lemko churches to survive not only both world wars but also the demolitions following the 1947 forced resettlement of  Ukrainians, Lemkos and other ethnic minorities from the south-eastern provinces of Poland to the so-called Regained Lands in the west of the country. Rebuild for the first time after a fire in 1802 it was to burn again to the ground in 2006.

Gallery -Wooden synagogues
Gallery -Wooden synagogues

The fragile and fading nature of the wooden architectural landscape of this region had been recognized already in the second half of the 19th century with the emergence of the regional, national, scientific cultural movements and initiatives aimed at the discovery, description and protection of this peculiar cultural landscape. Among the main actors involved in these movements we  find artists, architects and skilled amateur enthusiasts. Not surprisingly one of the main tools of such projects was the visual survey: drawn, painted and photographic. The synagogues, churches and the most peculiar examples of architecture were captured in plans, projections and photographs. While the drawings and watercolours were rather of a technical and strictly documentary character, the photographs often equally captured  the building’s cultural context: the village, the landscape, and the people. Their authors were amateur photographers, who aimed not only at a valuable and exact survey documentation but also at high quality pictorial photographs. Such photographic surveys dispersed amongst numerous European, Russian, American, Jewish collections in museums, libraries, scientific societies, foundations, and private collections constitute today the main and most capturing testimony to a bygone cultural landscape. This refers in particular to the surveys from the turn of the 20th century and from the time of the First World War, imprinted with a strong feeling of discovery and a peculiar understanding of cultural heritage, in which the ethnographic, artistic and landscape context interpenetrate. With their black and white or sepia tone they present a colourless, filtered view detached from the contemporary reality. Such surveys are usually small: the documentation of the synagogues in Galicia executed in the first decade of the 20th century for a Polish scientific society in Cracow, for example, numbers just over a dozen  pictures. Most of such surveys have survived only partially and are today dispersed amongst  various collections in different countries, many of them are still not widely known, unpublished or even await  discovery.

Wood is not the only example of the caducity of the cultural landscape of these lands. Bells are another one. Cast out of bronze and safely mounted on high towers they could not escape the ravages of war. In particular, during the First World War they were  removed en masse by all of the belligerent parties as a prime material for weapons. Transported in chaos, stored in distant places, in many cases they have never returned to their places of origin. The exceptional war time surveys of bells consisting of measurements, descriptions, drawings, tracings, plaster-casts and photography are today the only material traces of this bygone material and sound heritage. Photography, again is the most telling evidence of its importance and dramatic fate. The pictures capture not only the bells themselves, but the acts of their removal and destruction, the endless “bell fields,” and the difficult work of the surveyors. Photography was also an irreplaceable witness of the peoples and communities once inhabiting these lands be it in the ethnographic type genre or  ethnographic surveys.

Gallery -WWI bell documentation
Gallery -WWI bell documentation

This classification of cultural heritage into single categories – wooden architecture, bells, ethnography, Jewish, Greek Catholic, Polishchuk etc. – springs from the surveys themselves. The photographic collections here under consideration are always inscribed into a given national and ethnic cultural context. Arguably, the Polish World War One surveyors were interested only in Polish Catholic bells, leaving aside on the “bell fields” the Greek and Orthodox. Similarly, the most famous survey of this region conducted in  the years 1912–1914 by the Jewish intellectual Anski, focused only on Jewish cultural heritage. Even the German World War One surveyors on the Eastern Front, who captured every aspect of the surrounding cultural heritage, ordered their collections according to national and ethnic categories. Importantly, all these photographic surveys are firmly grounded within the same cultural, academic and visual premises. Arguably, even if they present a given national or ethnic vision, by putting them together we may attempt the reconstruction of a complex bygone transnational cultural space.

The aim of this project is to conisder  photography as a source and digitalization as a means of recovering and re-enacting this fading European cultural heritage. Our project shares its aims with the Europeana, the EU’s largest initiative in which cultural heritage is made accessible through digitalisation. However, the Institute’s small collections as such and the provincial heritage cultural landscape which they reflect, hardly qualify for inclusion within this European project. The Europeana Library takes as the main requirement the planned number of digitalized objects and is based on general premises, which filter cultural heritage through the contemporary national lens of the single member states on the one hand and attach particular importance to “national treasures” on the other. Thus, our project is rather inspired by current trends in the research of colonial photography. In particular we would like to follow the premises of the Australian Research Council founded project Globalization, Photography and Race: the Circulation and Return of Aboriginal Photographs in Europe. One of the major aims of this project, conducted in collaboration with several Australian and European museums and the indigenous communities themselves, is the repatriation of historic colonial photographs from the European collections to their subjects’ descendants. Thus, the project aims at creating a meaningful and living indigenous heritage resource. Digitalization is the key tool of the project. As the museums involved retain the ownership of photographs the process of repatriation consists in their revaluation on the one hand and in their on-line access on the other. Accordingly, colonial photography collections are searchable on the Indigenous Photography Portal following criteria elaborated on in conjunction with the communities and this new perspective is explained in short essays, case studies, and descriptions of the project’s outcomes.

Gallery -Wooden churches
Gallery -Wooden churches

A similar process of restitution through re-contextualisation and digital access is a way of giving value and meaning to the Institute of Art’s photographic collections in the contemporary world. However, the ascertainment of the descendas is a complex and emboiled process. First, is it the heritage of the present-day inhabitants of these lands? Second, does it belong to the heirs of the ethnic, religious or national communities, the creators of such a heritage? Third, we must also take into consideration their creators and commissioners. Forth, in what way may this heritage  fit into the contemporary cultural space defined within the framework of the EU and the Eastern Partnership? Importantly, given the Western geographical and cultural context the category of “Otherness” is certainly not as sharp and central as in the case of colonial photography. Moreover, these collections, in most cases, focus not on the communities themselves but on their material culture and refer to a large number of national, ethnic and social groups both in the past and in the present.

This project will consist of six on-line exhibitions. We would like to present separately each of the Institute’s thematic collections – the Jewish wooden synagogues, the wooden Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches, East Prussia’s Protestant heritage, the WWI bell documentation and the Polishchuk region survey. Our exhibitions will serve as a starting point for  discussion on the issues of repatriation of, recovering and giving contemporary value to such a cultural heritage. We would like to involve in the project all possible descendants. Thus, we will contact carefully chosen EU, state and regional cultural and educational institutions, religious societies, museums, academic institutes and NGOs as well as our visitors, who will have a chance to live out their comments on-line. The last exhibition, in which we will try to connect and interpose the five collections, will be constructed according to the principles elaborated during these discussions and consultations.

Galleries coverage area
Galleries coverage area