Cultural heritage as a source of inspiration for the creative sector – a panel discussion summary

by Marcin Niewęgłowski


The “Patterns of Europe” conference was closed by a panel discussion on cultural heritage as a source of inspiration for the creative sector. The panellists were: Magdalena Zych of the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków; and Agnieszka Czop and Joanna Rusin–designers in the Dywilan JSC carpet factory in Łódź and the creators of the “Alternative Carpet” project. The discussion was inspired by the opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee, according to which crafts can play a key role in the development of regional creative industries.

In search of good practices – the activity of the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków

Magdalena Zych talked about folk art and its applications in business. In her view, we should start by defining what should remain national heritage (the profane) and what should be classified as a relic (the sacred) in the sphere of art. With no such boundary it would be difficult to tell inspiration from theft. While relics posses a type of immunity, national heritage is a common good and should be equally available for everyone. Zych cited the words of Jacek Purchla–the director of the International Cultural Centre in Krakow. In his view, heritage should serve as a tool which can be used to recover memory and to formulate questions about values. Tradition should not be associated with something empty and frozen. That is why it should be separated from relics.

Efforts to discover, promote and draw inspiration from regional folk tradition have been made for some years in the Małopolska region. The Ethnographic Museum in Kraków has played a significant part in this process, and it could even be called its operator. Magdalena Zych talked about “experimental work on heritage,” which begun in 2009 when the museum started an interdisciplinary cooperation with custodians, creators, designers and viewers. The “Etnodizajn festival” was organised to explore the over 100 years old relations between ethnography and design. The festival comprised of a series of exhibitions, outdoor actions, fairs and conferences and aimed at creating an educational space and an occasion for discussion. To ensure this, it was necessary for all the involved parties – the viewers, creators, designers and custodians – to participate. All the groups introduced a new element into the discussion and brought the process to a successful completion. The custodians offered knowledge, the designers offered talent and technical sense, while the creators shared their experience. And it was the role of the viewers to assess the results and decide whether they answered their needs.

There have been two editions of “Etnodizajn.” One of its results was the a pattern book of the Małopolska region (with 800 entries on local folk art: The collection makes it possible for designers to explore regional inspirations and, if a particular pattern seems interesting, to contact a custodian and learn more about it and the ways it can be used. The festival also managed to gather actual examples of original, tradition-inspired products. During the 2010 edition, a project of creating tutki (straws made of rolled paper, which were later used to make paper wicker items) was organised by Katarzyna Herman-Janiec, who uses them to create unique furniture and boxes that are inspired by folklore and crafts from the Kraków region.

Magdalena Zych admitted that apart from popularizing regional heritage, the museum strives to introduce folk traditions into public spaces. The museum managed to build a merry-go-round with XXL-sized toys with the support of the citizen budget. The interactive installation was one of the main showpieces of the 2010 “Etnodizajn festival,” and was created to demonstrate what public spaces would look like if they implemented ethno-inspired solutions. The merry-go-round was also educational, as it taught how to understand regional tradition and to respect the traditional techniques of painting, cutting, weaving and woodcarving.

The representative of the Ethnographic Museum emphasized that if we want people to explore the power of their regional heritage, we must first inform them about its potential and prepare them for its reception. She gave the example of the music video for the song “My Słowianie” [“We, the Slavs”] by Donatan and Cleo, where these elements were absent. Folk art was used in an instrumental manner, i.e., as a sexual attribute of Polish women. It is worth adding that the question of lack of respect for folk art was a recurring theme in all the panel discussions of the “Patterns of Europe” conference.

According to Magdalena Zych, the efforts of the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków are not isolated. Many ethnographic museums in Poland and worldwide evolve and seek new ideas. They face various challenges and have to ask numerous important questions. One of these questions is the issue of managing their historical collections and putting them to good use (as relicts or as conduits for exploring knowledge).

It is certain that many museums will try to follow the footsteps of the Kraków museum and draw inspiration from its efforts in the Małopolska region. The „Uwolnić Projekt” [“Free the Project”] initiative ( is one of the indications of such trend. It is an interdisciplinary project organised by the Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw and the „Z Siedzibą w Warszawie” [“Located in Warsaw”] association. Many designers, craftsmen, ethnologists and custodians engaged in the initiative, and it resulted in the creation of various items that were made by teams of designers and craftsmen. The projects were later distributed online under the Creative Commons license. The Ethnographical Museum in Kraków organised a similar projects even earlier. According to Magdalena Zych, the growing popularity of regional traditions will cause the revival of crafts, and various craft specializations will be treated as modern occupations, and not as vanishing professions. Especially taking under consideration the fact that folk art is currently in the centre of attention of creators and designers, e.g., from Denmark. Moreover, ethnography itself can serve as a perfect tool for market assessment.

Will the Kraków Ethnographic Museum continue to explore the regional traditions and popularize them among various circles in the future? According to Zych, the museum is currently working on a regional “layette” for first-graders. She also admitted that most of their efforts in this sphere were funded by the EU. That is why the European funding policy in the years 2014-2020 will determine the scope of the museum’s actions.

Can folk art and ethnodesing become the intelligent specialisation of the Małopolska region? According to the panellists, the first step should be building identity, regardless of the consultations that are currently carried out by the Marshal’s Office.

Industry and tradition – the experiences of Łódź

Joanna Rusin and Agnieszka Czop introduced the topic of folk art and design as a potential added value for the traditional industry. The designers work in the Dywilan carpet factory and design new products basing on folk elements, such as wool felt, paper cut patterns, lace and embroidery. They create dozens of new carpet designs every year. Folk elements constitute one of their sources of inspiration and, as they call it, an “adventure” – especially in the sphere of shapes and colours. Agnieszka Czop notes that introducing folk-inspired products to the market may yield various results. Many factors may be involved in such cases (e.g. bad advertising, unsuitable target group). Existing products can also gain new functionalities due to folk elements. The designers mentioned the example of a carpet that was created for children and could serve as a toy and a puzzle. It might be concluded that folk inspirations make Dywilan more competitive and cause the design department to become an important part of the company. However, right now the producer does not see a reason to introduce a 100% folk inspired line. These typed of products are still somewhat abstract for the company.

Czop and Rusin also mentioned the problems connected to the cooperation of the industry and universities. They believe that there is a lot of work available for designers, but the potential is wasted due to the lack of effective, two-way communication. The Łódź-based designers also talked about local difficulties. They are pleased that their city, which is often perceived as the centre of creative industries, has embarked on this particular path. However, they can see some barriers. These are, for example, the lack of a particular place where one could find information on the possibilities and ways of employing certain patterns. Rusin believes that Łódź should have an institution such as the Łódź Film Commission, which would deal specifically with design.

Agnieszka Czop believes that in the age of simplification, people seek identity and roots. That is why investigating local traditions and constructing economic advantage on them might be a good solution. Especially when it comes to the Polish tradition of design which used to be compared to Finnish design.

“Patterns of Europe” – viewers’ summary

The remarks and conclusions made by the audience were also an important element of the panel.
Many viewers referred to previous panel discussions. First of all, they pointed to the lack of comprehensive, systemic solutions. Secondly, they drew attention to laws and taxes that halt the development of folk art. An idea of “occasional sales” emerged. Thirdly, it was noted that the lack of trained, competent people also constitutes a problem. The example of the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków and its form of management was appreciated by the audience. However, according to many of the viewers, it constitutes an exception in Poland. Nonetheless, it proves that a museum can serve as a platform for interdisciplinary efforts. Fourthly, an idea of a union emerged – it would gather craftsmen and artists, propagate legal knowledge and allow the creators to act effectively and independently. What is more, it was suggested that the image and perception of folk art should be transformed through planned and long-term efforts. The audience also mentioned the potential that folk art is typified by with regard to rural tourism. It would require perceiving the subject in a broader perspective, without limiting oneself to, e.g., regional food.

We are currently experiencing a revival of vocational schools. Personally, I believe that it will lead to a development in the sphere of crafts professions. And even if municipal, regional or central authorities do not notice this trend in time, exterior influence will probably make them see it. That is exactly what is happening to outsourcing. For many years now major Polish cities (Warsaw included) have blindly believed that attracting foreign investors will fix the problem of unemployment. However, factories and call centres, brought to Poland because of low labour costs, are not the solution. Many economists believe that the capabilities of attracting investors to the country with cheaper labour are nearing its limits. Poland can no longer be the Bangladesh of Europe. As the concept of reindustrialisation (the return of industry to the continent) gains more importance, more emphasis is put on creating valuable work places.

Ten years ago no one was aware of the enormous and rich tradition of local design that was thriving during the time of the Polish People’s Republic. Nowadays, no one questions its accomplishments. There has been a change in quality, and many young designers seek inspiration in that tradition of design. New creative brands emerge–not only in the clothing industry, but also in the fields of service design or technology-based products, such as 3D printing or wearable technology. That is why the shift in the perception of folk art is a long-term process that, according to Ewa Gołębiowska of the Cieszyn Castle, has to include repeatable elements. Anticipated effects can only be achieved through actions that build long-lasting relations. The research sphere is also important.

The panel guests admitted that the organisation of events such as the “Patterns of Europe” is vital to the process of achieving these goals. The organisers also managed to point to a number of spheres that fuse design and folk art. These include, for example, the promotional gadgets of cities and regions, which receive substantial funds every year. They can become a platform for cooperation between designers and craftsmen. Creating an institution that would support such endeavours would also be a good idea. It ought to offer counselling, coaching and mentoring and take lobbing actions (via education efforts). Such an organisation would change the perception of folk culture and demythologise ethnodesign.


Translated by Beata Marczyńska-Fedorowicz