The Ouster of a Warsaw Museum Director Has Incited Outcry Among Culture Workers Who Say the Move Was Politically Motivated

Joanna Wasilewska's abrupt removal is sparking speculation.

Joanna Wasilewska. Photo courtesy of Asia and Pacific Museum in Warsaw, Poland.

Speculation is rife after museum director Joanna Wasilewska was abruptly dismissed from the Asia and Pacific Museum in Warsaw after 10 years in the role. With a general election set to take place on October 15, it is widely believed that the decision may have been politically motivated.

Local politicians governing the Masovian Voivodeship, a region of Poland that includes the city of Warsaw, removed Wasilewska on September 5. She was quick to express her shock and anger at the decision during a press conference held the next morning, and has since announced her intention to take legal action.

The reason for the termination, according to Wasilewska, was “financial irregularities” at the museum.

“[The] reasons given for my dismissal are mostly weak and some even ridiculous,” she told The Art Newspaper. Offering a possible alternative motivation, she added that “for a couple of years I opposed interference in the museum’s internal affairs, such as the appointment of deputy directors against my choices and without competence for the position.”

An open letter signed by more than 850 international colleagues blames the marhsal of the administrative region, known as a voivoideship, Adam Struzik, of the Polish People’s Party (PSL), along with other local officials as responsible for ousting Wasilewska. The PSL is a center-right opposition party that aims to topple the right-wing populist party Law and Justice next month. Since it came to power in 2015, Poland’s art institutions have increasingly become vehicles for cultural reform, a situation that many hope would improve under new leadership.

“Such actions unequivocally undermine our trust in the promises and declarations of the opposition parties, from whom we have expected to cease the attacks on experts, scholars and cultural professionals,” the letter said.

Wasilewska is a member of the management board of the International Council of Museums in Poland (ICOM Polska), which has also spoken out against the dismissal. It issued a statement explaining that it was consulted before the decision was made and, after reviewing the evidence, advised against removing Wasilewska.

“In the opinion of ICOM, the Asia and Pacific Museum has undergone changes under the leadership of Wasilewska that should be assessed as definitely positive,” the statement said, detailing how she raised the museum’s public profile, oversaw the installation of its first major permanent exhibition, and substantially grew its audience. “Once again we are witnessing the shameful practice of appropriating public space by party coteries.” It added that this was “all the more painful because it comes from an environment that calls itself a ‘democratic opposition.'”

Struzik did not respond to a request for comment.

The decision was apparently made after the voivoideship flagged some issues during a routine inspection of the museum’s operations at the end of last year.

One was whether the museum is suitably prepared to cover its maintenance and operating costs, according to Radio Kolor. Wasilewska has countered this accusation by stating that the budget is the responsibility of the deputy director who has, since 2018, been appointed by the voivodeship. These deputies often lacked experience but, when they underperformed, Wasilewska was not able to dismiss them without the voivodeship’s consent.

Another charge is that rent of PLN 150,000 ($34,600) is owed. Wasilewska has said that this is due to a carelessly written contract that arose when a property developer donated land to the museum in exchange for building apartments nearby. The plot ended up in a housing community, to which the museum has since been paying PLN 300,000 in rent every year ($69,000).

Wasilewska told Artnet News that there was “virtually no allegation against strictly museological work.” Any serious financial issues, she added, should have been handled by a judiciary procedure. “None was started against me after [the inspection] nor indicated in the dismissal document.”

Wasilewska has apparently been replaced by Józef Zalewski, an ethnographer by profession as well as a former local government politician and colleague of Struzik’s from the PSL. At one time he was mayor of Piaseczno near Warsaw and later an advisor to the PO-PSL government before marshal Struzik appointed him as deputy director of the Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw.

An art historian, curator, and lecturer, Wasilewska has been director of the Asia and Pacific Museum since 2013. Since 2007, she has participated in the Asia-Europe Museum Network and, since 2008, the European Ethnology Museum Directors Group, where she was shortly due to become chair before her dismissal made this impossible.

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