International outcry at dismissal of prominent Polish museum director

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Museum professionals have reacted with dismay to the news that the respected director, Joanna Wasilewska, has been dismissed from the Asia and Pacific Museum in Warsaw, Poland. Wasilewska was formally notified of her removal on 5 September, with the decision taken by regional politicians in the Masovian Voivodeship, the province centred on the Polish capital.

Strenuously denying the claims made against her, including the suggestion of financial irregularities, Wasilewska argues that her dismissal is part of a political power play ahead of national Parliamentary elections taking place on 15 October, as well as being a “punishment” for having resisted interference from political leaders during her tenure.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Wasilewska says that the “reasons given for my dismissal are mostly weak and some even ridiculous; no serious financial irregularities could be found.” She adds 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.”

Echoing comments by other eminent figures, Guido Gryseels, the honorary director general of Belgium’s Museum for Central Africa, says that Wasilewska’s dismissal is a “shameful move”, adding, “You do not expect this sort of political interference and disrespect for labour laws to happen in an EU member state.”

Wasilewska had been due to take on the role of chair of the European Ethnography Museum Directors’ Group (EEMDG), but her appointment as well as an upcoming meeting for the group in Warsaw can now no longer go ahead.

Nicholas Thomas, the director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, who is currently convenor for the EEMDG, says that “the cultural sector in Poland will have been undermined” by the removal of “an effective museum leader, well-regarded by colleagues across Europe.”

An online petition launched in Poland to defend Wasilewska, signed by over 800 people, is particularly critical of the fact that her removal has been instigated by political parties currently in opposition at a national level. Given that the ruling Law and Justice government has itself been repeatedly accused of overbearing interference in the cultural sector, the petition notes that the case undermines “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 and hoped for substantive cooperation in the fields of science and culture.”

Wasilewska, who has initiated a lawsuit against her dismissal, says that, “It is painful to have to say that my own country is a place where such things are going on—but they do. Despite that, there are still so many wonderful people in the museum sector in Poland, fighting this reality.”

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