A Polish Island in Central London- The Polish Sikorski Institute and Museum and its Archives
At the southern side of Hyde Park, just a couple of steps from the golden Albert Memorial, lies a Polish island in the centre of London. Situated in Princes Garden next to various embassies, the Polish Sikorski Institute and Museum seems to provide instant teleportation to the Eastern European country: If you ring the door bell (or call by phone), it will more often than not be answered in Polish. The house itself is a museum and shrine to Polish General Sikorski and his accomplishments. If you make your way up the beautiful staircase to the top floor, a tiny reading room gives you access to a large world of history. Since 1946, the house hosts a museum to, and the archives of, significant parts of Anglo-Polish history. Until today, their collection encompasses many essential documents that are available neither available in The National Archives in Kew nor in their Polish Counterpart, the Archiwum Akt Nowych/Archives of Modern Documents in Warsaw. Why does this small, unofficial archive host so many documents and what is its history?
After Sikorski’s tragic death in an airplane crash in 1943, his private papers had been gathered by his widow, Helena Sikorska. Most of official documents remained with the Polish government in exile, which he had presided as its Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces. In late June/early July 1945, the Allies withdrew their recognition of the Polish exile government, and accepted the Soviet-backed communist government as the new government of Poland. The papers of the exile government had been turned over to an Interim Treasury Committee for Polish Affairs (ITC) to wind up the work in London and transfer papers to Warsaw. The Polish exile government remaining in London, however, had to hand over their headquarters in Portland Place to the Embassy of the new Government and move to 43 Eaton Square, formerly the private residence of the Polish president in exile. This new location, however, did neither offer the required space nor enough opportunity to commemorate and advertise the Polish struggle.
Thus, on May 2nd 1945, Helena Sikorska and an organising committee agreed to found the General Sikorski Historical Institute to provide home and access to the late Sikorski’s papers and memorabilia. Even though the Institute was close to the exile government still resident in London, it was legally organised as Trust and founded with official political connections by either the President of Poland or the Polish exile government, to maintain its independence. The aim was to avoid influence or pressure from the British Government or the communist regime in Warsaw. In 1946, number 20 Princes Gate was purchased to house the collections, allegedly for a mere £13.000. In 1965, a fusion of the General Sikorski Historical Institute and the Polish Research Centre (established in London in 1939) formed The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum. Over the following years, the collections were significantly extended, gathering more and more private papers and stocks of documents.
Today, the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum (PISM) home to the Sikorski Museum, the reference library, and the archives, which include a film archive, a sound archive and a photographic archive.
The PISM provides collections essential to Anglo-Polish history, in particular, but not exclusive to, the period of the Polish government in exile in London. And no need to be shy about visiting the Polish island: it’s friendly staff is, of course, completely bilingual.
More information on the institute and its archives may be found here: http://www.pism.co.uk/