The Museum is a state cultural institution that was established in 1951, whose mission is to protect and to popularise the rich history of salt mining in Poland, which is perceived as a lasting heritage of humanity. The idea of saving the Wieliczka salt mine, a monument of nature and the work of Polish miners, was undertaken by Alfons Długosz, an artist and professor of Wieliczka middle school. His initiative of establishing the Cracow Saltworks Museum obtained approval from the Ministry of Mining and the Ministry of Culture and Art. The collections, which were accumulated over a number of years, allowed for the organisation of an underground museum exhibition in the historical pits on the 3rd level of the mine (at a depth of 135 m). The mine’s management provided the Museum with mining equipment and tools, discovered as a result of penetrative work conducted jointly in the old pits. This enabled the Museum to compile the only collection of former wooden extraction machines in the world, predecessors of steam and electric machines. Apart from this, the Museum was provided with archives and the Saltworks library as well as a precious collection of mining maps.
In 1966, during celebrations of 1,000 years of the Polish state, the exhibition was opened to the general public. It is the largest underground museum in Europe (with a surface area of 7,481 m2). It presents all the aspects of salt making and the mining industry conducted in the Cracow saltworks. The exhibits presented in the historical pits make up a unique mining museum.
The Museum implements its charter tasks by means of collecting, storing, conserving and rendering available cultural goods within the scope of the history of old salt processing and the salt mining industry and the cities of Wieliczka and Bochnia, mining technology, geology of salt deposits, art and ethnography. Apart from the permanent exhibition in the mine, there is also another in the Medieval Saltworks Castle, the historical seat of the mine’s management board. The castle courtyard features the oldest exploratory shaft in Wieliczka (from the middle of the 13th century), a tower from the 14th century and fragments of defence walls from the 14th century.
The subject matter and the framework of research which falls within the range of interest of the Museum’s employees is very extensive and diverse: it encompasses the Miocene (the genesis of salt deposits) and the Neolithic era with respect to archaeological research (beginnings of settlements and salt processing). Within the area of history and material culture, it covers the period from the 13th to the end of the 20th century and refers to the role and the significance of the salt economy in the history of Poland, its impact on the development of the cities of Wieliczka and Bochnia and former and contemporary mining and salt-processing technologies.
The Museum exhibits are divided into the following collections: Geological, Archaeological, Mining Technology, Cartography (primarily mining maps), Art, Ethnography, Archives (documents, manuscripts, Saltworks documentation) and the so-called Special Collection (old photographs, post-cards, diplomas, ceremonial documents). The abovementioned collections, along with a specialist library, detailed scientific and technical documentation of the pits executed in the mines of Wieliczka and Bochnia and a collection of microfilms, make up the complete basis for the conducted research.
The Museum is also involved in publishing (scientific publications, albums, guide-books, catalogues of collections and exhibitions). The results of scientific research have been published since 1965 in a scientific magazine entitled “Studies and Materials on the History of Saltworks in Poland” (Studia i Materiały do Dziejów Żup Solnych w Polsce). The crowning of many years of research are two monographic studies: “History of the Cracow Saltworks” (Dzieje żup krakowskich) (1988) and “Wieliczka: History of the City” (Wieliczka dzieje miasta) (1990).
The Museum’s very complex and extremely costly task is to preserve the mining pits in a safe condition, as well as to maintain the exhibits presented there, which are constantly threatened by the mechanical impact of the rock mass, salinity, differences of temperature and humidity and mould.
The Museum pays particular attention to educational activity. The Museum attempts to bring this unique monument and its significance closer to children and youth by means of exhibitions, workshops, classes, presentations and competitions, as well as outdoor events. Such events, due to the fact of being organised in unusual places (in the Saltworks Castle and its courtyards, as well as underground at a depth of 135 m), make for an unforgettable experience. The promotion of the Museum and its rich educational and cultural offer also occupies an important place.
· December 2, 1951: the Museum commences its operation upon the initiative of artist/ painter Professor Alfons Długosz by rendering the first publicly available exhibition in the Warszawa Chamber of the Wieliczka Salt Mine;
· 1956-61: the Museum becomes a Branch of the State Collection of Art at the Wawel Castle;
· 1958-66: the exhibition is transferred to 14 post-exploitation chambers on the 3rd level of the mine. The renovation and adaptation works were financed by the Ministry of Culture and Art;
· 1961: the Museum becomes a central institution subject to the Ministry of Culture and Art;
· 1963: the first charter, determining the scope and the conditions of operations of the Museum, is approved;
· 1976-1996: the Saltworks Castle (over-ground section of the site) is restored from the funds of the Ministry of Culture and Art;
· from 1996: the entire defensive structure of the Saltworks Castle, i.e. three main buildings (The House Amidst the Salt Mine – Dom Pośród Żupy, The Salt Mine House – Dom Żupny, and the southern wing) are made available to visitors, as well as a defence wall from the end of the 13th century, ruins of a Medieval Saltworks kitchen and a Gothic tower from the 14th century;
· from 1999: an archaeological reserve with the oldest exploratory shaft in Wieliczka from the middle of the 13th century is open to visitors.