4) Příbram’s Mining Museum - where staring into the abyss has a silver lining

Příbram Mining Museum

Příbram’s Mining Museum showcases the history of mining in the Czech lands from the days of the Celts up until the Cold War. The museum’s rich collections impress seekers and technology buffs alike. They also tell a wider story about the mineral resources which played an integral part in shaping the region’s economy and culture.  

The Czech towns best known for their mining traditions are Kutná Hora and Jáchymov. Příbram, which lies about 60 kilometres southwest of Prague, is often overlooked. But the town’s mines were for centuries a significant source of silver and other valuable metals not just for Czechia, but for the whole of Central Europe. Today, that tradition is chronicled by Příbram’s Mining Museum, which is housed in the old mineshafts and buildings in the Březové Hory section of Příbram, formerly an independent settlement and silver-mining hub. The museum’s director, Josef Velfl, told Radio Prague International about the deep historical roots of the town’s mining industry.

Josef Velfl | Photo: Romana Marksová,  Radio Prague International

“The area around Příbram is one of the most significant regions of Czechia when it comes to the extraction and processing of mineral resources. And it has been this way since prehistory. As part of our exhibition, we have archaeological findings from the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ. They come from the phase of the Celt colonization of Příbram and its surroundings, during which the Celts were able to dig up certain non-ferrous metals such as copper and tin, as well as silver. The archaeological findings of the numerous objects that they were able to develop prove that.”

Starting with the Celts, Příbram reaped the fruits of its silver reserves for centuries, supplying the coffers of whoever ruled the Czech lands at any given time. In the 16th century, it gained the status of a royal mining city. But much of the mine buildings, shafts and machines that have been preserved at the museum come from the 19th century. Josef Velfl again:

“In the 19th century, the local mines experienced their greatest boom. At certain points, up to 90 percent of the silver supplies of the whole of Austria-Hungary, and, by extension, the whole of Central Europe, were mined in Příbram. At that time, we also broke some European and world-wide mining records. In 1836, the local mines became one of the first ever to use wire rope in the shafts. Up until that time, chains or hemp ropes were used, and those would rip at great depths and could not support very heavy loads. Another first was the ground-breaking use of a steam winding engine for ore mining 1846. And, in 1875, the miners were able to pull a load from a depth of one kilometre using a single rope, which was a world record.”

Photo: Romana Marksová,  Radio Prague International

The museum complex in Březové Hory is made up of three separate historical mines – Mines Anna, Vojtěch, and the Ševčínský Mine. Visitors can explore the whole of the complex thanks to a train that connects the individual buildings and shafts. Josef Velfl says that the museum focuses on showing mining history in an interactive, hands-on way.

“More than 30 percent of our visitors come from school field trips and families with children and youth. And they want to experience some extraordinary and adrenaline-filled moments. That’s why our exhibits are built in such a way as to introduce the complex history in a creative way.”

“One of the top experiences I would recommend is a ride on the mining train to the underground. We have 3 trains that visitors can board either at the Ševčínský Mine or Mine Anna.  The trains follow the footsteps of the old miners, so visitors can step in their shoes on a ride that also contains a dose of adrenaline. In the underground, they can try out boring the rock with different historical tools, which is quite hard since some of the older ones are quite primitive.”

Drkolnov mine | Photo: Czech Television

“Another highlight is Mine Drkolonov, which was built in 1836. There we have a preserved water wheel, which was used before the invention of steam power to generate energy for all the mine machinery. It is really a huge, monumental monster of a wheel, which is as a big as a three-story building, only it is completely underground. To see it, you can walk down a 200-metre long adit or sit down and ride our 51-metre-long slide. The slide is an imitation of the so-called „úpadnice“, the slanted adits that medieval miners used to access the underground. Before sliding down, they would tie a protective leather cloth to their backs so as not to hurt themselves. We give out a similar cloth to our visitors and they can try out the slide themselves.”

The Mining Museum also prides itself on being the only museum in the world to allow visitors a peak into a mile-long abyss. Those seeking a thrill can take the train from the Anna Mine to the “Prokop” pit, which was dug out as a mineshaft in 1832. Today, the 1.6-kilometre hole is beautifully illuminated, and the hardiest visitors can stand on a metal grill directly above it. Those scared of heights may want to skip this part of the exhibit.

Photo: Pavel Pavlas,  Czech Radio

Fans of historical engineering can make a stop at the surface building of Mine Vojtěch, where one of the oldest steam-powered mining machines of all time is on display. First built in 1873, the winding engine was used for controlling the mine’s hoisting cable. According to Josef Velfl, the machine was modernized in 1888 and then continued to be used in the mine for an incredible 90 years.

“The reason that they kept the machine until 1978 was not because of a lack of money for a new machine but because it was absolutely reliable and productive. It is beautifully designed as well. A few heavy metal bands have done photoshoots in front of it. We have also organized some rock concerts next to the winding engine, and it’s really something that we are proud of.”

Vojna mine | Photo: Barbora Kvapilová,  Czech Radio

In addition to the old silver and lead mines of Březové hory, the Mining Museum also manages four other exhibition sites in Příbram’s vicinity. Among them are the Museum of Goldmining in Nový Knín, the Granary Museum in Prostřední Lhota, which focuses on granite mining, and the Open-air Museum at Vysoký Chlumec, which is a former quarry. The newest part of the Museum is the Vojna Mine in Lešetice.

Having been originally built by German war prisoners in the years following the Second World War, the Vojna Mine was converted into a forced-labour camp for Czech political prisoners shortly after the Communist Coup of 1948. It was part of a larger network of Czechoslovak forced-labour camps, which served the purpose of interning people who were inconvenient to the regime, but who could not be legally sentenced to prison even in the Communist judicial system.  Throughout the 1950s, Vojna grew into the one of the largest prison work camps in Czechoslovakia, housing around 18 hundred prisoners whilst at its biggest. Josef Velfl showed Czech Radio one of the more harrowing parts of the Vojna exhibition.

Photo: Romana Marksová,  Radio Prague International

“The so-called ‘bunker’ was a correctional space, or, in other words, a prison within a prison.  The commander of the Vojna prison facility had this structure built in 1951. Prisoners who in some way broke the rules were placed here for days or weeks at a time. The place was freezing during the winter and very hot in the summer. For a toilet, they had to use a tin can. They would receive a small food ration once a day. This cell was in fact built in violation of the communist law regulating prisons. When it became apparent that it was illegal, this space ceased to be used. Nonetheless, nothing happened to the prison commander.”

Visitors can also see the former camp commander’s headquarters, where portraits of Stalin and Gottwald still decorate the walls. Here, one can read up on the history of uranium mining as well as the anti-communist resistance. As Josef Velfl points out, artefacts of inmates’ daily lives are also on display.

“We can see the prisoners’ clothes, which were very thin, so the inmates would be freezing during the winter. Their only form of protection were these rubberized suits. During the early days of the prison, the rules were such that prisoners would wear these same clothes during the whole day - while mining uranium and in the living quarters. So, you can imagine what the hygienic conditions were like here, and how that impacted their health.”

Photo: Romana Marksová,  Radio Prague International

Before the pandemic struck, the Mining Museum welcomed an average of 120 thousand visitors annually. Josef Velfl explains that the museum has a variety of events planned to attract visitors this year. Especially packed is the Christmas programme, during which the museum focuses on the way that miners spent their holidays. Part of it is a Christmas Eve tour of the mineshafts, as work in the old silver mines did not halt even on this day. According to Mr Velfl, public outreach is a big part of the museum’s mission.

“We also cooperate with other mining museums around Europe, such as the Deutsches Bergbau-Museum in Bochum, the Industrial Museum in Dortmund, or the Mining Museum in Banská Štiavnica. And we work together in trying to inform people of the fact that mining used to play a key role in the economic and cultural development of different regions connected with this industry. If we think about why the Czech lands belonged to some of the great powers of Europe under the Přemyslid and Luxembourg dynasties, as well as during periods of Austro-Hungarian rule, it is precisely because these rulers could make use of the great potential of the mineral resources that were found here. And our not entirely happy modern history shows that the contest between the West and the East was based on nuclear power, parts of which also came from the area around Příbram.”

About an hour’s drive from Prague, the Mining Museum in Příbram is a wide-ranging showcase of the local mining history. It shows how the local industry went from being a source of wealth for medieval monarchs to producing uranium for the nuclear arms race. Visitors can also get a detailed picture of what work in the mines was like throughout history and much more. With seventy permanent exhibits, Příbram’s Mining Museum is the largest of its kind in Czechia.