The collections contain over 450,000 photographs, comprising negatives (including 100,000 glass negatives), positives, photo albums and postcards being reprints of photographs. The vast majority of photographs depict historic monuments – architectural sites, sculpture, paintings and handicrafts dating from mediaeval to modern times, photographs of works of non-professional and folk art, as well as photographs from the world of theatre (portraits of actors and photos from shows). The oldest pictures date back to the late 1850s (Karol Beyer’s Views of Warsaw).
The collections hold almost 20,000 architectural drawings, the oldest being a plan of the Warsaw suburb of Praga of 1765, by M. Deutsch.
The territorial reach of the photographs and drawings extends from Poland’s former to its current borders (including the Eastern Borderlands, currently in the territories of Belarus, Lithuania and the Ukraine), as well as the former Duchy of Prussia.
The collections have been gathered continuously since the Institute first came into existence, in the early 1950s. First they comprised the surviving fragments from the resources of the pre-war institutions the Towarzystwo Opieki nad Zabytkami Przeszłości [Society for the Protection of Historic Monuments] (operating from 1906-1919), the Wydział Zabytków Towarzystwa Straży Kresowej [Department of Monuments of the Society of Guards of the Eastern Borderlands] (1919-1921), the Centralne Biuro Inwentaryzacyjne [Central Inventory Office] at the Ministry of Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment (established in 1929, with its own photographic archive from 1935), the offices of the Conservator of Public Monuments of the provinces of Lublin (including Polesia), L’viv and Vilnius, the German offices of the Conservator of Public Monuments in Silesia and Prussia, as well as the Department of the History of Art at the University of Wrocław. Since the 1950s, the collections have been supplemented with pictures taken by the Photography Section of the Institute and survey drawings ordered for the Institute’s inventory, monographic and synthetic activities in the field of art, theatre and ethnography; they are also enriched by purchases and donations.