Creating the Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

“The Post War Years.” Courtesy of Event Communications and Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
“The Post War Years.” Courtesy of Event Communications and Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Facing Natan Rapoport's Warsaw Ghetto monument, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews will present a thousand years of Jewish history in the very place where it happened. Understandably, this history has been overshadowed by the Shoah and the void that it has left. By presenting the civilization that Jews created in the very place where they created it, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews will convey the enormity of what was lost. Poland is the ultimate site of the Shoah. This is the place where the Germans built all of the death camps. This is the place where most of Europe's Jews perished. Standing on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto facing the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Great Deportation, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews will honor those who died by remembering how they lived.

The history of Polish Jews is an integral part of the history of Poland, a message of special importance during a unique period in Polish history: never before has Poland been as homogeneous as it is today. Central to an understanding of Poland's historical diversity is the story of Polish Jews, the rich civilization they created, and the spectrum of Polish-Jewish relations. The involvement of the lively, though small, Jewish community in Poland, whose story the museum will tell, is of critical importance. Jews from abroad, whose visits to Poland focus almost exclusively on the Shoah and antisemitism, will hopefully begin their visit with the museum and broaden their historical perspective.

The museum, the first public-private partnership of its type in Poland and a joint effort of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, the Government of Poland, and the City of Warsaw, will fulfill its mission through its educational and public programs and a multimedia narrative exhibition. By providing the long and deep historical context that has been missing from contemporary debates, the museum aims to create a "trusted zone," a place where diverse visitors will be more open to dialogue on difficult questions.

The permanent exhibition, which is being developed collaboratively by a team established by the museum's director Jerzy Halbersztadt, includes distinguished academics from Poland, Israel, and the United States; a worldclass design company Event Communications; and professional curators, archivists, scholars, and researchers in Poland and abroad. As the leader of the Core Exhibition Development Team of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, I am working with all of these groups to create a multimedia narrative exhibition that will be a theater of history—history in the first person and history told through the sources—rather than synthesized and narrated by an anonymous historian, though of course the very selection and presentation of sources will construct a historical narrative. Those sources include privileges and contracts, wills and inventories, rabbinical Responsa and Jewish communal record books, illuminated manuscripts and early Yiddish and Hebrew printed books; letters, travelogues, diaries, and memoirs; literature and the press, art and music, theater and film—in addition to artifacts, when we have them and they can support the narrative. The strategic use of multimedia makes it possible to layer content and encourage visitors to explore the sources and not only to look at them, read a label, or listen to an audio guide. This approach makes for a very different type of visitor experience, a more flexible and exploratory one. Those interested in a particular subject will be able to pursue it in depth, while others can browse and still get the main idea.

A critical approach to the history the museum will present means of avoiding teleology, the idea that history drives towards an inevitable end. Visitors should not make an easy inference from chronology to causality. Historical explanation is considerably more complicated. With the pitfalls of teleology in mind, it is important to avoid foreshadowing what came later. Instead, visitors are kept inside the period and encouraged to see through the eyes of those who lived at the time, while made aware of larger trends, of macrohistorical phenomena and processes. By following the itineraries of various individuals and histories of various communities, visitors will discover the variety of paths taken and what people at the time knew and thought. Visitors will see and feel how history was actually lived.

Second, a master narrative runs contrary to the museum's commitment to presenting an open-ended past. For this among other reasons, the story of Polish Jews neither begins nor ends with the Holocaust. The postwar period is a very important part of the story. In fact, the museum is itself part of the postwar story and will be included in the exhibition narrative. Nor will the postwar period mark the end of the story. The book will not close in 2012, just before the museum opens. The story will stay open, extending beyond the borders of Poland to all the places where Polish Jews settled, and carry forward into the future.

Third, there is the principle of many voices, rather than a single voice telling a single story. Every effort is being made to let the sources do the telling. A synthetic third-person historical voice—the "museum voice"—will not be the main way through this history, though it will be used when necessary. Rather, a diversity of first-person accounts from the period will be carefully curated to insure that collective experience and macrohistorical processes are also communicated.

Fourth, there is an effort to avoid an apologetic narrative—a "hall of fame"—and resting of the case on the "contributions" of Jews to Polish society and the world. Of course incredible people and marvelous accomplishments will appear, but first and foremost as they illuminate a larger history. This is a serious history museum and serious history is not celebratory, though there will be much to be proud of. Serious as this history is, it will be presented in a lively way and engage visitors in meaningful dialogue and thoughtful debate.

Fifth, the idea that a museum that does not depend primarily on "actual" objects is somehow a "virtual" museum is a misperception. Historically, museums evolved as institutions that preserved material evidence of the past and safeguarded treasures. Today, museums are civic institutions that fulfill their educational mission through exhibitions and programs that draw on a wide variety of sources, display techniques, and media. The key issues for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews are historical integrity and what constitutes an "actual" object or, put another way, "digital simulacrum" is an example of what I would call the materiality fallacy.

Historical integrity. Some of the best museums whose subjects are related to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews—the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem— use facsimiles, copies, castings, and models. The original document or artifact may no longer exist or it may be too fragile to exhibit or it may be impossible to remove it from its current location or it is only through a scale model or reconstruction that a totality can be grasped all at once. The "authenticity" of what is shown rests on its historical integrity—like a notarized copy in a court of law—rather than on the literal materiality of the object, and on transparency in the way that original materials are mediated. That said, it is curious that facsimiles are often exhibited as if they were originals—they are shown in vitrines with labels, as if they were the original document—and they are not even consistently identified as facsimiles. In other words, display practices associated with the installation of original documents intensify the illusion that you are indeed seeing the original and encourage you to respond as if that were the case. The mediation is not transparent. That is not the approach of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Quite the contrary.

The museum begins with the curatorial principle of responsibility to the nature of the source as an historical artifact and to transparent mediation. The goal is to confront visitors with primary sources, rather than extract information and embed that information in an anonymous third-person historical synthesis. Using interactive media, the museum can bring visitors into contact with a much greater range of sources than they could ever encounter as original objects, even at museums with the richest collections. Transparent mediation can sensitize visitors to the nature of the source as a source, make the back story visible, and treat the story of the source as part of the main story. Whether the back story is about Julia Pirotte and the photographs she took in the aftermath of the Kielce pogrom or about Julien Bryan and his photographs of the 1939 siege of Warsaw or about Natan Rapoport, the creator of the Warsaw Ghetto monument, we want our visitors to understand that all sources have been authored and to make the authorship of the source part of the story and not simply a technical detail on a label.

The materiality fallacy. What constitutes an "original" or "actual" or "authentic" object? Take, for example, the eighteenth-century wooden synagogue of Gwozdziec that will be featured in the eighteenth-century gallery. The museum intends to reconstruct the timber-framed roof and polychrome ceiling of this spectacular synagogue. Now the museum could go to a theater prop maker, give him or her the dimensions and some pictures, and say, "Make it!" The result would look pretty much like the original, but it would be a theatrical prop. That is not what the museum wants to do. In order to go to the heart of the issue of actual and virtual, the museum wants to work with a studio in Massachusetts, whose motto is "learn by building." These beautiful eighteenth-century wooden synagogues no longer exist; the Germans burned to the ground those still standing in 1939. It is possible however to recover the knowledge of how to build them by actually building one. What is actual about that artifact resides therefore not in the original eighteenth-century wood, not in the original painted interior, but in the knowledge that the museum recovered for how to build it. It's a completely different concept of the object. This approach is related to a completely different tradition of thinking about what constitutes an object.

The best example is the Jingu Shrine in Ise, Japan. This is a shrine that is eight hundred years old and never older than twenty years because for eight hundred years they have been tearing it down every twenty years in order to rebuild it. The only way to maintain the embodied knowledge of how to build it is to build it, and to make it necessary to build it, they tear it down and then must build it again. The value is in maintaining the knowledge of how to build it, not in preserving the original materials. The result is not a replica or simulation of the Jingu shrine; it is the Jingu shrine. This is a completely different way of defining what is "actual" about such an object.

Finally, when visitors exit from the gallery dealing with the postwar years, they will find themselves in a circulation space in which we will open the narrative up to the story of Polish Jews in the many places around the world where they settled. That installation will stay current with what is happening today. It will be a very participatory space and will potentially develop in collaboration with contemporary artists who engage a wide public in creating content through what is variously known as conversational art, social software, and locative media. What matters here is the ongoing involvement of a wide public not only within the walls of the museum but also far beyond those walls. Their voices are an essential part of legacy.

Together with other Warsaw landmarks, the museum will form part of a cultural precinct and must-see itinerary in the city. The museum expects about 20 percent of its visitors to be Jews from abroad, a diverse Jewish audience of Israelis, Holocaust survivors, children of Holocaust survivors, European Jews, Jewish youth from Israel, Jewish youth from North America, Jews who can trace their families back to Poland and those who cannot. The majority of organized groups—and especially young people—come for the Holocaust and only the Holocaust. The museum has a very important role to play in changing their itinerary: by starting their journey with the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, they will broaden their historical perspective to a millennium of Jewish history in the place where it happened. More than half of the museum's visitors will be people living in Poland, and the rest will be international visitors.

Understandably, there are many sensitivities. Polish audiences worry that an honest history of Polish Jews will reinforce the perception of Poland as an antisemitic country, while Jewish visitors are afraid the museum will present a rosy picture. The museum will do neither. Rather, difficult moments will be presented within the spectrum of Polish- Jewish relationships, the high points and the low ones. Striking the right balance in a historically responsible way is the goal.