The ambition of the newly-opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews––called "Polin" for short, the Hebrew name for Poland––is nothing less than to put 1000 years of Jewish life in Poland in a box, and to do it in a way that thinks outside-the-box. The box which should not act as a box is no ordinary box. It is a large and lavish structure located directly across from the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw's Muranów section, the bustling pre-war Jewish district where the Nazis created and then destroyed their largest and most notorious ghetto. The museum's mezuzah is made from a brick from the ghetto's rubble. Conceived in 1993 and under construction for seven years, the museum has been hugely successful in its first month, receiving tens of thousands of visitors since its grand opening on October 28, 2014.
So what's in the box?
In a word, what's in the box is an extravaganza. In a phrase, it is part treasure chest, part fairytale theater, part high-tech expo, part sound and animation lab, part scholarly pop-up book, part multimedia kindergarten, and part solemn carnival. More than a museum per se, it is better called a museum-experience, a sequence of encounters rather than a temple of precious objects (though it does contain many remarkable objects).
Organized chronologically in eight sections, "Forest," "First Encounters 960-1500," "Paradisus Iudaeorum 1569-1648," "The Jewish Town 1648-1772," "Encounters with Modernity 1772-1914," "The Jewish Street 1918-1939," "Holocaust 1939-1945," "Postwar Years 1944-today," the museum's core exhibition presents a braided story of Jewish-Polish relations and internal Jewish life. Religion, culture, business and economics, politics, art and literature––all of these domains are present in each section of the exhibition, with the balance between them shifting constantly. Each section of the core exhibition is comprised of subsections which focus on discrete events, personalities, and locations. While designed as a continuous flowing experience, there are spatial distinctions that correspond to interpretive distinctions about the periods represented. The first five sections, covering the years 960-1772, are organized in open, curved spaces, something like an intestine, with the spaces becoming gradually harder, boxier and smaller in subsequent sections. This shift culminates in the Holocaust section, which consists of small, angled passages in the manner of fractured Cubist sculpture.
Polin's most fundamental museological commitment, if I had to name one, is education through play, an approach that is not new. In the U.S. it is associated mainly with contemporary science museums and children's museums. In Poland, it is commonly part of historical museums, for example the Warsaw Rising Museum and Kraków's Schindler Factory museum. By "play" I don't mean frivolous play, but purposive play, as in Nietzsche's observation that "a man's maturity consists in having regained the seriousness one had as a child––at play." Polin is a place for play in precisely this sense. It is very much a hands-on place, a place of discovery, with the presumption that hands-on = brain-on = heart-on. It is through play that visitors discover Jewish history as multidimensional and multivocal, Jews as subjects in and not objects of history, and Poland not as a "host" country for Jewish life, rather Jewish life as an integral part of the multicultural landscape that Poland was for most of its history. And it is through play that the museum (to its credit) avoids definitions of Jewishness and essentializing accounts of Jewish life at any point in time, and likewise avoids distillations of Jewish history into sermons against anti-Jewish stereotypes. It is through play that visitors meet Jewish history, as it were, on its terms.
Polin's second museological commitment is excess. The sheer amount of information rolled up into its exhibits is formidable, certainly more than an average or even a dedicated visitor could reasonably handle in one visit. This too is not new, but unlike the Louvre or the Prado or the Met, which divide their holdings in such a way that visitors can feel fulfilled spending an afternoon in one or two departments, Polin forces its overwhelming whole on its visitors in an IKEA-style labyrinth with a single beginning and ending point. Within each of the sections, the excess takes the form of simultaneous episodes. There are few distinctions between primary- and secondary-order displays, and no particular order in which the displays should be seen. The virtue of this decision is that the visitor is invited to create his or her experience uniquely, but the cost is a certain anxiety, as if the visitor should somehow strive to be in several places at once in order to properly grasp the relay of connections offered. The museum's highlight, and a microcosm of its vision, is the replica of the bimah and ceiling of the destroyed wooden synagogue in the Galician town of Gwożdziec, lovingly reconstructed at 85% scale using traditional tools, materials and techniques. It is truly a marvel, and its vibrancy seems the fountainhead for the rest of the museum's energy.
But to put the majesty of the reconstructed roof in perspective, the town of Gwożdziec is today in western Ukraine and known as Hvizdets. I visited Hvizdets earlier this year as part of my work for my exhibition An Unfinished Memory at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, and I found the forlorn site where the wooden synagogue once stood:
No such contextual view is presented in the museum, and indeed, virtually no contemporary photographs of places of Jewish heritage appear in the exhbition's last section, where they would be appropriate. It isn't entirely clear why this is the case, but I venture that the Jewish nothingness that defines contemporary Hvizdets––and so much of the contemporary geography of the Jewish past in Poland––simply does not fit into the museum's interpretive perameters.
The museum's third museological commitment is spectacle, i.e. sheer spectacle, razzle-dazzle that sometimes slips into fakery as a (gaudy) value in itself. Polin announces this spectacle from its very beginning, in the overlapping pastel video projections meant to evoke a primeval Polish forest. The museum's literature calls this pseudo-forest "poetic," but I would call it simply trite––about as poetic as a "hearth" that consists of a video of logs burning in a fireplace.
There is no question that the core exhibition's production values are very high. The curatorial decision to represent each period almost exclusively with images and texts generated in that period itself––one of the basic terms of historical authenticity as the museum conceives it––is matched by the manner in which texts and images are reproduced. In the exhibition's first half, historical paintings are frequently reproduced as hand-painted and hand-lettered murals, exquisitely crafted. The tables and cabinets and desks are all of fine woods, each individually designed for its purpose. The abundant interactive digital stations are friendly and intelligently designed. Each item has the quality of a revelation, and the whole effect is like a fireworks display in which each burst is the show's peak experience. But going from peak to peak is not the same as establishing contemplative momentum, so that much of what the displays accomplish in excitement they sacrifice in penetrative depth.
Curiously, it is when the photographic image is introduced into history, midway through section 5, "Encounters with Modernity," that the spectacle reaches the point of overload. It is not just the sheer numbers of photographs and also of film images, but the increasingly hyperbolic presentations: photographs are alternately tiny and huge in scale, dramatically backlit and also frontlit with great choreography, framed and reframed in a hundred ways and cut and sliced into pieces, placed low, placed high, laid out on walls and on tables and embedded in countless interactive screens, projected and counterprojected, laid atop one another and beside one another and seemingly over every surface.
In the first subsection dedicated to the Holocaust, which profiles repressive German actions in the initial phase of the occupation, including conscription of Jews into forced labor, beatings and executions, the curators pull the elastic ribbon of photographic testimony to its breaking point. A row of black stelae is adorned with interpretive drawings based on historic photographs, which are embedded in small sizes within the drawings themselves (for example, in the small yellow rectangle in the picture below). These large drawings sit in dialogue with an adjacent mural-sized photograph that runs the entire length of the wall.
The tiny source photograph for the photo-mural is located in the far corner of the room, and is easily overlooked. It is captioned "Poland under German occupation," without date or place.
It turns out that this small orphaned image reveals a sleight-of-hand that the curators used to make their long mural. They altered the image not only in scale––common throughout the galleries––but flipped it horizontally and then seamlessly blended together the original and flipped orientations in Photoshop, to create a self-redoubling image, as if evidence of a cancer or a virus . It's obvious enough once you see it.
Curatorially-generated photographic mimesis appears elsewhere in the Holocaust section, i.e. photography used to signify madness, and the ideology of hyper-self-reproduction. For example, a display profiling the German officers present at the 1942 Wannsee conference is constructed so that each photograph appears as if a glowing triptych on a dark altar:
Likewise, the "normality" of life in the Aryan section of Warsaw, the section from which Jews were banished and which they could see only from the bridges crossing over these streets––recreated in the museum in a mezzanine detour––is depicted by a mimetic montage technique that borders on the schizophrenic.
A schizoidal non-response is about all that's possible a few steps later, as visitors are invited to sit voyeuristically on the benches of an ersatz Aryan street car and look out the "windows" at ghastly scenes of the Warsaw Ghetto, in the form of still photographs animated into not-quite 3-D moving dioramas.
All of this is, to me, forgiveable enough: the garishness and the immoderation, the trendiness and the enchantment with technology––to the point of the galleries seeming sometimes like physical instantiations of the internet––the celebratory embrace of the simulacral and even the strangely bulemic relationship with photography. It is forgiveable because it is ultimately in the service of a higher purpose. I should mention, though, the one thing I do feel critical about, namely the museum's presentation of the Holocaust. Of the 1000 years of history that the museum presents, the last hundred years account for almost half of its exhibits, and the years 1939-1945––six of the 1000, .6%––account for some 20% of the whole. The Warsaw Ghetto represents about 75% of the museum's account of the Holocaust, a bias toward Warsaw that results in a poor explication of the Holocaust overall––its scale, scope and mechanisms. This is to me a significant loss in a city without a dedicated Holocaust museum of its own, i.e. in which Polin de-facto functions not just as a Jewish museum but a mini-Holocaust museum also. Auschwitz figures strangely as an afterthought in the Holocaust displays, and Treblinka––where most of Warsaw's Jews were murdered––is mentioned only in passing.
I don't know what a museum of Polin's ambition should look like. I don't quarrel with Polin's so-called "narrative" premise, as distinct from, say, artifact-based exhibitions––even as, in practice, Polin's narrative is more narrative effect than narrative proper, i.e. it offers flashes of narrative hovering in a multimedia pageant. But I ask: what lurks behind Polin's show, behind its surfaces and its radiating energy? I can't help but answer: a fear of empty spaces, and the still-palpable nearness of Jewish oblivion.
December 1, 2014, Warsaw