How Jewish is the Jewish museum?


Magdalena Wójcik, Michał Bojanowski: Is the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews a Jewish institution or not?

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Until very recently the website URL was Taxi drivers would call us either the Jewish Museum or the Holocaust Museum. I would like to think of us as an international museum and as a history museum, first and foremost. And, of course, it is a Polish museum, in the sense that it is located in Poland and it’s about Polish Jews. I don’t think it is a Jewish museum in the classical sense of what we think a Jewish museum is. This does not seem to apply in Europe, where many of the so-called Jewish museums are in fact state museums and, in many cases, were not established by the Jewish community.

In contrast, The Jewish Museum in New York was created by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Jewish museums in America are essentially ethnic museums and identity museums. POLIN Museum doesn’t fit the bill, nor does the Jewish Museum in Vienna, for example. These are not Jewish museums in what

I call “the classical sense” – that is, a museum established and supported by Jews, for Jews in the first instance, and about Jews in the main. In this sense, POLIN Museum is not a Jewish institution.

That said, Jewish museums in the United States aim for a more diverse audience. They don’t want to be perceived as narrow and focused exclusively on a Jewish audience – they want to reach out to a wider audience, and they do. But, if you look at their board and their donors, if you look at many of their staff, their programs, and their core audience, it’s very clear that they are Jewish museums. Moreover, they are often in places with sizable Jewish communities – more than two million Jews in the New York metropolitan area and in the 200,000 to 300,000 range in metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, and Toronto. Most Jewish museums in North America focus on their local Jewish community’s history (the Jews of Maryland, for example) or on the history of American Jews (National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia) or on the Holocaust (Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in New York City). Others – The Jewish Museum (New York) and Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco) – are broader in scope.

The relationship of POLIN Museum to what a Jewish museum might be in postwar Europe is of a completely different order. Consider the discussions at POLIN Museum about the mezuzah, the kosher restaurant, whether to close on Jewish holidays and on which ones (it’s been decided the museum will close only on Yom Kippur), and most recently a petition from six rabbis to allocate a space in the building for minkhe prayers two afternoons a week, to which the museum has agreed.

The museum can play an important role in supporting the renewal of Jewish life, but not necessarily in the ways that similar institutions do in North America. Rather POLIN Museum is making a statement in a place that was once home to the largest Jewish community in the world and that is today home to one of the smallest. It makes a statement to those whose parents and grandparents kept their Jewish roots a secret, often out of fear and shame. In contrast, POLIN Museum stands tall and proud. It states boldly that there is nothing to be afraid of, nothing to be ashamed of, and much to be proud of. POLIN Museum and its core exhibition offer an unprecedented opportunity to deepen one’s knowledge about Polish Jews and the civilization they created. In this way, the museum creates a bridge across the chasm created by the Holocaust, a link in the broken chain of cultural transmission. POLIN Museum is also a big tent, a place where everyone can meet, especially the many Jewish organizations in Poland.

If I had to give a yes or no answer, I would say: No, POLIN Museum is not a Jewish museum. But that answer doesn’t quite capture what POLIN Museum actually is, because this museum defies categories. It was initiated by a Jewish non-profit organization (Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland), which carried the project for fifteen years before the agreement to found the museum was signed by the Association, the City of Warsaw, and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. This is the first such private-public partnership for a cultural institution in Poland.


As an initiative of a Jewish organization and the biggest financial investment in Jewish life in Poland, one might imagine this museum should be more Jewish.

That does not necessarily follow. The investment was not in Jewish life per se, but in a cultural institution, one that would present the history of Polish Jews and animate debate and discussion inspired by that history. I think this museum’s greatest potential is as a history museum. That said, I believe that this museum can and should support the renewal of Jewish life in Poland.

Let me tell you a couple of stories that show the difficulty of drawing a line between a Jewish museum and a history museum dedicated to Polish Jews.

When we were preparing to open the building on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the museum announced a mezuzah contest. I was on the jury

– the decision for first prize was unanimous, a brick excavated from the foundation of a tenement that once stood at the corner of Gęsia and Nalewki Streets, but that is another story. We wanted to put the mezuzah up before the official opening of the building on a day dedicated to the Jewish community. However, a few days before the ceremony, I got a call from one of the directors, who said: “There’s a crisis”. The mayor of Warsaw said we couldn’t put the mezuzah up. Why? Because it is against the law to put a religious symbol on a secular building. How did other Jewish museums in Europe, which also are partially funded by the state, solve this problem? I contacted my colleagues at those museums.

Joel Cahan, director of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam at the time, responded: Teddy Kollek, the former mayor of Jerusalem, donated a mezuzah to the museum, the Chief Rabbi of the Netherlands put it up on the building, and the Queen of the Netherlands was there to witness the proceedings. So, on the strength of that case, we were able to place the mezuzah at the museum entrance. And then I found out that there is a whole chapel within the Warsaw Rising Museum. So if you can put a chapel in that museum, why can’t you put a mezuzah on the entrance to our museum? Eventually, we were able to put it up.

The second problem was the kosher restaurant. I am not strictly kosher myself, though I grew up in a strictly kosher home, but I strongly supported the idea that the restaurant should be kosher. I think it would have been kosher if we could have found a vender willing and able to take this on logistically and financially. I considered a kosher restaurant important not because I wanted the museum to be more Jewish, but because I did not want kosher Jewish visitors to be reduced to eating reheated frozen meals out of little tin-foiled packages with plastic forks. I wanted everybody to be able to eat the same food, with no distinction, out of respect for those for whom kosher matters. Nobody would be excluded. Well, it just didn’t work out so far, but I am hopeful that it will eventually happen. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

And what do you think would make this institution more Jewish?


I will answer with a question. Why is the entire history of Polish Jews after 1989 covered by just a few videos near the museum exit?

No, this is not an accurate description. First of all, the period after 1989 occupies the most dramatic space in the exhibition – visitors are no longer in a gallery, with a ceiling, but in the grandeur of the architecture of the building. The space soars from the ground to the roof. During the day, this space is filled with light. The space itself communicates freedom, openness, and renewal – these are the defining features of the period after the fall of communism.

The key message of the story we present in the period after 1989 is “small numbers, big presence.” The number of Jews in Poland today is absolutely and relatively small, but that fact doesn’t make the renewal of Jewish life in Poland any less important. At the same time, Jewish presence in Polish consciousness is really big. It’s expressed in all the ways we know: festivals, books, films, Jewish Studies programs, and all kinds of cultural and educational activities. Of course, this museum is also an expression of both sides of the equation.

Keep in mind the challenges of working within this location: there is no way to control the light and sound in this open space, and it is not possible to mount anything on the walls, which are part of the architecture of the building. With this in mind, we chose to present this period through interviews on a freestanding glass pillar and through a film that is projected on a large wall.

We conducted interviews with more than twenty Jews living in Poland today. We asked them the following questions: Did you always know you were Jewish? What does Israel mean to you? What does it mean to be Jewish in Poland today? Is there anti-Semitism in Poland? Is there a future for Jews in Poland? Who can make Jewish culture? We then presented their answers on six screens on two sides of the freestanding pillar. This is the first time in the entire exhibition that the visitor encounters video interviews and specifically, interviews with Jews living in Poland today. The video interviews are more or less life-size so you have the feeling that you are face to face with those who are answering the questions. You can either listen to the same person answer many questions, or many people answering one question – that’s completely up to the visitor. The film on the big screen shows various aspects of Jewish life in Poland today, especially organizations and expressions of interest in all things Jewish within Polish society.


From that video I most vividly remembered the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, who is talking about anti-Semitism in Poland, and the director of the Jewish Festival in Kraków, who says he is a goy.

Anti-Semitism is an expression of Jewish presence in Polish consciousness, unfortunately a negative example, but important to acknowledge, as is the role of Poles who are not Jewish in stimulating interest in Jewish culture and history. I find it offensive to refer to such a person as a “goy,” which is disparaging and diminishes the contributions of such individuals. Listen to how the Polish Jews we interviewed answer the question “Who can make Jewish culture?” And, come back to POLIN Museum! We have prepared a new film.


So what else is going to be included in this part of the exhibition?

We want to communicate the enormous number and variety of Jewish organizations, the importance of them in Jewish life in Poland today. There is a lot of intermarriage, and many individuals who identify as Jews might be the only Jewish person in their family, so organizations play an important role in bringing them together with other Jews. We also want to communicate Jewish presence in Polish consciousness.

The video interviews and large projection dedicated to these subjects are among the largest audio-visual installations in the entire exhibition. This is the only place in the entire exhibition were we could feature video interviews with Polish Jews in the present moment. We were not able to do that for any other period in history.


It is often said that these videos are still not enough.

I would like this section to be updated and enriched over time, and to add people whom I wish we could have interviewed previously. Please keep in mind that doing anything in this particular space is difficult. There is a problem with sound, because the place is very echoey, and we cannot control the light, and everything needs to be freestanding.


The AV installations seem to contrast with the rest of the exhibition, where I managed to read maybe 10% of the content in the more than three hours I spent there.

Why did you want to read everything?


I didn’t know what to read – what is more or less important. I would be completely lost if not for my background in Jewish studies and my previous knowledge of the complicated history of Polish Jews.

Let me tell you a story. One morning I came to work and I met a lady from the cleaning staff, and she said to me: “I just saw the exhibition. It’s so beautiful, it gave me goose bumps. It’s even more beautiful than the Warsaw Rising Museum.” That’s the ultimate compliment! [laughter] On the next day, the new assistant to the Minister of Culture comes to the exhibition. He likes it, but he says: “There’s so much information, there’s so much to read!”. It’s because he thought he had to master it all. The cleaning lady didn’t have that problem. She got goose bumps. He got information overload. There are different visitors, and there are different expectations, and different styles of visiting a museum.

In the Palmiry Museum, just outside Warsaw, I was struck by so many extremely long texts. It’s actually a fascinating place. But text completely covers panels that extend from floor to ceiling, and people stand there and try to read it all – they are clearly very engaged in the subject and interested in all the details. I don’t know how long it takes to read everything. Although I didn’t read every word, I had a good experience there and got the main idea.


Do you watch the people who come to see the exhibition in POLIN?

Some come with the expectation that they should be able to see and read and do everything during a single visit of two hours. Some would prefer a guided tour so they do not have to decide what to see and how long to spend at any one place. Some visitors treat the tour as a first step, an orientation, and plan to return to visit at their leisure on their own. Some prefer the audio guide because it includes about 60 points across the entire exhibition, is intended for a two-hour visit (90 minutes of audio and 20 minutes of free exploration), and is flexible

– a visitor can use it at will, whether all the time or part of the time. And, if a visitor sees something interesting that is not in the audio guide, he or she can stop and take a closer look. Other visitors prefer the little printed guide, which is even more selective (4 points in each gallery, 6 in the Holocaust gallery).

There are visitors who don’t want any guide at all. The whole scenographic environment immediately communicates what is essential to the story. They quickly figure out that the exhibition is a continuous visual narrative and intuitively grasp the text and commentary principle. The texts are all primary sources and appear as large quotations in fonts of the period. The commentaries are always on the same kind of panel and in the same font.


It’s not that easy to notice this structure.

You are not going to get what you would expect from the usual exhibition, which is organized around objects, divided into sections with signs and introductory text panels in an anonymous omniscient voice. We have created a different kind of exhibition, and it requires a different approach to visiting. It is a theatre of history. It’s more like a documentary without a voiceover. For the younger visitor the navigation is intuitive and quite easy. For those who are used to visiting in a systematic way, who want to master the content, this kind of exhibition can be frustrating at first. They find the audio guide helpful. There is also the exhibition catalogue and a short printed guide – in other words, there are various tools for our visitors.

Those willing to go with our “principles of engagement” will find themselves in the historical present of the narration. We are asking them to bracket the future – to “forget” what they know in hindsight about will come next and to let it reach them as it did those in the story. In other words, the past deepens with each step they take, but the horizon forward is never very far away. This is a very particular mode of narration, and it’s not something visitors are used to. We have two choices. We can either adapt the exhibition to their expectations, or help them to adjust their expectations to this exhibition, or something in between. This is the role of guided tours, audio guides, printed guides, and various other tools.


What people are used to – and I don’t think we should force them to change their habits – is the possibility to see an exhibition without using this “in between” solution.

No one is being forced to do anything. Challenge? Yes. We have prepared the exhibition in such way that anything important appears several times and in different ways: in texts, images, films, and objects. For example: key messages about religious toleration and conflict in the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, are presented in at least five different ways – the Act of the Warsaw Confederation (graphic and text), the Dance of Death (painting, manual interactive, text), Isaac of Troki’s Faith Strengthened (text, graphic, and interactive), the false accusation of host desecration (graphic, text, interactive), and the large wall of words. The message is conveyed through each of these elements and as an ensemble in relation to each other. While some people prefer to read – they like to be in control – others relate to films or go straight to the interactive presentations.

The museum is a space of informal learning. The exhibition is neither a classroom nor a lesson. It is not about teaching. It’s about learning. We start from the premise of an active learner who explores and discovers, rather than a passive learner who is there to absorb. Visitors find themselves in a carefully structured and curated environment that can inspire and support that kind of exploration. There is a logic to the exhibition, a conceptual, thematic, and narrative logic, but not what you would expect based on history exhibitions that are structured more like chapters in a history textbook.

We should distinguish between hard mastery and soft mastery. Hard mastery is how we learn languages at school: declination, conjugation, memorizing, and drilling. Kids when given a cell phone or a computer or video game never open the manual or look for instructions. They just dive in and figure out what to do by trial and error. That’s soft mastery. This generation has grown up with these kinds of devices, with video games, so for them these environments are easy to navigate intuitively – they are masters of soft mastery.

Some people ask: “Why don’t you put all of these interactive presentations on the internet?” But sitting in front of a computer screen at a desk at home or school or in a booth at the library is a radically different experience from exploring the Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) in the evocative setting of the exhibition. The environment conditions the experience. It sets the mood, sparks the imagination, and inspires. The exhibition is more than information. It’s an aesthetic, sensory, and emotional experience. Experience – that’s the bottom line. Some visitors might be expecting and might even prefer something more cognitive and they will find plenty to think about, but it is experience that truly defines what a great exhibition is about – and what distinguishes an exhibition from a book or lecture.


Even if what we experience is chaos?

This exhibition is not chaotic. It’s a well-structured and carefully curated space, just not what you are expecting or what you are used to. It is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art! It’s a theatre of history, an immersive experience. It is my hope that visitors would be willing to open themselves to a new experience. As I indicated earlier, the museum is not a school, and the exhibition is not a lesson. This exhibition contains a massive amount of information, but we don’t expect – and visitors should not expect – to master it all and to leave with complete knowledge of the history of Polish Jews. They will make choices and whatever choices they make, they should come away better informed and curious to learn more.

A two-hour visit can provide a good overview, an overall impression, an introduction – think of it as an invitation to come back. Some people visit the whole exhibition in stages over one or more days, while others spend their entire visit in one gallery. It was always our hope that the exhibition would support the shortest visit (we have just prepared a “One Hour, Eight Highlights” thematic tour) as well as repeated and sustained visits. This is a core exhibition, not a temporary exhibition. Every time you visit – we are heartened by how many people are coming back to visit a second and third time – you discover things you did not notice on the last visit.

How much time did you spend in the museum? Did you have a strategy for a certain amount of time?


I did not have any strategy in mind. It did not even occur to me that I might need one. But let’s go back to the issue of Jewish life in Poland after 1989. Why doesn’t it need a separate gallery?

It is in a separate space.


It’s small in comparison to other galleries.

It’s about a third of the whole postwar years gallery.


Exactly. Doesn’t this period deserve more prominent treatment?

The core exhibition is a starting point and so is the presentation of this period. Not everything that we would like to include could be included in the core exhibition or presented as fully as we would like. The museum is not only the core exhibition, it’s the whole institution. We make the period of post-1989 the subject of many of our programs. That said, I would agree that we should find ways to give this story greater impact within the core exhibition itself, and we are exploring ways that we might be able to do that.


But visitors from abroad won’t take part in these programs. Apart from seeing the exhibition, they will most likely not spend more time here.

Actually, POLIN Museum is motivating people to come to Poland and to do more than visit death camps. The Israeli groups and the “March of the Living” groups are now including POLIN Museum in their itinerary. Some of them also include visits to the JCC’s in Warsaw and Kraków and synagogues and take part in workshops with representatives of the Jewish community and in meetings with their Polish peers. They also meet with the Righteous and survivors. What you’re saying is that Jewish life in Poland today deserves more attention and you’re right.


All the other galleries are huge, and they have massive amounts of materials and information.

So does this gallery! Keep in mind that the period after 1989 is not a gallery unto itself, but about a third of the postwar gallery, and that there is more time-based media in this gallery and in this section than anywhere else in the core exhibition. That said, I wish there had been more space for the postwar gallery and more space (and a more flexible space) for the post-1989 story.


So it means mistakes were made from the very beginning when the building was being designed.

No, not mistakes. There is great concentration, depth, and richness of time-based media here. Film, audio, interactivity, documents, and other features form a powerful ensemble in a carefully curated space. We can do here what we couldn’t do for the Middle Ages, where we had a coin or a tombstone and had to reconstruct almost 600 years from little pieces of evidence. This gallery, like ones with a larger footprint, can sustain a whole day’s visit.


We are complaining about the space devoted to Jewish life in Poland today, but there’s also another element missing. The Jews who left Poland.

In the Masterplan, which was completed in 2004, the postwar years gallery was to include not only Poland, but also Israel and the Diaspora. In 2006, when we reviewed the Masterplan in preparation for the next stage in developing the core exhibition, we decided to devote the entire space of the final gallery to the postwar years in Poland. We took this decision precisely because this story is so important, and we didn’t want the triumphal story of Israel and the many other places to which Jews from Poland immigrated in search of a better life to overshadow it. By moving the history of Polish Jews in Israel and the Diaspora out of the postwar gallery, we were able to focus exclusively on Jews in Poland – just imagine what this gallery would have been like if it had also included Israel and the Diaspora!

Incidentally, we prepared an enormous amount of content for this gallery and specifically for the period after 1989, but so much content at the very end of this 1000-years story was not the best way to end the narration. The issue is impact, not information. Less is more. That said, we are looking at ways to strengthen this last section.

As for Israel and the Diaspora, this is an epilogue to the 1000-years history of Polish Jews, an expansion of the geography of our story to include the millions of Jews who descend from this place. We will present this story in the circulation space at the very center of the core exhibition. We are working on this now.


Is it possible that visitors will perceive the exhibition as too Polish?

It’s not impossible, but it’s also not likely. Actually, I was surprised when the directors of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow commented, after a recent visit to POLIN Museum, that our museum is “more Jewish” than theirs (and their museum was created by the Chabad leadership in Russia!). The beauty of our exhibition is that there is more than one way to experience it and more than one story to take from it. I’ve heard Polish visitors declare, with appreciation, “You know, this is a museum of Polish history.” Yes, but not what they were taught in school or that they are likely to find at the Museum of Polish History, currently under construction. Many Jewish visitors know almost nothing of Polish history and not much about the history of Polish Jews – the whole experience is a revelation. And, those who are familiar with many aspects of the Jewish story are surprised by what they discover about the earliest periods, which are the least known. Some visitors discover members of their family in the exhibition. Others find new insights in familiar territory.

We never wanted to create one master narrative that you have to follow in a strict line and see in one way. Nor do we treat Jewish history and culture as an insular, inward-looking little island. Our way of telling the story is much more open for interpretation. There’s more than one voice, more than one perspective. We want to be authoritative without being authoritarian. In our fast-paced world, the museum is a slow medium. You have to take your time. Relax!


Do you have any plans for offering different narrative paths with the tour guides?

Absolutely. One of the things I plan to do is my own curatorial tour guided with my own voice, an audio guide, with me speaking extemporaneously, not from a script. As a person who is directly responsible for the exhibition, I would like to say why we chose to do some things this way and not that way. People find it interesting. The backstory – behind the scenes – is fascinating.

I had a revelatory experience with the International Summer Seminar in Yiddish Language organized by the Shalom Foundation during which I was asked to present the core exhibition.

I said to myself: why make a general presentation? I am going to present the story of Yiddish as told in the core exhibition. I had never thought about the exhibition in that way, but once I started – from the medieval period and all the way to the present – I discovered how fantastic it is to tell this story through moments in the exhibition. The earliest extant complete and intelligible sentence written in Yiddish comes from the thirteenth century festival prayer book, the Worms Mahzor, which we include in an interactive presentation in the medieval gallery. It is possible to follow the history of Yiddish and to show all the milestones in its development through the exhibition. We just produced a Yiddish translation of our audio guide. We also just created a thematic tour of fourteen Yiddish highlights in the core exhibition. It is one of several thematic guides: there is one on Jewish religious life and another on Jewish women and more being planned.

We are also developing a mobile application for smartphones and tablets. Do you remember that big expansion map from 1765? I would love to use the mobile application to show the names of all the towns not only in Polish, but also in Yiddish and Hebrew. People could look up the places they or their families came from and find out the name in Yiddish or Hebrew and how the name has changed over time – and maybe also the population of the town.


What’s the most important function of the museum from the Jewish community’s perspective?

I hope this museum will be a big tent, a meeting place, where the Jewish community can come together. I think of the museum as an agora, a town hall, that is open and inclusive, a place of creative energy and lively debate, a place for commemoration and celebration.

I would also like this museum to be a resource for the renewal of Jewish life. Many Jews in Poland today couldn’t go to their parents or grandparents, if indeed they had any living relatives, and ask them about anything Jewish. And, when a new generation came of age during the 1970’s and 1980’s and wanted to live Jewish lives, they didn’t look to the history of Polish Jews for inspiration, but to their peers in the United States, because they wanted to be contemporary, modern Jews. Now POLIN Museum can offer the history and culture of Polish Jews as a resource in ways that were not possible before.

That POLIN Museum is so open and so public is a message in itself. The building is clad in glass and boasts the largest glass window in Poland. The result is an architecture of light, reflection, and transparency. Facing the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, the building itself carries a powerful message. It says: we are here, we are not afraid, we are not ashamed, we don’t need to hide, we can stand up, and we can be who we are, and we can show the world who we are, and we can invite people into our story. Such a statement would have been unimaginable thirty years ago.


I agree with you that today we can invite people into Jewish history, but I don’t believe they will see who the contemporary Jews are.

Well, fair enough. Maybe it’s still too soon or maybe contemporary Jewish life is better taken up in the museum’s cultural, artistic, and educational programs. But I think it of paramount importance that after so many decades of hiding, POLIN Museum breaks the silence. To break the silence and to come out in such a beautiful, thoughtful, intelligent, and truthful way is huge – for Poland and for Jewish life in Poland and for Jews in the world.  ■


» first published in January 2015

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