European Capitals of Culture

Death redecorated

This June a new branch of the City of Krakow Historical Museum was opened: the Oskar Schindler Enamelware Factory, with the exhibition Krakow – the period of the 1939–1945 occupation. Krakow’s first truly modern museum is a model for local thinking about museums and their role, history, and identity.

The map

An attempt to map the coordinates marking this museum’s place must begin with opposition. The authors of this museum seem to be seeking a kind of balance between the two most important Polish narratives on the history of this period: the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum, and the Warsaw Rising Museum. The former is a chilling, severe testimony to mass murder, a kind of mass grave, the fullest of all expressions of the strategy of absence. It is a superbly ascetic, perfectly preserved figure of enforced sacrifice. The latter institution, which only came into being after decades of work and debate in society, is a multisensory explosion of all that cumulated energy, using an entirely new language. It is a study for a sacrificial act, but in this instance one that was the outcome of a political decision rather than of the battering ram of 20th century history. Fascinating in its expressive sensualism, this place of remembrance adopted intensity of communication as its strategy to bring its message alive. Initially received with enthusiasm, today it faces increasing levels of criticism. It is the context for questions being raised about the ethical aspects of history based politics and about the justification of rebuilding the national cult of doomed struggle at the cost of sacrificing lives. These controversies have led the museum community to reflect more deeply on ideological unison in what is formally a polyphonic institution, and above all on the moral aspects of constructing a “museum message” at all. Utopian postulates of objectivity have resurfaced, and the current absolute priority afforded to multimedia is suddenly being seen as a kind of technological complex that can render thought ¬pro¬cesses infertile. The existence of the Warsaw Rising Museum is important because it has become a point of reference for all kinds of practices – on the one hand it is a sort of memento helping to avoid mistakes, while on the other its presence means that we can demand more from new museum discourses. There is a third aspect, too: despite the criticism of some of its naturalistic elements, this, Poland’s first narrative, scenographic display is nevertheless as a whole a model in terms of its form; something to be emulated, a gauntlet that has been thrown down. These slightly schizophrenic discussions accompanying the creation of the conception for the Enamelware Factory – the next new World War II themed space – had a palpable impact on its final form.

Copyright: Tomasz Kalarus, Schindler's Factory

Krakow is a historical city, which is one of its strengths, but also creates ballast. Given the venerability of its fabric and the dominance of traditionalism, more significance is often attributed to new, ever more effective ways of communicating history than to past events themselves. The centuries of Jewish presence here have become a significant part of the story of this place, both in the category of lost heritage and as part of the foundations still constitutive of its contemporary identity. This is a story that in recent years, through events such as the annual Festival of Jewish Culture, have found a way into mass culture without violating the taboo of sensitive material. It is also a story that Steven Spielberg translated by means of the Hollywood discourse into the universally comprehensible language of mainstream culture; his film Schindler’s List (1993) focused the world’s attention on a part of Kazimierz previously well hidden from the commercialisation of the tourist industry.

On the “other” bank of the Vistula, outside the Jewish ghetto, was an enamelware factory, built between the wars by a consortium of Jewish entrepreneurs. In 1939 it was taken over by Oskar Schindler, who initially ran it purely as a business venture, but as his awareness of the crimes of war grew, gradually converted his factory into an ark for Jews assigned for extermination. More mythogenic material would be hard to come by. Yet for the next half century the space in which this story was played out shared the decline of the notorious post industrial Zabłocie district in which it is sited, which became a synonym for a dangerous, dysfunctional backwater. It is only in recent years, with the vogue for post industrialism driven by alternative artists, that new forms of life have begun to germinate in this disconnected exclusion zone. The city authorities, in amendments to Krakow’s zoning plan, decided to use the former factory as the site for two prestigious institutions: the production shops for the Contemporary Art Museum, and the administrative building for the Historical Museum. This project entailed a risky dichotomy: a small plot was to house two institutions with different rhythms and objectives – aside from their shared mission of tourism, and later revitalisation through investment. What will become of this original plot share, and whether the two museums will coexist in opposition or in dialogue, will become clear in a few years’ time. All the same, something of a pattern is certainly emerging − the production shops have disappeared, replaced by the building site of a much awaited architectural totem to modernity. The Historical Museum, by contrast, has adapted its part of the complex without altering its external form, taking on the challenge of working with its difficult architecture – not, after all, built with exhibition logic in mind – in the name of preserving its authenticity.

The labyrinth

Let us now take a look inside to see how the institution operates with the multiplicity of contexts bestowed on it with its new home. The title of its permanent exhibition, Krakow – the period of the 1939–1945 occupation, is a clear signal encapsulating the idea of the place. Its theme is not martyrology but mundanity, an overarching story of the city and the time, not assuming any of the possible subjective angles – the Polish, the Jewish or the German – or certainly not any one particular one. This does not alter the fact that it is colloquially known as the “Schindler Museum”. It would be hypocritical to see this as coincidental, and passivity not to resist such simplification, because it is no secret that harping on the symbolic value of a place can prove a double edged sword. The presence on the ground floor of a film café decorated with stills from Spielberg’s movie is, like the need for the myth itself, understandable. Too early to draw conclusions – we must go on.

Copyright: Tomasz Kalarus, Schindler's Factory

“Excuse me! Not that way; the exhibition starts to your left,” the cashier informs us politely but firmly. Very well, let’s follow the authors’ train of thought. Into a pre war photographer’s studio – where every occasion for celebration can be immortalised with one magnesium flash of the magician’s camera. The walls are bedecked with photographs of weddings, christenings and First Communions – the minor personal facts usually overlooked by history. We hear another firm but deferent voice – that of the photographer himself positioning us for a photograph. Competent care, low key order, detail, and the ritual of painstaking conservation of meanings is the first subtext that comes through both in the narrative itself and the wheels of the museum purveying it. This delectable cohesiveness cannot last, however; the plaster will start to crumble from this smooth surface of history. Ironically, we will see this first in the “photoplasticon”, that machine of nostalgia and imagination, which beams snapshots from exotic lands interspersed between equally unreal photographs of the Anschluss. But the bonds of fresh, euphoric independence will not be broken so easily. Come into the waiting room – the train will be here any minute. “One way only – to victory!” shout the posters on the wall. Somebody has left a daily paper, the Kurier Codzienny, dated 31 August 1939. In it there’s a reprint of a short story by Maurice Dekobra, rendered in Polish as Three days to the end of the world, and a step by step guide on how to put on a gas mask. Splashes of red, shots, government calls, half stifled conversations, and amid the chaos the mantra of a radio broadcast: “Westerplatte is fighting”. But there’s no going back: Hans Frank is building the General Government in Krakow. The regal cobbles beneath our feet make way for paving blocks in a swastika design, in a complicated play of pre war geometry, modernistic order and the new German Ordnung. We have to keep our feet firmly on the ground and watch our step. When we look up, the Jews will be gone, leaving walls plastered with the aggression of public information posters and portraits of Hitler. Deportations, cells, scaffolds.

Upstairs, even closer to heaven, is the ghetto – a narrow, winding path along the wall. No lights, no air, just a sticky silence like in an overgrown cemetery. Testimonies to terror written in a child’s hand. The motions of normality enacted by oversized plaster marionettes in an overcrowded apartment, as if in an aquarium, behind glass, which allows us to see, but also imposes an opposition between inside and outside. The whole of this Brechtian alienation effect denies us the right of experiencing. And though unintentional, it is appropriate – this world is no more. The liquidation of the ghetto: Jewish song accompanies the crowd on its – and our – march down a narrow corridor of claustrophobia and hopelessness. And at this point comes the first crucial emergence from the gloom – directly into the brightly lit, spacious enclave of the factory offices. The cool sanctuary of Schindler’s room also provides a moment of reprieve for the narration, which is gradually beginning to suffocate under the pace. The triadic layout in the office comprises a wall map of Europe, a heavy desk, and opposite it a memento in the form of a pile of thousands of tin pots. This is a reference to the glass cases containing piles of shoes in Auschwitz − mere matter that proved more durable than the human beings it belonged to. The cool of the room and the metal have the power of salvation, forming a corrugated shelter, a refuge filled with the sounds of work at the production line. The significance of this ascetic continuum of history is all too clear. We go on through a narrow corridor that parodies a street; the shop window displays look more like a theatrical store of dust covered products of civilisation. It is a shame that the history of the Polish Underground State is restricted to a single screen that is all too easy to miss in the next set up, of an ordinary apartment, eclipsed by the flash of a comic strip about a sabotage action. The authors of the exhibition evidently want the merry go round of life to spin to the rhythm of the sounds of the liquidation of the ghetto. We emerge again from darkness onto unpleasantly white gravel. The presentation about the Płaszów concentration camp is set in a room whose walls resemble the barren earth of a quarry, where for the strongest individuals work validated their life, while for the rest it spelled death.

Copyright: Tomasz Kalarus, Schindler's Factory

As we go back downstairs we see anti Soviet propaganda taking the place of the anti Semitic posters; the Bolsheviks are coming, we overhear in a conversation in a hairdressing salon. A military parade − with real military insignia − illustrates the bitterness of this liberation: Welcome, Krakow, along with the rest of the country, this is your ceremonial entrance into another period of terror. All this is observed mutely by a collection of vintage toys, while the visitor begins to look twitchily around for the exit. But there is no getting out onto the surface without the punch line. We fall, struggling, into the fleshy tissue of a dark, organic corridor, leaning against soft walls in order to regain our balance. At last the museum ejects us from its Freudian womb into the finalistic brilliance of a mock up pantheon arranged on a circular floor plan, in which the only decoration is provided by inscriptions in various languages. This reference to the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem has a cardboard like, temporary monumentalism about it. But then a symbol cannot be expected to pack the punch of the original; intensity of experience is a question of sensitivity – it is the significance of the final message that counts. Wrong: this is not the end after all. The last room, called the Selection Room, seems rather bare, with nothing in it but a white book and a black book lying side by side. Their electronic pages, containing scores of testimonies, are nevertheless a lesson in moral decisions. Dressed in scraps of their stories, the names of Poles, Jews and Germans from both sides of the barricades are intended as a polyphonic discussion revealing the truth of these times: there is everyone, not just us. We are here, of course, we are standing bent over a state of the art processor which in effect is nothing more than a glass case from before the museum revolution. Just as the exhibition design was devoid of options allowing visitors to choose their own path through the simulated labyrinth of the exhibition, so here too our activeness is restricted to turning the pages – the pages of two separate volumes, because the choice is black or white, hulled of the previous realistic narration. The decision on the qualification of the deed has been taken for us, while those condemned to the roles of heroes and traitors are signed with their own full names.

Naturally, in view of such an impressive whole, we could pass over the closing incident in silence. But that would be an indication of false loyalty, especially with regard to the puenta, which not only smacks of overkill but is also a double inconsistency. Firstly because essentially it is duplicating the rhetoric of the Warsaw Rising Museum, that treacherous point of reference from which the authors of this concept were keen to distance themselves. And secondly, the coda is inconsistent with the moderate tone and honest informative quality of the rest of the exhibition, and cancels out the effort put into its objectivity – its attempt at objectivity, for like any form of communication, an exhibition has to impose its own standards of viewing. The entire controversy is a question of nuances – all it would have taken was to merge the contents of the two hard disks and remove the personal data of their subjects, and leave the judgement of the actions of these “ordinary people” to the viewer. Though few would dare to do even that with only these fragments of individual stories clouded by memory for evidence, without an awareness of survival in wartime, for that is something not even the most expressive, sensual, realistic layout can convey.

In search of a puenta

Museums attempt to create images of non existent realities with only splinters of them at their disposal. Hence the emphasis on narrative, polyphony, and scenographic or electronic simulations. But technologies are still no more than the raw material, the papier mâché, while the actual process of forging the links, filling in the gaping holes and reconstructing a whole should rest with the viewer. How much greater punch the factory interior would have packed had there been the possibility of reversing the narration, of seeking justifications for those individuals’ choices – read about at the start, with a fresh head, from that cool screen. If there were the possibility of going “the wrong way” through the cruel irreversibility of history, of shifting the emphasis from the effects to an analysis of their causes. If the memory of the few hours of this experience could be captured on viewers’ faces in a final photograph taken in the photographic studio. At present there is no space to do this – but museum constructs are not set in stone, especially where they make reference to labyrinths, as here. They can be filled out with content gradually, learn their shape from their visitors. This programmatic labyrinthine structure in particular remains a moot point − the present layout of the space forces the visitor to proceed along a single corridor of chronology. The symbolic transitions in the narrative seem to reference the classic figure of the labyrinth as a path to truths, knowledge of the world, and self awareness concealed at its centre. But here there is no centre, no search. And it is even less a model of the library of Babel in the style of Borges – devoid of borders, an endless labyrinth with a changing, ephemeral centre. Yet evoking one of the favoured figures in post modernism is a validation of the museum’s very theme and the multiplicity of its accompanying discourses: the multicultural character of Krakow between the wars, the war, contemporary commentaries, memoirs, Hollywood transcriptions, the artistic avant garde. But for this model to be possible, there has to be an opening up to new paths of memory, and above all trust in the visitor’s powers of imagination. The lack of these two elements is clear in the ready to view, cut and dried message, and turns the whole thing into an ideologically traditional space dressed up in expressive, state of the art forms of presentation.

Copyright: Tomasz Kalarus, Schindler's Factory

The other issue that must come up during a visit to Schindler’s Factory is the question of the place itself and the significance of the building as a historical relic within the exhibition. This is not about the choice made long ago now between a museum of collections and a narrative museum, but about the consequences of putting the latter choice into practice. The role of the scenography and the new technologies within the museum’s objectives is to reinforce its message, bring it to life, stimulate an experience, and enable visitors to see and feel for themselves. A side effect of this, however, is the blurring of the boundaries between the authentic and its prosthesis, and hence the integrity of the curator’s profession demands that particular importance be attached to establishing a legible code of meanings. The lack of such a code is the greatest weakness in the contemporary museum profession, which in the “rat race” for cathartic effect is prone to increasingly risky touch up jobs. And this new exhibition in Krakow has fallen into the same trap. We are bombarded by a barrage of copies: rescaled, enlarged photographs steal the thunder of real size real medals squeezed into small display cases, sound effects imitating air raids drown out the fragile testimonies of survivors. Comic strips, plaster puppets and staged conversations are the dominant tone in this proprietary, expressive show that upstages the authentic, albeit more by accident than by design. It is also true that this kind of “whirligig of attractions” has become a law of our times, and rather than fight it, the discerning viewer should simply look more closely. The dramatic effect would not suffer, however, for a clear indication of status, whether authentic or counterfeit – or rather “museified” simulacrum, for excerpts of post factum chronicles or autobiographies copied out in childish handwriting are certainly not innocent representation; they call to mind Jean Baudrillard and his famous “reality does not exist”. The blurring of the boundary between what is real and what is imagined – simulacra, empty models, signs devoid of meaning, referring to nothing, flashy hyper realism reproducing reality – are commonplace in pop culture. Such “imaginary stations […] feed reality” 1 to a world that has lost its ability to experience, engage and forge bonds. Their need to purvey manifestations makes museums particularly susceptible to this temptation, which nonetheless undermines truth and cause, creating nothing more than a loop of empty references. It has taken over the television discourse of the Holocaust as of a “cold”, inaccessible event, and has become an “opportunity for experiencing a tactile thrill and a posthumous emotion, a deterrent thrill as well, which will make them [the masses – M.L.L.] spill into forgetting with a kind of good aesthetic conscience of the catastrophe.”2 While models from American society’s media therapy can hardly be transposed directly onto Central European exhibition designs, “the magnetism of the screen” is becoming fact in our museums too. Hence, as reservations of authentic originals, museums have to remember that this interactive hypnosis offers only a simulation of experience – even if the visitors who succumb to it do everything to ignore that fact.

According to Baudrillard, “the transition from signs that conceal something to signs that conceal the fact that there is nothing” has already been made. Yet the clash of historical politics with the age of screens in this multisensory factory has by some miracle spared the glass of the display cases, which will lead those hungry for the original at least some, though not all of the way. The exhibition Krakow – the period of the 1939–1945 occupation thus offers the visitor two unofficial themed routes: the first an opportunity to see a “precession of simulacra” embodied in the scenography of Central European museum practice, and the second following the authentic, which is still possible, though a little against the grain of the “official” cultural narrative. Both require alertness in our approach to them, but both are worthy of equal attention.