Conflicts of memory

More Intellect, Less Emotion.In Search of a Balanced Narrative in Historical Museums in Poland

Historical exhibitions have not been and, seemingly, will not ever be objective. And so, by creating a certain vision of the past, an exhibition permanently shapes historical awareness Consequently, it is extremely important, how one attains it, what one takes from history, and in what way one shows it.

Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków, part of the exhibition © Agnieszka Zabłocka-Kos

The last decade has brought many prestigious architectural competitions for designs of new museums in Poland which will soon be carried out around the country, from the Baltic (Emigration Museum in Gdynia) to the Eastern borderlands (Museum – Memorial Site in the former Sobibór Nazi Death Camp). As the imposing buildings began to emerge, critical comments appeared in the press. A fundamental question has been recently raised by Roman Pawłowski in his article Muzea przyszłości albo mauzolea pamięci (Museums of the Future or Mausoleums) in Gazeta Wyborcza (daily)1..
After the 1989 breakthrough, Pawłowski points out, more than a hundred new buildings have been erected, and new ones, of quite considerable size, are about to open very soon. Most of them are connected with history. Art museums, it must be emphasised, are being expanded and many get housed in converted unique facilities. Wrocław Contemporary Museum, for example, has been located in a monumental yet difficult to adjust Second World War bunker, and a new, gorgeously designed Europeum in Krakow has been located in an old granary. However, as is illustrated with an example from the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, new art museums have found it very difficult to compete with museums showing the history of Poland. Pawłowski quotes the following statement by Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, programme director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews: “Museums in Eastern Europe had to respond to the fall of Communism and the consolidation of nation states. Therefore, in Poland, we have witnessed an abundance of historical museums, whose objective is to preserve the Polish national vision after 60 years of Communism and 25 years of democracy.” I would add another 20 years, namely, the interwar period, when a severe lack of museums caused by annexations was hastily made up for by building new facilities, for art museums above all. As you can see, as regards the sphere of historical museums in Poland, this “backwardness” is an almost 100-year-old “tradition” which has had its consequences.

Polish History Museum building (designed by Paczowski and Fritsch Architects), a visualisation © Muzeum Historii Polski

In my opinion, both in Poland and abroad, the phenomenon of popularity of historical museums did not originate exclusively in the communist past. In Western Europe, museums have already begun to open to commemorate the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War. An immense amount of publications devoted to the subject have been planned, and various memorabilia connected with exhibitions (so-called souvenirs) will be produced regardless of how cruelly they may remind people of the warfare. The bicentennial of the Battle of the Nations has also generated enormous exhibition fervour – in posters announcing the exhibition, Polish people have also been encouraged to visit Leipzig. In connection with these celebrations, exhibitions have been organised to commemorate Prince Józef Antoni Poniatowski who, as we all know, drowned in the White Elster during the battle, on 19 October 1813. Nearly all major cities throughout Poland have prepared exhibitions devoted to this cult hero of the struggle for freedom. One can always find an occasion and anniversary to justify better or worse exhibitions.
We could say that the stimuli for building large museums and organising historical exhibitions have very diverse causes. The first problem is school education. The way history has been taught is inadequate, and it does not only concern Poland. There is very little emphasis on it in the national curriculum; it is being presented to students as a myriad of facts and dates, despite a ministerial assurance that “one should teach historical thinking”. As a result of early specialisation, which was also introduced in Poland, for most young people, who choose to study formal and natural sciences, the study of this subject is very limited indeed. What can they resort to, then? Historical museums have become a convenient extension of school education, or even a substitute. The most important item included in the compulsory programme of excursions in secondary school curriculum has been the Warsaw Rising Museum, and the Museum of the Second World War, the Museum of the Battle of Warsaw, and the Polish History Museum will be included soon. The excursions are designed to make students as impressed as possible (it does not really matter what their impressions may be), so that they leave the museum with their heads full of the whirr of machine guns and fragments of insurrectionary songs, which they have probably heard for the first and last time. Visiting such an exhibition is like a computer game, only that it is not a virtual but a tangible real experience. These museums are also destined for grown-up people. Owing to the accumulation of multimedia, the opportunity to listen to eyewitness accounts and have a closer look at documents and films (which, normally, a student rushed by the teacher won’t do), visitors can explore various aspects of such an exhibition in greater depth and leave with an insightful reflection rather than merely filled with emotions and impressions. Thus, in the contemporary educational system, the role of historical museums has become far more important than before, and they are far more educational that art museums, which are only frequented by very ambitious teachers and equally ambitious students. Historical museums are or can be an equivalent of missing history lessons, and they could also (will they?) fill the gap in the education of thinking, discussing and reflecting in terms of history. Therefore, I believe, many of those who create exhibition concepts – when asking themselves, “who will visit my museum?” – reply, “young people will”, and it is young people that they focus on in designing their presentations and appealing interiors.

Museum of the Second World War building (designed by “Kwadrat” Studio), a visualisation © Studio Architektoniczne „Kwadrat”

Another motive for building historical museums is “historical policy”, usually promoted by the ruling political party or some pressure groups. Worth mentioning here is Erika Steinbach’s initiative to build a Centre Against Expulsions, now called Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation – but commonly referred to as the “Museum for the Expelled”, which sums up the whole concept. Neither any government or influential groups of scientists and historians, chiefly German, who are expected to be fully responsible in this respect, have been able to prevent it. Having said that, due to the efforts of various political parties to influence the shape of historical museums under construction in Poland and to “appropriate” the past, historical exhibitions have not been and, seemingly, will not ever be objective. And so, by creating a certain vision of the past, an exhibition permanently shapes historical awareness (for it is difficult to imagine alterations of the exhibitions in the Warsaw Rising Museum, or the Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow). Consequently, it is extremely important, how one attains it, what one takes from history, and in what way one shows it.
Educational and political functions of new historical museums are inherently connected with the architectural concept of these buildings. According to their investors, these museums, in particular, should or even (if they are newly constructed) must look attractive. Innovative museum structures, starting from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, had taken root in the late 20th century and dominated the public space to become its distinctive mark. Roughly in the mid-20th century, the traditional museum model (namely, one consisting of a long suite of connecting halls accompanied by smaller rooms) developed over the previous century was abandoned completely. Although it is sometimes still used, as this model is especially good for exhibiting paintings, for example in the Gemäldegalerie in the new Kulturforum in Berlin. In many countries in the late 20th century, hot on the heels of economic prosperity, gorgeous museum buildings were invested in, which have attracted millions of tourists with their unusual forms – even more than the exhibitions themselves. We should mention the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry, and the recently established MAXII, that is to say, the National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome, designed by Zaha Hadid and officially selected as the best new building in the world (in 2010), the form and the spatial organisation of which are very 21st-century style indeed.
Hundreds of architects have been participating in art museum design competitions, which I wrote about in my article connected with the architectural design competition for the New Bauhaus Museum in Weimar3. This subject belongs to the most inspiring ones, as it offers architects the greatest artistic opportunities, it is not usually limited by any set requirements, and, finally, it is not restricted financially, in the West at least. The cities or ministries which invest in such competitions want new museum structures to attract more tourists to a given locality, to become its new modern hallmark, and also (albeit not always) to fulfil educational purposes. Typically, however, the first stage in creating a museum is announcing the architectural competition even though the concept of the exhibition has not yet been defined. Worse still, there is usually a shortage of items to be displayed – such as in most large historical museums which have now been developed in Poland, where work on collecting the exhibits has only just begun. This is why the architects, who are given an enigmatic programme, containing concise data concerning the exhibition space, the storage and other spaces (bookshops, restaurants, conference rooms, etc.) are forced to design large spaces, which will be turned into desired structures by a different, specialist company at a later point. The story of the unfortunate competition for the concept of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw illustrates how erroneous it is to design a building “from the end”, without any strict functional guidelines. The sequence of events following the creation of the Bauhaus Museum I have described has also been unsuccessful. The hastily organised competition was not connected with any thought-out land development plan. The plan has been prepared only recently, involving shockingly bad spatial solutions. The same applies to the Polish History Museum, the location of which has never been established! Therefore, architects have been forced to design “universal” forms, which can be relocated as circumstances suggest. As a result, they aim at designing attractive exteriors and universal interiors, they often ignore the urban context of a future museum completely, and they apply “speaking” forms that are connected with the purposes of the museum.

The exhibition Forced Labour: Germans, Forced Labourers, and War, the Kubicki Arcades in the Royal Castle in Warsaw © Buchenwald Memorial collection

Hence, museum architecture has turned to the 18th century, when so-called “revolutionary architects” designed symbolic forms, for example, a phallic brothel. “Speaking architecture” (architecture parlante) seems the only reasonable solution for modern museums, historical ones in particular. Architects love to invent theories by which to justify their work, so that regular viewers often find it hardly possible to penetrate their artistic depth. Aside from the “speaking” content, usually displayed in the shape and exterior of a building as “visible signs”, the interior may be the complete opposite of the exterior. Here, the strongest emphasis can be placed on sculpting the space, although sometimes, as in the Libeskind-designed Jewish Museum in Berlin, it involves a well thought-out concrete plan to influence the viewer’s emotional response, while the façade and form of the building are cold and not very telling. Due to the fact that investors do not really specify the subject matter of the exhibitions, architects have to design universal interiors whose appeal lies in sculptural forms or “special effects”, such as light.
Such is the interior that an exhibition “enters”. What does it look like? It can be an antithesis of the vibrating artful chaos – namely, neutral, well-ordered, almost stark, aimed at inspiring reflections rather than emotions. One rarely comes across such in Poland. The interiors proposed for the Polish History Museum include all sorts of capsules, receptacles and the like. The final decision of the jury with regard to the award winning design of the artists from WWAA Pracownia Projektowa Marcin Mostafa i Platige Image Sp. z o.o. seems worth quoting here: “This work stands out for its creators’ innovative approach to the exhibition guidelines. Having said that, the functionality of the exhibition has been interestingly combined with artistic qualities of the design. 
Individual historic periods, exemplified chronologically, have been presented in individual but not separate spaces – the character of each is unique and far from being bland and boring. What deserves special praise is a panorama called Free Elections, which provokes and stimulates the imagination. The atmospheric use of light in the exhibition stirs emotions while never overwhelming the viewer with spatial composition details. The exhibition space design inspires diverse feelings and associations. The convenient fast path through the exhibition, based on so-called ‘receptacles’, is also worthy of note. The floor design symbolically integrates the idea of the Museum as a whole, and it gives the viewer a sense of historical continuity. The exhibition space is flexible; it can be adjusted according to the available collections – individual parts of the exhibition space can be replaced and rearranged. The architectural forms which organise the exhibition space are clear to all visitors of the Museum, regardless of their educational background.”

The exhibition Forced Labour; emphasis was placed on the documents, and the aesthetic aspect was of secondary importance © Agnieszka Zabłocka-Kos

And so the interior designers have proposed a concept that is more or less based on the approach that is de rigueur in Poland now: appealing, atmospheric, and emotional. It is a multitude of shapes and colours – a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope that is very inviting, visually. The question arises, is it equally appealing in terms of its subject matter?
This design, however, has not materialised and it is hard to say whether it will ever see the light of day. We already know that deadlines of other projects, such as the Museum of the Second World War, will not be met, either. Therefore, it seems important to resume – and to make public – a discussion on the following subject: what should be the objective of historical exhibitions in Poland and how are they supposed to look? Such a debate is advisable chiefly with regard to the way historical awareness has been shaped (in young Polish people in particular), and also with regard to shaping people’s aesthetic sensitivity, which our cities have provided with very diverse stimuli (most of them still being negative rather than positive, most sadly; see: Filip Springer’s book Wanna z kolumnadą).
A good starting point for discussing different concepts of historical exhibitions, especially ones devoted to “difficult themes”, may be the exhibition Praca przymusowa. Niemcy, robotnicy przymusowi i wojna (Forced Labour: Germans, Forced Labourers, and War), which was held at Arkady Kubickiego (the Kubicki Arcades) in the Royal Castle in Warsaw, between January and March 2013. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue and an extensive statement by its curator, Professor Volkhard Knigge, the director of the Buchenwald Memorial on the site of the former concentration camp, published in the eighth issue of the yearbook Zagłada Żydów. Studia i Materiały (Holocaust Studies and Materials) (2012).
Alas, the exhibition went unnoticed by the media, it had no publicity whatsoever, and very few people knew about it. I am afraid that many of those involved in the creation of new historical exhibitions also missed it. Similarly, an interview with its curator, conducted by Zofia Wóycicka, has been hard to find and only a few museologists have access to it3. The same issue of Zagłada Żydów also includes a tremendously important conversation conducted by Jacek Leociak with Ewa Domańska and Piotr Piotrowski4.

The former forced labourer Stanisław Masny visits the exhibition © Zamek Królewski w Warszawie

Volkhard Knigge’s views on exhibitions devoted to the Second World War differ from the opinion of most organisers of such in Poland. He says that his exhibition was designed according to the formula of “intriguing brevity”, where emphasis was placed on the documents, and the aesthetic aspect was of secondary importance: “There is no fake solemnity here, or a fictitious reality generated by using the media. The exhibition does not claim to be the past or its immediate reflection... We invite people to immerse themselves in the historical documents, like detectives... it is about helping [them] activate their own imagination, enter into dialogue with historical evidence, and bring themselves to form their own judgements about the past... This type of exhibition will also evoke emotions, however, not by the arrangement of exhibits, but through confronting the viewer with historical evidence in order to stimulate him to reflect.” Such was the exhibition at the Royal Castle, designed in a perfectly economic way by the company gewerk design, which has also developed “theatrical” museum exhibitions (Friederisiko in Potsdam, in 2012).
The exhibits were shown in display cabinets, arranged differently in individual parts of the exhibition, excellently lit and positioned along a “route” that Arkady seemed to have been made for. The unique, understated and sophisticated display cabinets matched the curator’s rationale for selecting items that would enable the viewer to get to know a particular event, to learn about the life of a particular person, to “enter” the events, so to speak. A similar strategy was employed in the exhibition in Buchenwald: the way a Nazi’s tender letter to his wife about the sausage he had for breakfast, in which he casually mentions “dirty work” (killing Jews) that awaits him, was placed in a simple black cabinet, is far more telling than the dramatic mock-up of his cramped workplace.
Knigge has emphasised that many different viewpoints must be used, for, as we know very well from Polish museums, the way in which an exhibition is designed already involves a historical interpretation. We fear this sort of diversity in our museums, although I must admit that even the Warsaw exhibition about forced labour has left us unsatisfied in this respect. Germans tend to sympathise with their victims more than any other nation does, avoiding or ignoring the subject of the perpetrators. This is extremely offensive to Polish viewers, and undermines the “objectivity” postulated by the curators.
Having said that, the interview with Volkhard Knigge leads us to very important conclusions with respect to Polish exhibitions. Their present, highly emotional design which is a kaleidoscope of colours, impressions, scents and scenes, the almost unbearable endless mutability, which I have felt at the Schindler’s Factory, are tiresome. The mock-up of the concentration camp at Płaszów leaves you unconcerned, another black wall fails to impress, and finally you only wish to find yourself in a sterile white cafe. This is not the way it should be. The German exhibition discussed here was a complete opposite of the Polish concepts. Almost “cold” in its rationality, restrained, sometimes over-aestheticised, it required intellectual effort intellectual effort and willpower on the part of the viewer to reflect in the way that the curators had expected. This does not seem to be the right way, considering Polish sensibilities in particular.
In the interview, the exhibition curator emphasises, “I believe that a fake alternative has been created by saying: here is a dramatisation, a narrative and emotions, and there is a source-based, purely intellectual, cool presentation. One needs to differentiate between two methods for provoking feelings. Big expensive staging... provokes emotions, only that the emotions come from outside, (...) they are superficial and they disappear quickly. Emotions which one generates when confronting historical evidence last longer and usually inspire one to delve into things and to understand them better.”
I think that the Polish viewpoint is slightly different. The sensibilities of most Polish people are different from that of Germans – one that is undoubtedly rooted in Catholicism; they also see and feel things differently and they manifest their emotions in a different way. Germans do not understand it or they do not want to understand it, which I have often experienced myself. These cultural differences have also been reflected in many Polish, and German exhibition designs. Although I am very much against discordant objects, images, sounds, and smells, I am going to defend it to an extent, because it results from our “ordinary extraordinariness”, a different perception of the world. And we have made exhibitions mainly for ourselves, although we increasingly focus on the foreign viewer, especially in large museums that have been designed. I believe that foreign critics of our exhibitions should also consider this point of view in their comments on the “Polish theatrum of museums”, which are often negative. In the new, architecturally intriguing, Polish museums, I would like to see exhibitions which are a reasonable compromise. Let us not fear stimulating, or even expressing emotions; they will never be superficial as long as they are inspired by a well thought-out and arranged space. It is all in the hands of the curators to keep the designers’ artistic ambitions in check. And let us not fear an intellectual reflection – there should be much more of it than there has been so far. These days, when history lessons are replaced by museums, the latter also need to serve an educational purpose: teaching how to ask questions, investigate problems, think and discuss in a logical manner. If only the Polish museums had been able to combine our emotionality with “not-really-our” thoughtfulness and self-restraint, we would probably have reached perfection. Is the way to it very long?

Translated from the Polish by Paweł Łopatka