The symbolism of the architectural form and the narrative structure of the core exhibition trace a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland. The Polin Museum opened on October 28, 2014, but the research and educational facilities of the Museum have been active since April, 2013.
The institution, long anticipated among the country's primary institutions of culture and history, is the first extensive project devoted to the legacy of Polish Jews in Polish territories, from the Middle Ages to the present. Built in the former Warsaw ghetto, where Jewish history took the most tragic turn of our age, the museum will tell the story of Jewish life in Poland, to be 'a journey into the remarkable world, which is still very much alive in the present'.
In September 2014 the Museum of the History of Polish Jews changed its name to the Polin Museum. See more
The idea behind establishing the Museum of the History of Polish Jews was conceived in 1995. Yet plans for a museum on the site came about years earlier, reaching back to the immediate post-war period when plans for reconstructing the demolished districts of the city were developing. Bohdan Lachert, the architect who would design a great part of the Muranów district, came up with a plan to create a Museum for the Fight Against Fascism, which never came to fruition. Instead the ruins of the 19th century horse artillery barracks remained in their dismal state until the 1960s. The ruins also drew large numbers of people paying tribute to the fallen at the Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto, designed by sculptor Nathan Rapaport and built in 1948. Iconic photographs show Richard Nixon and Marlene Dietrich, among others, talking a walk in the ruins, the very site of today's Jewish Museum.
The landmark structure was demolished in mid 1960's and the site remained for years undeveloped. In 1997, the City of Warsaw tranferred this plot of land to theAssociation of the Jewish Historical Institute. Today the brand-new Museum of the History of the Polish Jews stands on this site.
The site's recent history commenced in 1995 when the museum project was initiated, thanks to the support of individuals and institutional donors from around the world. It continued primarily as a social initiative until January 2005, when the Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage, the mayor of Warsaw and the head of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw signed an agreement to establish the museum. It is the first public-private institution of its sort in Poland, created jointly through the efforts of the government, local authorities and non-governmental agencies. The government covers the costs of construction, and the AJHI is responsible for financing and establishing the main exhibition, along with providing support for the operational budget and the museum's educational and public programmes. On January 17th 2014 the Minister of Culture, Bogdan Zdrojewski, announced Prof. Dariusz Stola as the new director of the Museum.
The total cost of building the museum amounted to some 330 million Polish złoty (about 80 million euro, or 100 million U.S. dollars), with 200 million covered by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the City of Warsaw. The 130 million PLN for the main exhibition was provided by the Association's private donors, which include Tad Taube of Taube Philanthropies and Koret Foundation, Zygmunt Rolat, the federal government of Germany, as well as Polish businessman Jan Kulczyk through his Kulczyk Holding company. See list of donors here...
The competition for the design of the museum was held in June 2005, which included taking into consideration the structure itself and the concept of the main exhibition, tying them together. There were 250 projects submitted, from over 100 architects from 36 countries. Eleven projects made it into the final round. Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki's design was selected over a plan by Daniel Liebeskind, architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, for building the museum in the shape of a book with torn-out pages, Kengo Kuma's series of small pavilions recalling the former layout of the district and Zwi Hecker's melange of sharp angles and soft curves.
See more on the competition and the winning project at www.jewishmuseum.org.pl/en/cms/competition
Mahlamäki has said that he was greatly affected by the images of the district taken from the air after the war, with the Saint Augustine Church rising out of the ruins. As he said in an interview with writer Beata Chomątowska in her book Stacja Muranów / Muranów Station:
It occurred to me that in building the museum, it would be worthwhile to bring back at least the structure of what was there before. To make people aware of how much has changed and to show how to read a past that has been methodically hidden away. Which visitor might guess on his own that where there is a clump of trees growing today there once were residential buildings several storeys tall? My museum is meant to be universal, depicting a thousand years of Jewish history in Poland, not just on this patch of grass, which was once the centre of the Jewish world and of which I knew nothing when I first came to Warsaw. Those images made me realize that there must be another way.
Mahlamäki avoided the use of concrete and opted insead for a glass façade. Within, he used a wavy shotcrete material that is similar to sandstone in its welcoming texture. He aimed to bring a more pleasant air to the site, explaining, "Light was needed here. Natural, pure illumination. The type of lamps that would brighten up the surroundings and bring out new tones in the subtle background, as might crystal in the mountains or a waterfall in the darkness of a wood".
A key element of the building's architecture is the great bisecting gap, with windows opening on the green square on one side and the Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto on the other. Mahlamäki says this break refers to a number of symbols: from the parting of the Red Sea to the splitting of the Jewish people across the world following the great rift caused by the Holocaust. As the architect described it to Beata Chomątowska:
You're standing before a basic six-sided form, split by a wide gap directing before the monument and immediately you think of all of these things as you look at the cracks evident in the wall. It's dramatic, no one would expect it in this place, but the split that's created doesn't alienate, but rather welcomes one to enter. Its sides are curved, softened, as in a mountain cave. There's silence, only the sound of water streaming down the walls.
Mahlamäki's design covers 12,800 square metres of functional space, a third of which is occupied by the main exhibition, which will occupy the entire lower level. The remaining space holds the educational, cultural and commercial facilities, as well as space for temporary exhibitions and a multifunctional screening/performance space, educational centre, information centre, media centre, children's area, restaurant and café. Construction was executed by the Polimex-Mostostal company. Initial spaces in the museum will be open to the public from the 20th of April 2013, months before the museum's official opening.
An international team 130 scholars was brought together in 2006 to begin work on the main exhibition under the lead of programme director Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. It will be made up of eight galleries covering 4,300 square metres, illustrating a thousand years of Jewish life in Polish territories. As Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explains, "These 1,000 years of constant presence is something entirely remarkable, something that cannot be said about Jews in England, France, Germany, Austria or parts of Italy and certainly not Spain".
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett emphasises that the exhibition does not focus on any particular period, as the goal is to trace the entire period in equal measure. Unlike the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, this museum will not focus on the Holocaust. Instead, it is meant to be a symbolic completion of the neighbouring memorial monument. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says, "We go to the monument to pay tribute to those who perished through remembering. We go to the museum to pay tribute to them in remembering how they lived".
Visitors will enter through the Forest, a symbolic representation of the historic lands along the Vistula River where locals came into contact with Jewish merchants. Then they will progress through Middle Ages, in which history is narrated through frescoes, and Paradisus judaeorum of the 15th and 16th centuries, the period of the Jagiellonian royal dynasty during which the Jewish presence in Poland flourished. In the Town gallery, visitors explore Jewish settlements of the 17th and 18th centuries, before the time of Poland's partitions and occupation by foreign powers - from the home to the synagogue, with the entire roof and polychrome ceiling replica from a 17th-century synagogue crowning the gallery.
Challenges of Modernity presents Jewish society in the 19th century, followed by Second Republic, complete with a multimedia re-creation of the streets of pre-war Warsaw. Holocaust, dark and foreboding, also commemorates events and heroes of the city's Ghetto Uprising. Finally comes After the War, including an installation depicting the antisemitic campaign of March 1968 and the subsequent exodus of Polish Jews from the Gdańsk railway station in Warsaw. This moment stretches towards our times, while also turning back towards history. Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explains,
In the gallery after 1989 we show the history of a small society - at this point in time there aren't many Jews here, particularly when compared with the period just before the war when Poland was inhabited by one of the greatest populations of Jews - 3.3 million. We're talking small numbers, but also the great presence of Jews in the Polish consciousness. Our museum intends to be an expression of this. The main exhibition is currently under construction, with its opening planned for the beginning of 2014.
Research and education
On the 19th of April the museum launches its educational and cultural programme. It is meant to be a site of open dialogue, which is to include exhibitions, conferences and debates. Workshops will be held for teachers and students, along with the hosting of Jewish cultural festivals, such as the New Jewish Music Festival in May, along with concerts, theatre performances and film screenings.
The museum's Information will provide access to Polish and international databases, such as that of New York's YIVO institute. Visitors can inquire about issues of interest or concern, as well as share their own stories, which will be compiled into a collection of spoken histories. Temporary exhibitions will be held, for example the exhibition from YIVO's archive of Jews visiting their families in Poland prior to the Second World War.
The museum will continue its online activities, including the Virtual Shtetl, a resource for local Jewish culture and its traces throughout the historic territories of Poland, the Central Judaica Database of Jewish relics and artifacts from the collection of the AJHI, and the Polish Righteous site, which shares information on the protection of persecuted Jews during the war by Poles. The Stacja Muranów audio guide, based on Beata Chomątowska’s book, provides an English-language tour of the Muranów district in Warsaw, which includes the former ghetto, through the memories of its former inhabitants. The old Nalewki and the district at the beginning of the 20th century is covered, the destruction in the Second World War and then the construction of a model housing development for the New Socialist Man, and finally the newest point on the district's map, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The My Warsaw iphone application allows users to take a walking tour of Warsaw as seen through the eyes of Janusz Korczak, the scholar and pedagogue who provided a great material and emotional support to children victimised by the war.
Download the Stacja Muranów audio guide at: www.jewishmuseum.org.pl
For more information on the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, see: www.jewishmuseum.org.pl.
Located at 6 Anielewicza Street in Warsaw, the museum's initial opening is scheduled for the 19th of April in commemoration of the Ghetto Uprising and its memorial tributes. The museum will officially open at the beginning of 2014.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, April 2013, updated: Oct 2014; Translated by Agnieszka Le Nart.