Interact With the Past at Poland’s Narrative Museums
#travel in poland
full-width, Interact With the Past at
Poland’s Narrative Museums, Silesian Museum, permanent exhibition about the history of Upper Silesia, photo: Dawid Chalimoniuk / AG, top, muzeum_slaskie_wystawa_stala_ag.jpg
Do you like time travel? Then you should visit one of the many narrative museums which, since the opening of the Warsaw Rising Museum in 2004, have popped up along the River Wisła like mushrooms after a rainfall. Experts wince, saying that such institutions offer cheap emotional experiences, yet the public seems to love them.
Since the start of their existence, museums have offered their visitors a certain type of narrative. And this doesn’t only refer to a narrative presented in words on a page, but also to a certain perspective which determines the manner in which information is presented, the atmosphere, as well as the experience which is generated by the very architecture and spatial organisation of the presentation. Even those museums that we call traditional today had certain principles built into them regarding the impressions that their space would make on visitors.
For example, the Natural History Museum in London was conceived in such a way that, when visitors would enter it, they would experience the building as a show. So a museum narrative is not only that which is written throughout the building, but also that which the museum expresses with the aid of other media.
Polish Culture at Home: 8 Cool Websites for the Quarantine
The power of this message has long interested researchers. Edward Robinson and Arthur Melton – two psychologists from Yale University – conducted research in 1928 and 1936 on what they termed ‘attracting power’ – the force with which certain elements of museum exhibits act on visitors. Viewing museums and exhibitions as having a power to shape the experience of visitors is nothing new in the world of such institutions. That being the case, how do so-called narrative museums – which have been a phenomenon of recent decades – differ from others?
From passive contemplation to active participation
When 19th-century visitors entered a museum, which most often presented itself as a temple of art or science, they were treated like an ‘empty vessel’ to be filled with knowledge by the museum. Roles were pre-assigned, and the role of the visitor was that of passive contemplation. Creating the narration was the role of experts, but their perspective was to remain invisible – after all, a museum was expected to present an objective narration.
'Poland: The Power of Images' at the National Museum in Warsaw
The modern museum exhibits characteristic of narrative museums are based on theatrical presentations, and they invite their recipient to take part in a kind of show. They seek to remove the distance between the viewer and the exhibition, instead proposing participation in the event to all those present.
A good example of this is the first Polish museum of this kind: the Warsaw Rising Museum, which opened in 2004. The manner in which the exhibit is organised lends itself to the visitors’ immersion in the story being told, and the atmosphere created by sound and scenery is meant to create a sense of ‘time travel’ which lets visitors engage emotionally with the history being conveyed.
Unseen Soundwalks: Warsaw Rising ‘44 – Trailer
For years now, many experts in the museum sector have underlined the importance of visitors’ participation and active engagement in creating a satisfying museum experience. This is especially true at a time when experiences offered by dynamically improved technology are a daily event for consumers of culture.
Nina Simon, the author of the book The Participatory Museum (2010), popularised the term ‘participatory museum’, arguing that the development of technology has irreversibly altered the way in which people participate in culture. The personalisation and possibilities of interactivity, comment, and choice with which consumers of culture have become accustomed online have shaped their expectations of all types of cultural activity. Therefore, in Simon’s opinion, in order to respond to the changes brought about by the development of technology, museums should take into account the public’s new expectations and move toward meeting them, not necessarily through technological equipment per se, but through providing the possibility of interaction and an engaging experience.
A to Z of Art & Technology
Narrative museums – Polish ones, too – have been responding to this challenge in a fashion unique to themselves, offering visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in a theatre-style experience aimed at bringing them closer to the past.
Fewer monitors, more theatre
standardowy [760 px]
Monument to the Ghetto Heroes and the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, photo: Arkadiusz Ziółek / East News
An accent on the analogy between so-called narrative museums and theatre can be heard in the statements of the creators of many such exhibitions. It is no coincidence that we encounter such exhibits most of all in historical museums. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the chief curator of the permanent exhibit of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, describes the permanent exhibit just so: an experience of historical theatre. A thousand years of the history of Polish Jews are presented in the cellars of the monumental POLIN building, guiding visitors from the early Middle Ages all the way to the end of the 20th century. Rich in content and texts, the exhibit lends itself to understanding on many levels and it allows for selecting many thematic pathways; its interactive elements effectively capture the imagination of its viewers.
6 Top World Museum Collections Featuring Works by Polish Artists
Standing behind this type of exhibit is the conviction that that sort of experience makes possible a better understanding of history. Ralph Appelbaum, the designer of the permanent exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which became a model for many other museums, said it directly:
The visitors... will come to understand history, because they will experience it.
In order to achieve that, an exhibit of this type differs fundamentally from the stereotypical exhibit spaces displaying art, especially modern art. In distinction from white, most often strongly illuminated spaces, sometimes with added daylight as well, these experiential museums are primarily characterised by semi-darkness and a preferred palette of black, brown, greys, beiges and sepia.
Both in the aforementioned Warsaw Rising Museum and the POLIN Museum, as well as in other Polish museums of this type (the Kraków Market Square and Schindler Factory Museums, the Fryderyk Chopin Museum in Warsaw, the European Solidarity Centre and Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, the Breakthroughs Dialogue Centre in Szczecin, or the portion of the Silesian Museum addressing the history of the region), the scenography of the interiors has the visitor effectively immersed in an electronic reality. The surroundings created by the exhibit are meant to simulate the atmosphere of faraway places and times, such as Warsaw during the Uprising, a thousand years of history of Polish Jews, the early Middle Ages, or wartime Kraków, the fate of Fryderyk Chopin in 19th-century Poland and France, and the ideals of the Solidarity movement at the time it was formed.
Aleksandra Waliszewska’s Family Museum
Cheap emotions vs the feel of history
Until recently, the key characteristic of such engaging museum presentations was the use of interactive elements and multimedia. In recent years, the enthusiasm for technology in exhibitions seems to have waned somewhat. First of all, ‘new’ technologies get old fast, and the cultural sector has quickly realised that it cannot compete with the business sector in going after technological novelties. The planned life-cycle of permanent exhibits is longer than the popularity and novelty of technological inventions which might be cutting-edge today, but are old hat a year later. Second, computer screens in exhibitions have started to be less attractive to visitors, who these days constantly encounter screens of one sort or another in their phones, their tablets and their desktop computers.
Post-Internet Art at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw
Nowadays, the use of technology in museums is less and less taking the form of multimedia and is increasingly concentrating on ways to make content available to visitors on their own cell phones or to use technology to create interesting installations and displays. An example of the latter is the activity of the Warsaw Rising Museum, which, over the last few years, has collaborated with the panGenerator group in designing the kinetic sculpture Quantum of Peace (2016) and with the Superskrypt agency in designing the interactive installation Reflection (2019).
What Would Happen If PanGenerator Was in the Polish Radio Experimental Studio?
Over the last several years, museums have come to realise how important it is to note and comprehend the needs and expectations of their audiences. The latter change constantly along with the surrounding reality. Undoubtedly, the changes in these expectations are then reflected in the museums themselves. And the technological sector continues to introduce new methods and new solutions which can support visitors’ experiences with electronic aids (an excellent example might be virtual reality).
Emotional Pierogi & Loaves of Literature: Polish Digital Poetry
Museums not only address the public’s needs, but they can help to shape those needs. Since 2004, when the Warsaw Rising Museum opened, its model of storytelling has become popular amongst Polish museums and – this being no less important – it has shaped the expectations of museum-goers.
A significant majority of those visitors to the Warsaw Rising Museum, Schindler’s Factory and Home Army museum I interviewed in 2014 emphasised that a visit to such museums was a response to shortcomings in their formal education and the ‘dry’ book learning they had undergone growing up. According to them, these museums have the advantage that they make you ‘feel what it was like back then’.
History in a Suitcase: Emigration Museum in Gdynia
Nonetheless, there is no lack of criticism amongst experts towards such presentations. They complain that narrative museums simulate the past in order to provoke cheap emotional responses which, in turn, skew any critical approach to the subject matter at hand. Undoubtedly, there is a large gap between the experts and the public: the public, statistics show, eagerly visit such museums, valuing precisely that which the academics criticise – the chance to immerse themselves in the past in a way they feel touches them most deeply.
Originally written in Polish by Aleksandra Janus, Nov 2019, translated by Yale Reisner, Oct 2020
museums of the 21st century
Travel in Poland
Digital Cultures 2020
The premier digital culture festival.
17th to 25th October, online.
Register Now For Free