The Oct. 28 gala grand opening of the core exhibit of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews generated great interest in the media, with scores (probably hundreds) of articles and reports published and posted around the globe. It has also generated great interest among the public — tens of thousands of visitors have toured the galleries since the opening. (Click here to see the JHE photo gallery of the museum.)
Now, a month on, some particularly thoughtful and thought-provoking reviews, analyses and critiques of the museum are being published, aided by the passage of time — which has afforded the opportunity for deeper reflection and a more complex consideration of the museum in museological and structural terms, in addition to its symbolism and powerful social and political impact.
Two have caught our eye in recent days.
One, a careful and detailed analysis by photographer Jason Francisco, an Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at Emory University, zeroes in on specific elements of the core exhibit design (such as the use of photographs and images) and also considers varied contexts in which the exhibit is set. It is accompanied by Francisco’s magnificent photographs that not only show the museum but also illustrate and enlighten the points he makes in his text.
He describes the museum as “an extravaganza.”
part treasure chest, part fairytale theater, part high-tech expo, part sound and animation lab, part scholarly pop-up book, part multimedia kindergarten, and part solemn carnival. More than a museum per se, it is better called a museum-experience, a sequence of encounters rather than a temple of precious objects (though it does contain many remarkable objects).
A collection of Francisco’s photographs from western Ukraine forms part of the permanent exhibit of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow. In reviewing the POLIN museum and its centerpiece, the replica painted Bimah and ceiling of the destroyed wooden synagogue in Gwozdziec, now in Ukraine, he recalls his own experience in Ukraine — and his visit to the empty spot where the Gwozdziec synagogue once stood — and shows a photo of that place:
… to put the majesty of the reconstructed roof in perspective, the town of Gwożdziec is today in western Ukraine and known as Hvizdets. I visited Hvizdets earlier this year as part of my work for my exhibition An Unfinished Memory at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, and I found the forlorn site where the wooden synagogue once stood. No such contextual view is presented in the museum, and indeed, virtually no contemporary photographs of places of Jewish heritage appear in the exhibition’s last section, where they would be appropriate. It isn’t entirely clear why this is the case, but I venture that the Jewish nothingness that defines contemporary Hvizdets––and so much of the contemporary geography of the Jewish past in Poland––simply does not fit into the museum’s interpretive parameters
I don’t quarrel with Polin’s so-called “narrative” premise, as distinct from, say, artifact-based exhibitions––even as, in practice, Polin’s narrative is more narrative effect than narrative proper, i.e. it offers flashes of narrative hovering in a multimedia pageant. But I ask: what lurks behind Polin’s show, behind its surfaces and its radiating energy? I can’t help but answer: a fear of empty spaces, and the still-palpable nearness of Jewish oblivion.
An article in the London Jewish Chronicle by Abigail Morris, Director of the Jewish Museum in London, is one of the few we’ve seen (so far) that, from a museum director’s standpoint, critiques the high-tech aspects of POLIN’s core exhibit and the scarcity of original objects in it: this is a point that was discussed and debated for years, while the museum was under development. Morris felt the power of the museum and its message — but not in the way that many other commentators have expressed. And, like Francisco, she feels a void surrounding the museum’s fullness.
The lack of authentic objects is a problem, partly because it makes the exhibits crowded and unrelenting: there is no object set apart to really look at, just because its authenticity insists on its being given pride of place. But the hollow sense of absence I felt during my visit points to a bigger, truly existential problem.
There is a huge lack in what remains of Polish Jewry: almost no objects exist. There were over three and half million Jews who were murdered, and alongside their deaths was the annihilation of the culture and communities they had created. Maybe the museum should have highlighted, rather than tried to cover up, this absence. Maybe there should have been a hole in the centre of the building where you could see the real rubble of the ghetto remains. You would have seen the rubble, it would have been real and you’d have seen a hole. Because that was what I came away with. The museum is trying to fill a hole which is vast and void-like.