This article was written as part of the East Art Mags residency programme, in partnership with Magazyn SZUM. The programme is supported by the Visegrad Fund.
Even though it would have been logical– nothing noteworthy happened in the ‘90s in Poland regarding museums, most importantly because of the lack of funding. The first main milestone was 2004, the year Poland joined the EU: first of all, more money could be obtained from different funds, and historical problems emerged to the surface because of the struggle for power. Contradicting processes took place: the significance of the national state decreased, and the movement aiming to strengthen national unity was getting stronger in the same time.
The first truly modern Polish museum is the Warsaw Uprising Museum, serving as a model ever since, and it also became a reference point. The House of Terror Museum of Budapest was an important source of inspiration for the museum in 2004.
The Warsaw Uprising was taboo during the Communist era. However, a monument was erected during the thaw after ’56, originally dedicated to the uprising but finally becoming a memorial of Warsaw’s heroes, without any reference to the uprising. The idea of the monument first emerged together with the appearance of the Solidarity movement. Then it was overshadowed by the state of emergency, but the collection of objects continued in the Historical Museum of Warsaw. Such relics were donated to the museum by veterans’ relatives even before 1980.
It is really surprising that a museum of the uprising was not established even after 1989.
Pawel Ukielski, director of the museum explains that in the ‘90s – similarly to all other former members of the Socialist bloc – history and the past were not considered to be important, everybody focused on the present. No new institutions were established; even the Hungarian House of Terror Museum was founded only in 2002. In the 2000s politicians realised that they can talk about identity and other values through historical topics and that museums are important means to get their message to the public.
The exhibition organized for the 60th anniversary of the uprising is based on the patriotic national myth, with the aim to strengthen it. The organizers carefully constructed the exhibition to be entertaining, they did everything to reach their goal, and some critics say that there are too much sound, noise and movement in the exhibition. The criticism is right in one respect, but instantly the Esztergom Castle Museum of the Hungarian National Museum comes to my mind – a very important scene of Hungarian history – where an extremely boring exhibition is on view, lacking stimuli and information. I would rather prefer the information flood. Especially because the show is not at all unvaried and boring: there are many photos, background stories, interviews, recollections, and objects displayed.
I only missed one detail: the introduction of the countless debates, ongoing since the uprising, if it was a good decision to start the fight or not. According to Ukielski, one of the biggest challenges is to present these debates with museological means, but he also emphasized that they did not want to create a museum of the debates, but that of the uprising and that they did not want to answer the question whether the uprising was worth it. He also added that they organised numerous public discussions about the topic. The visitor does not want the museum to answer the question, but may wishes to see different points of view and the introduction of the arguments.
Joanna Wawrzyniak sociologist has the same opinion that historical dilemmas and possible choices should be given more presence in the exhibition. It would be hard to adapt it to myth creation, of course. The exhibition focuses on the heroic battle, the “great national adventure.” At the entrance, in the children’s activity section – that is called the room of the little rebel, too – kids can get to know the war, which in this interpretation is first and foremost about heroism, self-sacrifice, and patriotic fighting. Wawrzyniak is not sure that this is the appropriate “message” that should be passed on to the youth about the war.
The reception of the Warsaw Uprising shows nicely how great influence museums can have on public opinion. Maria Kobielska, professor of the Jagellonian University, argues that if the young generation was asked about the most important event of Polish history during WW2, 90% of them would mention the Warsaw Uprising. However, this has not always been the case: around the 50th anniversary many articles were published discussing that the youth was not interested in the uprising, and that they did not even know about it. The situation has radically changed in 10 years, in which the Warsaw Uprising Museum has great part.
Another huge investment that was created for a long time is the POLIN – Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, program director of the institution that was inaugurated in 2014, highlights that there are numerous Holocaust museums but the POLIN – meaning Poland in Hebrew – wishes to display the centuries of Polish-Jewish coexistence. The exhibition presents the war period by showing the history of the Warsaw Ghetto, and only mentions the places in the countryside that trigger debates up until now, where Polish people participated in killing Jewish people. Post-war anti-Semitism and pogroms are discussed in more detail. In connection with this Wawrzyniak states with slight cynicism that this happened this way because it can be blamed on Communism. POLIN received the European Museum of the Year Award in 2016 that shows that the exhibition – obviously result of compromises – is a great success and huge professional accomplishment. Naturally, there is a different situation in Poland, there are different circumstances, but I cannot help remembering the House of Fates in Budapest, standing empty for two years, and everything else this Hungarian incident indicates.
Compared to the previous two, a much smaller but for the Poles a much more important institution was opened two years ago: the Katyń Museum, a rather failed project. The biggest problem with it is that it does not even try to make the events understandable for outsiders, no background information is presented. In addition – solely out of the museums I have been to – most of the texts are only in Polish, and the English audio guide is rather uninformative.
The creation history of the museum might serve partly as an explanation; this exhibition has not been organized for “outsiders”: relatives, descendants of those executed in Katyń had been longing for a appropriate memorial place for years.
The objects displayed in the glass cases were found at the excavation of the mass graves. After fifty years of lies, the excavations had huge importance and received many reactions, during which it became clear that the murders were committed by the Soviet army. During Communism – even though no one believed it – the propaganda kept repeating that it was the crime of the Germans. In 2010 another layer was added to the history of Katyń when the aeroplane of the Polish delegation arriving for the 70th anniversary commemoration crashed. This tragedy overshadowed the mass murder of Katyń.
According to Kobielski, a fundamental Polish identity pattern can be noticed in today’s Katyń remembrance: the heroic role of the victim, or rather the martyr. Martyr is the symbol of purity and innocence; it is not a human being. In contemporary Polish culture (movies, literary works) there is no such text that deviates from this even the slightest. In this regard, talking about Katyń’s interpretation, the topic is still a taboo. The deceased of Katyń are the emblematic figures of this martyrdom and perfect purity.
The most recent large-scale exhibition is the Museum of the Second World War, opened in 2017 in Gdansk. No heroes, heroic figures are displayed here, but simple, everyday people. And step by step it becomes evident that in the war everyone is a victim, no matter which side they are on. The exhibition presents with such systematic thoroughness different micro histories of the worldwide catastrophe – known and unknown ones, as well –, which are usually “invisible” for many aspects of history: this room had the greatest influence on me. The tribulations of the children torn from their parents, lives of millions of Soviet soldiers, the horrific sufferings of Stalingrad’s citizens, the story of the Poles dragged to forced labour in Germany during the war are shown through a couple upsetting life stories. Stages of the seemingly endless suffering are depicted through actual human fates. If someone is susceptible to this, they can spend days in the exhibition’s spaces without being bored even for a second. The show is filled with an amazing amount of scientifically proven and easily understandable material, with professional technical background.
The next big event will be the inauguration of the Polish History Museum next year. The institution exists since 2006, but without its own museum building. It is obvious to ask whose history will the permanent exhibition show – the concept of which is 90% done. Robert Kostro, director of the museum, demonstrates the difficulties with the following example: in the 19th century Poland did not exist, but the Poles did, and not only in the once Polish territories because political emigration was significant. On the other hand, for a long time, the country did not only stand for Polish people but also Lithuanian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Jewish people, many ethnicities and religions.
Kostro added that in Polish tradition there are two concepts of nations living side by side. One connects the nation to the country, marked by the name of Józef Pilsudsk, and the other one is connected to 19th century national democrats, and means ethnical-cultural uniformity: for them being Polish first and foremost means being Catholic. This latter approach is a rather closed one. Kostro believes that it is not the duty of the museum to judge these concepts, whatever the opinion of the exhibition’s creators might be.
The director of the museum explained that they want to show as many Polish identities as possible, both in ethnical and religious sense: Greek Catholics, Orthodox, Unitarians, Protestants and Jews.
He also suggests that it is interesting to examine the process how different ethnical groups – Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Jews – tried to create their own political identities, which sometimes, for example at the formation of the independent Polish state at the beginning of the 20th century, lead to dramatic decisions for many who had to chose. One sibling signed the Lithuanian declaration of independence, and the other one became famous for being the first president of the Republic of Poland. Or in another family, one sibling became chief general of the Polish army, and the other became an emblematic figure of the Ukrainian nationalist movement. The same is true in the case of Jewish people: there was a small group identifying themselves as Poles with Jewish religion, but the majority chose between being Jewish or Polish, and if they chose the latter one, they became Catholics in most cases, as well. Creators of the exhibition wish to introduce as much of these decisions and life paths as possible in the exhibition, by displaying the portrait of actual families.
Polish history is had numerous uprisings, which frequently lead to enormous number of casualties and financial sacrifices. There were always debates if it was worth it in the end. Kostro believes that certain historical patterns repeat themselves, while others do not, because of the previous examples. The fact the Solidarity remained a peaceful movement can be partly attributed to the bloody outcomes of the Warsaw Uprising. Past influences us, but we are not its slaves: we always have the opportunity to draw conclusions and react differently.
Translation by Eszter Greskovics