Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Museum of Brave Questions

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Photo by Hans Kundnani
        When I was in Poland last month, I had a day to spare in Warsaw, which I spent visiting the city’s newest and long-awaited museum, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The museum opened, but only part-opened, in spring this year – visitors can tour the striking building, designed by Lahdelma & Mahlamaki architects, but the main exhibition will open in 2014.

            I stood in the main hall, which looks like a cave in the Judean desert, with an orange sticker on my coat, waiting for my tour to begin, and flicked through one of the glossy booklets distributed by museum staff. It was entitled ‘the museum of brave questions’, and opens with a thoughtful preface by Andrzej Cudak, the museum’s current director. “This museum tells a history which is important for us all. The Polish Jewish past not only shaped contemporary Poland and its inhabitants, but also the face of present-day Europe, and the wider world… Our museum does not have a monopoly on the truth. We don’t offer ready-made answers, we encourage independent thought, the posing of bold questions and the expression of different views. Let’s have the courage to ask, to debate…." (my translation from the Polish).

            A lot – indeed, the best of – modern historical scholarship has been about deconstructing histories, about pulling apart familiar narratives, exposing comforting myths, revising what we thought we knew, particularly what we thought we knew about the history of nations and their nationalisms. This is what we teach our students: to think iconoclastically. Such values, however, can be rather difficult to capture in a museum. It’s hard to tell a coherent story to your visitors, while also communicating how open to challenge, how contingent, how subject to multiple perspectives (almost?) any narrative about the human past is. It’s hard, in other words, to create a museum which embodies historical revisionism. But Andrzej Cudak’s brave preface made me think that this cutting-edge, imaginative Warsaw museum might well be able to pull off just that. Museums often simply reflect prevalent historical narratives and approaches, but this new institution might yet help to forge new ones – by providing a dynamic space, in the heart of the old Warsaw ghetto, where Jewish, Polish and Polish-Jewish history can be revisited, retold and debated afresh. The airport style security in the museum entrance shows how necessary, and how risky, this kind of frank history of the Polish lands is.

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