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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » July 2, 2010
Redefining Museums
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Redefining Museums
July 2, 2010   
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Until recently the word “museum” was widely associated with glass—and somewhat dusty—display cases and groups of school students gathered around them. A museum was typically a place where one was expected to be quiet and behave in an appropriate manner—by moving around carefully so as not to damage the exhibits. But this image is slowly becoming a thing of the past as new museums open that focus on interaction with visitors and intellectual adventure rather than traditional, static forms of displaying items.

In recent years, the city of Warsaw has significantly increased spending on the construction of new museums and similar establishments. Among the institutions that have already opened to the public are the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the Chopin Museum. Projects in progress include the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Museum of Modern Art. There are also plans to build a Museum of Poland’s History, the Copernicus Science Center, and a Museum of Warsaw’s Praga District.

Combining past and present
The Warsaw Uprising Museum was the first of the big museum projects that have been completed over the past decade. For political reasons, a museum commemorating the 1944 uprising, which was led by the anticommunist Home Army (AK), could not be built under communism. The decision was to build the museum was taken in 2003. As an initiative by the late Lech Kaczyński, the former mayor of Warsaw who went on to become Poland’s president, a former industrial building on Towarowa Street was adapted to house the museum.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum opened on July 31, 2004, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. Paweł Kowal, one of those who worked on the museum’s blueprint, says the museum is intended for both grandchildren and grandparents; it is also designed to combine history with innovation.

The atmosphere of the uprising prevails not only in the exhibition rooms, but also in the lobby and places like the cloakroom, where there are murals resembling those in the streets of Warsaw in August 1944 when the uprising started.

The museum’s collections are displayed on four levels—the basement, where visitors can see a sewer modeled after those through which the insurgents moved from one part of the city to another; the ground floor, where the main exhibition area is located; the first-floor exhibition rooms; and the mezzanine and the viewing tower at the top.

An immediate attention grabber is an aircraft suspended from the ceiling. It is a replica of an American heavy bomber, the B-24 Liberator, that was shot down near the town of Bochnia on its way back from Warsaw where it had dropped supplies for the insurgents.

The museum is also active outside its premises. It runs the website www.1944.pl, which features the Oral History Archives with interviews with former insurgents who are still alive, and a Virtual Museum section with 3D panoramic images of the museum and scans of some of the exhibits with recorded comments.

For children and adults
The Chopin Museum, which opened this April, aims to be an interactive facility. The museum is regularly besieged by groups of school students running from one exhibition room to another. There is also a special room for the youngest children, who can solve quizzes about Chopin and listen to his music while seated comfortably in colorful tubes with touchscreens.

When buying a museum ticket, visitors receive a magnetic card that enables them to activate individual sections of the exhibition. For example, in order to listen to a voice-over letter from Chopin to German music editor Maurice Schlesinger, one needs to run the card across a reader.

The permanent exhibition, referred to as the Open Museum, allows visitors to freely choose which exhibits they want to see first as there are no arrows on the walls to show the recommended direction to take. There are also special multimedia stations where visitors can not only choose the language and font format, but also adapt the information to their level of expertise.

Another motto of the museum is “Experiencing Chopin,” which is the title of a section of the exhibition. The point is to enable visitors to experience the exhibition with their eyes, ears and fingertips. For this reason, there are special directional microphones and devices responding to touch or hand movements, such as virtual books that display the scores for a composition being played at a given time.

The museum is housed in Ostrogski Palace on Tamka Street, a narrow street leading to ¦więtokrzyski Bridge. In the past, the palace was home to a smaller Chopin museum. Today the museum is twice as large following an expansion project.

The permanent exhibition has been designed by Ico Migliore and Mara Servetto of the Migliore+Servetto studio, well known for their designs for the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo.

Museum of modern art
Another prestigious museum project under development in Warsaw is the Museum of Modern Art. Designed by Christian Kerez, the building will be located on Defilad Square.

While the project will not be completed until the spring of 2014, the museum is already in business. It has operated out of its temporary premises on Pańska Street since January 2008, occupying two floors of a building between the Intercontinental Hotel and the Warsaw Financial Center. Although the space is limited, the museum staff, headed by Joanna Mytkowska, say they feel at home there. The ground floor houses 14 exhibitions and six special projects. Meetings, discussions, film showings and workshops are held regularly on the first floor. The museum offices, where most of the managing, archival and administrative work is done, are also located on the first floor. And the Muzeum Pro qm bookstore, which sells books imported from other countries as well as the museum’s own books and publications—including a bimonthly with articles written by staff members—is on the ground floor. The museum works with many foreign institutions, including the Kunstwerke Institut in Berlin, Germany, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, Croatia. As a result, the museum is able to show works by foreign artists—Ana Janevski and Thomas Zipp to name a few.

Museum of life, not death
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews does not yet have its permanent premises, either. It is temporarily located on Warecka Street. In 1997, Warsaw authorities designated a site opposite the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes to build the museum. A design by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki was chosen in a competitive process for the museum building in 2005. The design is inspired by the shape of the biblical sea parting in front of the Israelites escaping from Egypt. Work to build the museum started in June last year and is scheduled to be completed in March 2012. The museum exhibition will be showing the history of Polish Jews spanning over 1,000 years, starting with the first Jewish settlers who appeared in Poland in the Middle Ages to the contemporary Jewish community.

Jerzy Halbersztadt, the director of the museum, has said on many occasions that it will not be a museum of death, but a museum of life. There will be exhibition rooms dedicated to the history of the Holocaust, but this will only be a part of the exhibition.

Although the building has not been constructed yet, the museum has already started to organize exhibitions and publish books. Additionally, the Virtual Shtetl social networking website was launched last year for internet users interested in the history of small Jewish towns in Poland before World War II.

Interest in museums has been additionally stimulated in recent years by cultural projects such as the Night of Museums. The idea, borrowed from Berlin, has been well received in Poland. In Warsaw, the first Night of Museums in 2004 attracted crowds of visitors. Since then the event has mushroomed from 11 museums and galleries that opened to visitors in 2004 to 160 establishments this year. In this way, a fashion for visiting museums has been created, experts say.
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