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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » March 29, 2012
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Innovative Approach to History
March 29, 2012   
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The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, scheduled to open in April next year, will be an invaluable resource for the 100,000 Jewish visitors who come to Poland every year seeking to learn more about their heritage.

The museum is under construction in Warsaw’s central Muranów district, the heart of what used to be the Jewish district. The building is located by the Memorial to the Heroes of the Ghetto between Zamenhofa, Anielewicza, Lewartowskiego and Karmelicka streets. During World War II, the quarter was part of the Jewish ghetto set up by the German Nazis occupying Warsaw.

The northern and southern facades along Anielewicza and Lewartowskiego streets are almost finished and in February, the western facade on the Karmelicka Street side was fitted with the largest window in Warsaw. The wall of glass, which weighs 80 metric tons and is suspended on a structure of 28 ribs, was the biggest challenge for the construction team. The window, 600 square meters in size and the only one of its kind in Warsaw, allows passers-by to see through the entire building to the other side, where a smaller window opens onto the Memorial to the Heroes of the Ghetto. The building was designed to form a coherent whole with the memorial.
The area surrounding the museum will soon be redeveloped, while inside, the building’s office space is being finished, with floors and ceilings and heating, ventilation and electrical systems being installed.

One of a kind
The idea to establish a Museum of the History of Polish Jews came in 1995 from the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland. Work on the building’s design could begin when donations started coming in from individual and institutional donors around the world. Back then, the project was carried out under the auspices of Polish President Aleksander Kwa¶niewski. The museum has an International Honorary Committee consisting of famous figures from many countries and chaired by Israeli President Shimon Peres, who recently met with the museum’s director, Agnieszka Rudzińska, and said he would attend the opening ceremony.

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is Poland’s first public-private institution to be developed jointly by the government, local government and a nongovernmental organization. Under an agreement which the minister of culture and national heritage, the mayor of Warsaw and the chairman of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland signed in January 2005, public funds will be used for the construction of the building, whereas the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland is responsible for putting together and financing the main exhibition. Funds from individual donors and foundations, mostly from the United States, Germany, Britain and Poland, have been spent on the design work and on a collection of unique documents on Polish Jews around the world.

Museum with a mission
The museum says on its website that it is intended to become a “point of reference for all with an interest in the legacy of Polish Jews and a sign of a turning point in the relations between Poles and Jews.” The museum is expected to strengthen a sense of identity in the reemerging Jewish community in Poland.

The museum will become a sort of a gateway to help visitors learn some basic facts and direct them to sites where both positive and negative episodes from the shared history of Poles and Jews are revisited.

The exhibition
The main exhibition at the museum will comprise eight galleries with a total area of 4,000 sq m. Through interactive displays, the galleries will tell the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland, who at one time formed the world’s largest Jewish community. According to the museum authorities, the exhibition will depict the presence of Jews in Poland in an unprecedented way. Visitors will be presented with a narrative about Jewish culture, religion and history, with the help of modern technology and a wealth of source materials. The eight galleries will include sections called First Encounters (Middle Ages), Township (17th-18th centuries), the Second Republic of Poland, the Holocaust and After the War.

The exhibition was designed by an international team of academics headed by Prof. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. The project also involved British company Event Communications, which specializes in putting together narrative, multimedia exhibitions across Europe.

Tension within
The architecture of the museum means it could become one of the most interesting public buildings in Warsaw. The museum will have 12,800 sq m of space, a third of which will be occupied by the main exhibition on the underground levels. Floors above the ground will house temporary exhibitions, a multi-purpose auditorium, movie theater and concert hall in one, an Educational Center with screening and workshop rooms, a club, a restaurant and a cafe. Museum bosses are expecting around 500,000 visitors a year in the future.

An international architectural competition for the museum building was adjudicated June 30, 2005. A total of 119 architects and architectural teams from around the world entered the competition and the winners were Rainer Mahlamäki and Ilmari Lahdelma from Finland. Bohdan Paczkowski, who chaired the panel of judges, explained the choice by saying: “This design powerfully expresses the dramatic history told by the museum and it does so with restraint and moderation, attaining a lasting tension within.” When the competition was over, Michał Borowski, Warsaw’s chief architect at the time, said that the winning design “combines two opposites, a dramatic history and a site that is alive.”

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is the first foreign project by Mahlamäki, who is also the designer of the largest museum project in Finland, the Maritime Museum, currently being built in the city of Kotka.

Education and culture
Although building work is still under way, the museum has for some time already been engaged in a variety of publishing, cultural and educational projects. A number of publications have been printed in Poland under the museum’s auspices. The publications deal with the history of Polish Jews, from the earliest Jewish settlements to contemporary times. Books printed under the museum’s auspices include accounts by Holocaust survivors of their experiences, coffee-table books and atlases of history.

Culture-related projects are a priority for the museum. In 2008, a theater was established at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Its first production was entitled The Post Office and commemorated the end of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

According to Karolina Sakowicz, the project coordinator, theater “is a great method to work with remembrance and explore contemporary attitudes to history.” Sakowicz added, “When young people work with theater, they become intellectually, emotionally and physically involved, theater strengthens bonds between people, fuels imagination and helps build historical, literary and civil awareness.”

The museum works with schools in Warsaw, expanding its educational activities every year. Together with historians, artists and experts in Polish studies, the museum develops lesson plans to make sure classes are interesting for both students and teachers. It also organizes seminars and workshops designed specifically for teachers.
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