On memory at the Museum

Various activities forming part of our “Faces of Diversity” project had been organised at the POLIN Museum building back when the core exhibition was still under construction. As a result, we were forced to act without the context of the main narrative and without knowing how it would be received by the residents of Warsaw and tourists alike. All of this changed on October 28, 2014 when we were finally able to make our core exhibition available to the public. We felt obliged to offer a closer look at this exhibition in the course of the events that we organised, and so we held a series of meetings, debates, lectures and workshops which made it possible to gain a deeper knowledge, understanding and insight into various themes included in the core exhibition. 

Our deliberations on the core exhibition began with a series of meetings and lectures during which we explored the issue of memory and the role of museums in the process of forming, safeguarding and raising awareness thereof. During the lecture entitled “Tales of the past: individual and collective memory”, Professor Barbara Szacka explained what memory actually is, how do we memorise events and facts, what is vernacular memory, what are the components of collective remembrance and what is the difference between history and “ordinary talk”. 

We have also taken a closer look at the question of memory during the “Histories found and invented” creative workshop, during which the participants thereof created short films about their private memories using existing video materials (found footage). 

The theme of memory served as a sort of preface to the discussion on the role played by museums. The lecture entitled “On memory at the Museum”, conducted by Professor Anna Ziębińska-Witek, PhD, was an attempt at answering the question on what is the difference between memory and history, how museum curators are able to take advantage of both and how this may be reflected in exhibitions dedicated to historical themes. 

In addition, we have also organised a meeting during which we examined the issue of museums in Poland and whose stories do they actually tell – to what extent are they able to take into account the views and perspectives of minority groups, whether minority issues are present at various museums whose narrative focuses on Polish traditions and history and whether such issues are considered to be a part of this history. The meeting was attended by the representatives of the Museum of the City of Warsaw, the State Ethnographic Museum, the Polish History Museum and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Before the opening of the core exhibition took place, we have invited members of various minority groups in order to talk about museums which tell the stories of different minorities or minority groups and about the significance of such museums for the process of the formation of identity, examining the question of which minorities would benefit from the presence of museums of this kind and what are the prevailing types of narratives which these institutions apply. Our guests during the meeting were Luiza Adajewa, director of the Sintar Refugee Self-help Centre, Andrzej Grzymała-Kazłowski, traveller and expert in the field of Romani studies as well as Anna Akbike Sulimowicz, specialising in the field of Turkish and Karaite studies.

Once the core exhibition was open to the public, we placed a significant emphasis on feedback, asking members of various minorities how did they perceive the exhibition, what were the things they found lacking and how minority issues were presented in individual galleries. We have also organised two debates entitled “Our look at the core exhibition”. During the first of those debates, we invited the leaders of the Jewish community in Poland as well as various individuals specialising in Jewish heritage to share their impressions on the matter; our guests included Joanna Sobolewska-Pyz – chairman of the “Children of Holocaust” Association, Konstanty Gebert – journalist, columnist and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations as well as Judyta Nekanda-Trepka – author of various projects aimed at the promotion of the Jewish culture of Warsaw. During the second debate, we asked the representatives of other minorities as well as individuals specialising in the field of multiculturalism to share their views; this time around, our panellists were Agnieszka Caban – vice-chairman of the “Romano Waśt” Romani Association from Radom and the editor-in-chief of “The Romani Quarterly”, Karolina Cao – the author of the ziarnkoryzu.pl blog, Myroslava Keryk – specialist in the field of migration and the Ukrainian community in Poland, chairman of the “Our Choice” Foundation, and Piotr Bystrianin – chairman of the “Ocalenie” (Salvation) Foundation. 

In addition, we also organised eight different workshops, each of them being dedicated to a different gallery, during which we sought out, examined and discussed multicultural themes incorporated into the core exhibition. These workshops also served as a pretext to examine the issue of how a museum narrative is formed as well as an opportunity to confront one’s own conceptions on Poland’s multicultural past with the narrative presented at the museum. 

fot. M Starowieyska/ Muzeum POLIN