A few days ago we went as a team to begin 2016 with a study visit to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. We were guided through the insights of the educational trails and methodology of the core exhibition by our dear partner, Anita Ciechomska, a Warsaw guide and the owner of the company Ales Clever. So first of all - thank you Anita!
The POLIN Museum was founded in 2005 by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, the City of Warsaw and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. It took almost 10 years to complete and open the building and the core exhibition, but educational and cultural activities were already run by the museum from the very beginning. Establishing a museum dedicated to hundreds of years of Jewish presence, in Poland and by Polish public authorities, is one of the milestones of the reshaping Polish common memory of Polish-Jewish relations in this land. Not only is it a historical educational centre raising the awareness of the Polish-Jewish history, but the museum is also a standing monument, honoring the once flourishing Jewish life in Poland.
The Museum’s impressive building is located in front of the Ghetto Heroes Monument in the area that used to be the heart of Jewish Warsaw - the biggest Jewish community in pre-war Poland, and Europe. Thus it is creating a dialogue between past and present, the celebration of life and the commemoration of death. The design, made by the Finnish studio Lahdelma & Mahlamäki, was chosen by an international competition, and in 2008 it received the prestigious Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture Award (2008). The building was opened in 2013 with the core exhibition still under construction.
The core exhibition, opened in October 2014, consists of 7 theme galleries and it occupies around 4000 sq. m. The galleries take visitors through 1000 years of history of Polish Jews, from the time of settling in Polin and through the development of their communities and culture. The path leads through golden ages and dark times, telling stories of warm welcome, co-existence and cooperation, but also of suspicions, prejudice and conflicts. The Museum tries to focus its narrative around the life and the living culture. However, the violence, the pogroms and, finally, the Holocaust stories, are not neglected from the exhibition. The journey ends in the postwar reconstruction of Jewish life in Poland and the uplifting pictures of the revival of the modern Jewish community after the 1989 collapse of communism.
The Museum tells the history with paintings, interactive installations, reconstructions and models, video projections, sounds and words, and some artifacts (mainly replicas). The amount of information and its carriers is - in one word - overwhelming. This is a long journey, and it involves all your senses. So you should either be prepared to spend a few long hours there or to divide and visit the exhibition in several times. Whichever option you choose, I strongly recommend you going through this journey with a guide, at least for your first visit to the Museum (you can also use the museum’s audio guides). It will undoubtedly help you to follow the narrative, focus your attention on the story being portrayed in the exhibition and will give you a deeper understanding of the past and present.
The POLIN Museum surely is a “must visit” place on the Jewish heritage trail in Poland. If you want to get a wide picture of the history of Polish Jews and the historical and political changes of Poland that affected the Jewish life here, as well as understand the evolution of Polish common memory, you should definitely pay a visit there.