Wednesday night, a crowd gathered at the University of Michigan Museum of Art to hear curator Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett discuss the creation of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is a scholar of performance and Jewish studies as well as a published author and curator of the POLIN Museum. Born in Canada during World War II to Jewish immigrants from Poland, she has dedicated her life to the history of museums and to the heritage of the Jewish community in Poland.
A few members of the audience had visited the museum in the past; however, many said they were there to learn more about it.
The idea for the museum emerged in 1993, and was founded by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, a famous non-governmental organization in the country, the City of Warsaw and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said one of the difficulties of establishing this museum was that the creators began the process without any sort of collection of artifacts.
However, since its opening, the museum has proved remarkably successful, according to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. Over 1 million people of all ages and backgrounds have come to experience the multimedia exhibition that documents more than 1,000 years of Jewish presence on Polish soil.
When talking about the beginnings of the museum, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said the founders wanted to share important events in an applicable manner.
“What we had was the story and we had the commitment to tell the story in a vivid, compelling way,” she said. “The exhibition presents remarkable history in a fascinating way.”
She said there is no master narrative, but rather many historical principles that the exhibit tries to convey. Along with her speech, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett also displayed a slideshow with images of the interior and exterior of the POLIN.
The Hebrew word “Polin” in English means either “Poland” or “rest here” and it is a reference to a legend that describes the arrival of the first Jews in Poland. The museum itself stands on land that was once part of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett also spoke to the symbolic nature of the appearance of the museum.
“The building is covered completely in glass because the message of glass is a gesture of hope and openness in the face of tragedy,” she said.
She said the museum aims to situate the Holocaust within 1,000 years of Polish Jewish history, noting that the creators did not want the Holocaust to be the sole focus of the displays.
“We were able to present the Holocaust in its moment from the perspective of those people who did not know what was coming next,” she said. “We held strictly to the idea of being in the moment and not looking forward.”
LSA senior Colleen Murphy, who attended the event, said she found the talk interesting, especially the discussion of the physical building.
“I’ve always loved museums and as I’ve learned more about them through this class, my interest in history continues to grow,” she said. “What I thought was most interesting was when she talked about museum architecture and the importance of the design of the building. I think everyone can learn a lot from visiting this museum, regardless of religion.”
In closing, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said POLIN hopes to continue the storytelling the museum has strived to uphold.
“It is a living organism. It is completed by the interaction of visitors with the exhibit,” she said. “We are working hard to keep our story going. Our task now is to keep up the success.”