WHY DETAILS MATTER. WHAT THE WARSAW UPRISING MUSEUM TELLS AND HOW
by LIYA DOSTLEVA
JUNE 8, 2019
This time I get there on Friday again; every Friday in the Warsaw Uprising Museum looks like a day when the majority of visitors are organized school trips.
A flock of kids has gathered near the first exhibit at which one can listen to veterans’ memories through a rotary dial phone.
“See what the old phone looked like”, says a girl about 9 or 10 years old to a friend while trying to hear the voice in the receiver at the same time. “Did you know that?” “I did.” “Is yours speaking?” “Yes, it is.” “Let’s go and hear some more.” They run to the telephones nearby.
“A lady’s speaking in mine. Is there a man in yours?” “This is a very serious museum.” “You ought to behave yourself.”
A modernist museum, at least as we know it, is not an old institution. Nor it is a neutral medium. The emergence of a public museum at the end of the 18th century and its boom in the 19th was tightly connected to the development of the national state, the shaping of national identity and the concept of a citizen as the aware participant of the life of the people. For example, Musée Napoléon (present-day Louvre) was based on a largely political project; it was created for the showcase of trophies brought by Napoleon Bonaparte from the conquered lands. The show was open to everyone. The opportunity of spending time freely in the space previously accessible only to the elite and gazing boldly at the unique objects exhibited in it felt like gaining higher status for the visitors. Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany was partially designed with the purpose to show the public the works of art that had been captured by Napoleon earlier and brought back home, to emphasize the defeat of France, and to embody the grandeur of Prussia. Most of the greatest European museums that were established in the 19th century came to life for similar purpose. Arthur Danto notes that the tendency to build museums, which is common for the newly-independent nations, is caused by similar motives (1).
A museum, in the sense of its institutional mission since the 19th century, aims to represent history as the development process that has ended successfully; it emphasizes exclusiveness and peculiarity of the national path. The objects showcased in it have unique cultural value and express the national identity. The creation of a museum as such has a close connection to the idea of the existence of a nation’s own history; homogenous, deeply rooted and traditional, and much different from other nations’ histories (2). Organizing and demonstrating a museum’s collection was mostly focused on the artifacts themselves with the labels bearing the information of the name and origin of the objects rather than interpreting their meaning. The objects, not the texts, were the source of knowledge (3).
A traditional approach to such organization of artifacts was using linear chronology and consecutive breaking it into separate history eras. The past was revealed to the visitor’s sight already split into sections, known, accomplished, and ready for perception(4). It did not penetrate the present time and did not influence it, being kept air-tight in the rooms of a museum. This model had no place for a personal point of view; the importance of events and historic figures emerged from their belonging to history. The very fact of the history being exhibited in a museum was the pretext to celebrate and remember it. The aesthetic value of performative strength of an object was not essential; the artifacts gained their power from their discursive environment and the authority of a historian, caretaker, or expert (5).
The revolution in the museum affairs in the context of historical exhibitions was the emergence of narrative museums in the 1990s, the first of such museums being the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. A narrative museum not only reveals a collection of artifacts connected to a certain historical period but also provides a vision, an interpretation of historic events using the exhibits to create a story, a narrative, in which the placement of objects in certain historical context is meant for making the understanding easier. Narration is an attempt to visualize historical science and it is built up by way of joining various visual, audial, and text media. A visitor sees not just isolated historical facts but he or she may track the gradual unraveling and buildup of a narration as he or she passes from room to room. The exhibits of this type have an impact on a visitor not only intellectually but also emotionally allowing him or her not just gain knew knowledge but feel an emotional bond with the represented theme, too. This is also aided by the use of interactive items that involve visitors into immediate participation and allow them influence the buildup of the narrative through their own choice or get information according to their own interests. Narrative museums, as Anna Ziębińska-Witek notes, have now become the canon of representation of history in the USA and Western Europe.
Modern changes in material representation in history museums are caused by general changes in historical science and humanities at all. The focus is on microhistory, historical anthropology, and oral history. The exhibition space is beginning to host empathy and other emotions that previously were deemed unprofessional. Reflexive approach changes the view of the expert’s authority that loses the status of unbiased knowledge. The criticism of privileged point of view, evolutionary order, and big narrations emerges. New theories open new perspectives; feminist, postcolonial, gender, etc. (6).
The Warsaw Uprising Museum that first opened its doors to visitors in 2004 and after 15 years of operation still remains one of the most popular museums in Poland is an interesting example of the uniting narrative approach to organization of exhibition space and the use of state-of-art technologies with the view of national history and patriotism traditional for the 19th century.
The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 was a military operation of Armia Krajowa, the Polish resistance force, against the Third Reich with the aim to free the city of Warsaw from Nazi occupation and re-establish the non-Communist Poland. The uprising took place at the time of German forces’ retreat and the approach of the Red Army to the city; however, the Soviets’ advance had stopped, which gave the Third Reich troops oppress the resistance. The Warsaw Uprising lasted for 63 days and became the largest military operation ever undertaken by any European resistance movement in the World War II. The uprising ended in a capitulation of Polish troops and almost complete devastation of the city; during the street fighting nearly a quarter of residential buildings of Warsaw were destroyed and after the capitulation Germans deliberately tore down another third.
The exhibits of the museum open with a stand with five modern color portraits of the participants of the uprising. One can listen to their stories and learn more about them here. Short texts with titles like “A Rebel from Vilnius”, “A Messenger to London”, or “A Brave Radio Girl” may be focused on the uprising, yet also tell about the lives of former insurgents after the war, their professional activities, places where they live, and so on. We see three women and two men; the gender balance is maintained well in the museum space and women’s stories are quite numerous here.
This beginning seems to promise reflexive and personified representation of history with the focus on intimate dimension, yet, as one goes deeper into the exhibition space it quickly becomes clear that these expectations are false. The warm aged faces of insurgents that speak their own voices give way to high-contrast monochrome portraits as if engraved in the eternity. The narration that goes parallel to this visual change turns into a heroic tale of Good versus Evil. Emotional states evoked by this exhibition are the hate for the enemy, captivation at the heroic exploits of the insurgents, and mourning the tragic fate of the city and its people. The principal colors of the museum interior are black (or dark gray) and bright red. Inside the museum it is rather dark; spots of directed light focus the attention on key items highlighting certain fragments of the exhibition. The visual solution is so high in contrast that one’s eyes may get sore after a few hours of wandering in the halls of the museum. The exhibition is packed with information and emotion; almost each fragment of museum space communicates a message or evokes certain emotion keeping a visitor up and alert. Even the elevator that takes visitors to the upper floor plays insurgents’ song through its speakers.
The story of the course of the uprising happens directly before that; it depicts euphoria and delight at the first days’ success, showing how the faith in victory gives way to despair and hunger, how the insurgent Warsaw capitulates and turns into ruins and “the city of graves.”
The first hall that describes the times before the war and the uprising recreates the atmosphere of Nazi occupation. It is built up not only through the use of artifacts, photographs, or information textx (for instance, we see fragments of the ruins of Royal Castle, a Nur für Deutsche sign, matches, sugar, etc.), but also through the language of description itself. The use of specific language aims at boosting emotional impact on the visitor. In one of the comments, we read that “The German eagle is becoming ubiquitous in Warsaw; it appears even on matchboxes. On a pack of sugar it gives bitter aftertaste to the sweetness.” In another one we see: “The ‘Save with German Post’ sign sounds like a bad joke”, and so on.
Here we also see ‘the heart of the museum’; a huge monument that seems to grow all through the floors of the building. The wall with the uprising calendar etched on is al covered with bullet holes. Visitors are encouraged to touch the wall and press their ears to the holes from which they can hear the loud sound of a heartbeat or even louder shots or fragments of radio transmissions and songs from the times of the uprising. The description reads: “The heart of the museum is beating for those who fell and for the living. It is a symbol of our memory and the sign of our homage to the Warsaw Uprising and all its participants.”
Later, the story becomes even more heroic and visual accents get fully focused on martyrdom; thus, the biographies of the perished participants are presented on stands that look like tombstones and their photos are designed to look like funerary portraits. The climax is the emergence of a tombstone with the words “The City of Graves”. The part dedicated to the capitulation is designed in the shape of tall stands that look like partially ruined building walls with yellow rectangles that may be taken for shining windows but in fact are highlighted photographs of the insurgents. All this creates an image of heroic resistance with the city merging with the generalized figure of an insurgent that breathes, moves, acts like a single being, fights until the last heartbeat, and dies a terrible death that gets him a place in history.
As Anna Ziębińska-Witek notes, the exhibition gives the death in the name of higher values a positive assessment. The museum emphasizes the importance of striving for freedom and honor; it represents war in terms of national glory, which is in line with the 19th century understanding of patriotism in the context of the struggle for national liberation. This specific pedagogy of suffering has nothing in common with modern view of history that tries it best to show historic events from different (sometimes controversial) points of view and underscores plurality of possible interpretations. (7)
“You know what I think, says an exhausted young woman to her date as they walk up the stairs to the exit, “I think that those who are not moved by the theme itself will not response even to all these extra means.”
The isolation of the story of the uprising and almost complete absence of other victims of Nazi persecution in the museum space make another tendency of the exhibition that draws attention. For example, the ‘Onset of War’ info table tells that “on the 1st of September 1939 the Third Reich attacks Poland on land, on the sea, and in the air. On September the 3rd, France and UK, bound by the alliance with Poland, declare war on Germany but do not undertake any military actions. On September the 17th, 1939, Soviet Union joins Germany, thus violating the conditions signed with Poland. The last regular Polish troops lay down their arms on the 5th of October. Since the first day of both occupations, carefully planned persecutions, evictions, and deportations are carried at the territory of Poland. The Nazi establish concentration camps where they keep thousands of Poles. The Polish curriculum is banned in schools and studies are reduced to minimum. Since October of 1939, the occupants place Jews into ghettos. Starting with December of 1939, the Nazi exterminate them in death camps”. (italics are added by me). The whole course of Holocaust was reduced to a couple of short sentences whereas the description of the attack on Poland mentions “land, sea, and air” and the crimes of both occupational regimes are presented as “carefully planned.”
Emotions and language typical for 1944 are featured in modern context as is, without any comments. For example, the room that recreates an illegal printshop from the times of uprising among other things features a leaflet showing a Polish girl arm in arm with a German soldier and reads: “Szkops are sashaying in the streets of Warsaw with… pigs!” (A szkop was a derogatory term for a German, especially a Wehrmacht soldier.)
The illustration that legitimates and even approves of violence against women who did not keep to the existing norms and broke the taboo of sexual contacts with the enemy surfaces on the background of a story of the insurgents’ heroic resistance; being presented in such context and sequence it may evoke pure indignation; how could they do so when the best people of the nation were dying horrible deaths nearby? The sun itself that embodies the forces of nature, the ‘natural’ universal order spat on them. On the other hand, it seems to be the only place where heroic narrative suddenly falls apart and reveals the presence of other, quite unheroic episodes, yet, considering the fact that most of the museum’s visitors are children and adolescents, it is hard to say if they will understand the ambiguity of such exhibit that is showcased without any comments. The hate speech towards the enemy that is quite understandable in the conditions of occupation but ought to be explained in the modern context appears in the exhibition a number of times and is transferred into the museum space without any explanations.
A group of teens walks out.
“What did you like best?” asks the caretaker with a writing pad in his hands while the kids are waiting for the bus.
“Flying above the ruins of Warsaw!”
“Yes, I liked it a lot, too!”
“They look so cool, all fucked up!”
“Hey, mind your language!”
“What’s wrong with it? I just said what I felt.”
The use of cutting-edge technologies in the museum calls for special mentioning. The greatest hit with the visitors is a 3D film ‘The City of Ruins” that is, as the description says, “the world’s first 3D reconstruction of a city destroyed in the World War II”. It recreates a flight above the ruins of Warsaw in 1945. Visitors talk a lot about this film as they walk out; it is mostly mentioned in foreign tourists’ reviews on Google Maps; they note, among other things, that it was the film that made them realize how terrible the losses of Warsaw were and that the city was literally torn down to the ground.
The film changes the view of a person that walks among the building that are taller than him or her for a privileged regard from above that allows encompassing the whole cityscape and comprehend the scale of destruction that took place there; a visitor gets into Warsaw of 1945 and sees it whole what an average person actually living in Warsaw in 1945 could not. This artistic gesture of transforming a perspective of a common person into a comprehensive and unbiased view from above that sees not only in space but also in time becomes a sort of summary of the museum’s institutional work with historical material. ‘The City of Ruins’ performs a powerful emotional task and visualizes the same message of “the city suffering horrible losses” as the reconstructions of tombs and the ruins with highlighted faces in lieu of windows do, but using state-of-art visual means and avoiding manipulative methods. Here, actually, the question arises of what the museum would look like if this careful approach were preserved all along the exhibition.
Danto, A. Po końcu sztuki. Sztuka współczesna i zatarcie się granic tradycji. 2013 Kraków: Universitas, p. 233
- Macdonald, Museums, national, postnational and transcultural identities, „Museum and Society” 2003, nr 1, p. 1–3
Margaret Evans, M.S. Mull, D.A. Poling, The Authentic Object? A Child’s-Eye View [w:] Perspectives on Object-Centered Learning in Museums, red. S.G. Paris, Mahwah 2002, p. 55– –78.
Gielen, Museumchronotopics. On the representation of the past in museum, „Museum and Society” 2004, nr 2, p. 152
Anna Ziębińska-Witek. Wystawianie przeszłości, czyli historia w nowych muzeach. Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość 12/2 (22), 77-92, p. 80
Ibid., p. 82
Ibid., p. 90
The Culture Mirrors cultural journalism residence project is realized with the support of Culture Bridges program financed by the European Union and implemented by the BRITISH Council in Ukraine in partnership with European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC).