POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews (Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett)


On her recent visit to Syracuse in her capacity as Program Director of the Core Exhibition, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett walked us virtually through POLIN Museum of the History. There’s not much that I can add that has not already been said about this institution except to throw in a quick first impression made from a distance. For that, read this wonderful introduction to the museum and tribute to Barabara written by the more expert David Roskies that appeared in the Jewish Review of Books.

All I can say is that it was my sense that this museum could not have been built without digital technology. This opinion was not shared by the Program Director who proudly pointed out the old technologies and hand craft construction (especially wood construction) and the hands-on displays that have gone into the museum’s core exhibit.

It would seem to me, though, that the museum has very successfully combined old and new technologies to create super-mediated palimpsest effects –not to re-create a realistic picture of the past, but to provide it a new sense and semblance. I don’t have an image of it, but a strong case in point would be the shooting of short film of the Volozhiner Yeshiva with live actors and then given a painted over look; and the use of screens that create the primeval forest scene as a myth of Polish-Jewish origins, and the glass construction of the building-edifice itself. Even the recreation of the interior from wooden synagogue that once stood in Gwoździec has a simulacral character.

The overall technological, the digital effect, is the combination of screens and the relative absence of “actual” objects and artifacts that would give the museum weight but which often weigh down Jewish museums. Everything looks illuminated, by natural light, bright paint, and computer consoles and touch-screens. The place is both “immersive” and hyper-mediated.” We’re looking at something very real and not real at the same time. Not so much physical objects, but images. Perhaps it’s the case that given the one thousand year history of Jews in Poland, the logic of presence was not going to work at this museum. A theatrical space, the museum conception is drawn from distances (temporal and physical) meant to draw visitors into a place that marks out the passage of time and place in all their rich human fullness.

Barbara was kind enough to bring me back swag from the gift shop, including these brightly produced postcards which I’m sharing. In the spirit of the exhibit, I’m presenting them in reverse order, away from the tragic past and its memory, back into a more green and capacious sense of the past.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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