What are the differences and similarities between the way Jüdisches Museum in Berlin and POLIN Museum in Warsaw picture the history of Jews living in Germany and in Poland respectively?
Taking into consideration three factors: techniques of storytelling, historical content and visuals effects, Mikołaj Mieszkalski (our Year 12th student) wrote a paper analyzing this phenomenon.
(We quote the paper in its original form)
Our story, their story – similar or different?
“This school year (2017/2018), I took part in a school trip to Berlin organized by Akademeia High School. Between 23rd and 28th of June we had an enormous opportunity to visit many extraordinary places, located in the capital of Germany, among which one specifically exceptional. The visit to Jüdisches Museum was for me an incredible possibility to compare the two different historical narratives of the Berlin museum and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews POLIN. I was able to observe the variations in the techniques of storytelling, especially when it came to the play on emotions, historical content and visuals of the exhibition. In this piece I will try to present differences and similarities between Jüdisches and POLIN Museum when it comes to those three, mentioned before categories.
In both institutions we can observe that the authors of the main exhibition are trying to tell us a story of Jews living in two separate countries, Germany and Poland. However, the most significant difference between Jüdisches and POLIN Museum is that the one located in Warsaw aims to tell its visitors the whole, nearly 1,000 year-old history of the Jewish population, providing us sometimes with some more additional, contextual facts about the general situation in Poland, which enlarge our perspective of the fate of the nation of Israel. In Berlin however, we can clearly see that the main focus of the exhibition is put on the tragedy of Jews under the Nazi regime and the horror of Shoah. It presents us the stages of the development of the oppression and harassment of the German Jewish population. As we can see, in the case of content of the exhibition, there are substantial differences between Jüdisches and POLIN museums, when it comes to historical range of the exhibition.
Furthermore, we can spot further discrepancies, when it comes to the materials used, as a form of communication with the visitors. In Jüdisches Museum the authors planned the main exhibition so that people could understand a little bit more what kinds of difficulties the Jews, living in Germany during the Nazi era, had to face. This was achieved through various individual stories taken from letters, diaries or testimonies of those who experienced the tragedy of 20th century’s antisemitism. In the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, on the other hand, we can easily observe that the main exhibition relies on translated historical sources and multiple electronical devices, which are to visualize us the general life of Jews in different times on the Polish territory. For instance at the beginning of the visit the guests can see the old trade route from the Iberian Peninsula to the areas of southern-western Russia and can travel with Ibrahim ibn Jacob through all the most important cities on the way to Poland. Furthermore, the authors of the exhibition used a lot of statistical data, especially in the section devoted to 19th and 20th century (population structure, religious fragmentation, emigration and immigration, etc.). In summary we can say that there are differences between the two museums when it comes to the tools used in the exhibition; in one museum we can observe the focus on the individual history and in the other one the will to show the overview of the époque.
Moreover, the two museums relay hugely on visual aspects of their exhibitions. In the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the curators designed the sceneries of the exhibition, so that they could reflect the character of the different times, to which the visitors travel during their tour, however still providing them with a lot of information about the époque. For example, while visiting the section devoted to 19th century’s Jewish village the authors decided to reconstruct one of the examples of old, currently non-existent shtetl, in which the visitors can see an inn, church, market and of course synagogue. The section also includes a lot of information about the character of the Jewish shtetls, supporting them with a bunch of historical facts about the little towns (their number, nationality structure, etc.). Similarly, we can observe the same manner, when we enter the section planned for the story about the Second World War and the life in Warsaw Ghetto, we see that the road becomes narrow and the height of the sealing decreases significantly. Strange, sharp forms begin to come out of the walls, forcing us to change our original path. In the same time, the walls are filled with facts about the situation in Ghetto, the daily food ration, the number of people forced to live in the district, etc. All this recreates the ambience of the difficult and terrible times of the Holocaust and provides us with factual knowledge about the period. In Jüdisches Museum we can see that the exhibition is designed in a way, so that it could speak the story of the Shoah by itself, meaning there are a lot of sections, in which we would not find much information, but the visuals will try to replicate us the moods of the time of the Holocaust. For instance, one of the parts of the exhibition, called the Holocaust tower, is just an empty hole surrounded by concrete walls, in which we can see a tiny bit of light coming from a small hole in the sealing. It does not contain much information about Jews murdered under the Nazi regime, but with its visual features, the story tells itself. The visitors, entering the Holocaust tower, feel the emptiness, loneliness and tragedy of those times, still having a spark of hope high above. From this perspective the two museums resemble themselves in the will to play with the emotions of the visitors and their feelings through visuals, but they differ hugely when it comes to the focus on the design.
In summary, we can say that the two institutions resemble themselves when it comes to the will of telling its visitors a story of the Jewish population in their country (Poland and Germany) and in the use of the visual aspects of the main exhibition, as a way of affecting people’s emotions and strengthening certain historical phenomena. However, they differ significantly, when it comes to the focus on the visuals, other tools used in the exhibition and the historical range of it. I believe that our visit to Berlin was an exceptionally enriching one, due to the fact that it gave me the opportunity of comparing the differences and similarities in the historical narrative of the two, completely different institutions.”