Museum as Memoryscape: The Virtual Shtetl Portal of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Pauline Sliwinski, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Poland
This paper focuses on the Virtual Shtetl Portal of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Virtual Shtetl utilizes a Web platform that enables registered users to participate in the sharing of public history and the preservation of Jewish cultural heritage. It aims to transform the passive role of the museum visitor to that of an active stakeholder in the preservation of Jewish heritage closely linked to the Polish landscape.
Keywords: virtual museum, heritage preservation, community, Virtual Shtetl Portal, memory
The Virtual Shtetl Portal project (Portal Wirtualny Sztetl, http://www.sztetl.org.pl) is an initiative of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich) that was first launched online in June of 2009. The Virtual Shtetl chronicles the history of Polish Jews by providing information about the small towns and big cities where for centuries Jews, Poles and other minorities lived together. The project is constantly growing and improving with the addition of new entries by participating users. Under the guidance of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, online visitors are helping to create an interactive database of information about Jewish communities from over 2,200 towns across Poland. After its first year, there were more than 40,000 photos and 500 films. As of today there are more than 65,000 photos, 900 films and these numbers are continuing to grow.
From September of 2008 to the launching of the site, I conducted an internship at the Museum and my main responsibility was to assist with the creation of the English version of the site. The major task was to contact volunteers and professional translators who could help to translate hundreds of historical texts written in Polish to English. But more importantly, during this internship, I became not only familiar with the textual content of the project but also I observed and participated in the social network that makes the Virtual Shtetl possible. When the project was officially launched and my internship drew to a close, hundreds of people from across the world were sending their feedback and uploading their own materials to the site. The network of volunteers working on the Virtual Shtetl has expanded since then and the website’s user base has grown considerably to well over 1,500 registered users as of January 2012.
I chose to examine these encounters from a qualitative and cultural theory perspective because of my training in the field of sociology and my introduction to one of the early contributors to the field of memory studies, anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973). When expanding upon a semiotic approach to the theories of culture, Geertz began to theorize cultures as “webs of significance” that are “spun” by humans. Paradoxically, humans also end up being “suspended” by them (Geertz, 5). I came to understand over the course of my studies that the museum is such a web and that as the visitor, the curator, the volunteer and the scholar, we are all “suspended” in those webs.
The concept of memoryscape serves as an entry point for interpreting the Virtual Shtetl Portal of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the memories it sustains and contests, and its stated and less explicit social purpose. A museum itself is a memoryscape, a portal through which societies remember. The Virtual Shtetl Portal is more than a multimedia exhibition that provides a new way of experiencing a museum. It is a place of concentrated cultural practice where public history is being rewritten, where individuals become guardians of historical memory, where the public is empowered by a passion for the subject and the availability of an Internet connection, and where memories and identities are constructed and negotiated.
Read the rest of the paper here: Museum as Memoryscape: The Virtual Shtetl Portal of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews | museumsandtheweb.com
Sunday, April 8, 2012
Pauline Sliwinski Writes About the The Virtual Shtetl Portal of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews
This paper by Pauline Sliwinski, who served an internship at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Poland describes and explains the The Virtual Shtetl Portal of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Museum's most public effort at global accessibility, and attempts to analyze its use. When completed the musuem will hardly be a 'virtual,' one, but it will, like more and more museums and collections, reach out for audience and participation through cyberspace. Through the Virtual Shtetl the museum has empowered a huge community of interest to help write (and preserve) a lost history.