Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett to lecture in NYC about Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett to lecture in NYC on May 6th about Museum of the History of Polish Jews
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) New York University Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett will speak at Temple Emanuel in New York City at 6:30 pm on May 6th about "Creating the Museum of the History of Polish Jews: A Work in Progress " Barbara is head of the international core exhibition planning team the long-awaited Warsaw Museum, where groundbreaking took place in 2007 and which is expected to open in 2011. She will discuss the challenges and methods for creating a narrative for this important museum.

I had the opportunity to hear Barbara speak twice about the new museum at conferences last fall, and to share a seven-hour car ride with her (and Sergey Kravtsov) from Poland to Ukraine. I was impressed with the vision for the new museum’s presentation, and with the apparent competence with which it is being implemented. Barbara is a great story teller, and I am sure in her New York lecture she will inform and entertain.

The museum site is in the area of the former Warsaw Ghetto, immediately across from the Warsaw Uprising Monument, designed by Natan Rapoport. Currently, there is a large blue tent – the OHEL – on the spot, as a site of small exhibitions and educational programming.

Amazingly, that grand, simple and now iconic monument continues to be the most visible and expressive source of information and misrepresentation about Jewish history in Poland’s capital (I say this in no way to denigrate the position and thoughtful efforts of the Jewish Historical Institute, but only to recognize that public role of the Uprising Monument).

The stated purpose of the museum is to preserve "the lasting legacy of Jewish life in Poland and of the civilization created by Polish Jews in the course of a millennium." In short, the museum must convey everything (well, at least some of) the rich and complex and long and contradictory material the Monument avoid. This is to be done in a number of innovative ways. Many of the exhibitions have to be composites, synopses or surrogates – since the Jewish history of Poland is so vast and deep. The Museum must balance the documentary and the material, and the stories of a culture and civilization’s building, and its destruction.

One of the intended installations in which I am most interested is the plan for one gallery to be surmounted by an 80% scaled replica – or recollection – of the panted wooden ceiling of Gwodziec (Ukraine), now well know from Thomas Hubka's book Resplendent Synagogue. This ceiling is to be hand-built in eight sections, each to be crafted and assembled in a different region of Poland, each in a former (alas, only masonry) synagogue space. According to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, it is the process of collectively remaking, and of learning the skills that were lost, that will literally raise the rebuilding effort to a new level. The craft work will be overseen by the talented Handshouse Studio of Massachusetts, in partnership with Polish woodworkers. The methods will be taught to new apprentices, the project will be filmed. As performance, it will be as much a part of the resurrection of the Jewish past in Poland as any permanent museum exhibition in the country – past or future (For more on the persistence of memory through Wooden Synagogues see my previous blog and article on Nextbook.com)

Most difficult, The Museum must combat the combination of still profound ignorance and misconception about Polish-Jewish history within Poland, and in the Jewish community worldwide. I continue to be amazed as I lecture and teach at the extraordinary historical ignorance I encounter. The public (Jewish and non-Jewish) prefers being comforted by repeated stereotypes and myths (good and bad) than to be challenged to confront and absorb new information. I am sure that no matter what the content of the final exhibitions that Prof. Kischenblatt-Gimblett and her colleagues will be the subject of both praise and verbal brickbats for their efforts.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is professor of performance studies at the Tisch School
of the Arts (NYU) and an affiliated professor of Hebrew and Judaica Studies.

The program is free. Temple Emanu-El is located at 1 East 65th St, New York City

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