History: from the Idea, through the Ohel, to the POLIN Museum
1. The Origin of the Idea 1993-1998
How did the idea of creating POLIN Museum emerge? Surely, by way of discussion and posing numerous questions: Why should such a museum be established in Poland and where exactly should it be located? Should it be yet another Holocaust museum or, instead, be a museum about life? The key role in the process was played by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland. It was there that the idea of creating the Museum originated and where it was developed as a communal initiative until the year 2005.
The Association of the Jewish Historical Institute was established in 1947 as a result of the transformation of the Central Historical Commission, which had operated with the Central Committee of Polish Jews since 1945. Its library, archive and museum – focused on collecting preserved objects of Jewish art – were all located in a building which, prior to the Second World War, had housed the Institute of Judaic Studies and the Main Judaic Library. In the reality of post-WW2 Poland, it was for many decades the only institution engaged in collecting documentation and conducting research into the history of Jews on Polish territory.
The Holocaust Museum in Washington, opened in 1993, served as an inspiration for building the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It was precisely in that year that the International Honorary Committee was formed whose aim was to promote the idea of the Museum.
The Committee was chaired by Chaim Herzog, former Prime Minister of the State of Israel, and Ronald S. Lauder, a businessman and philanthropist, Chairman of the Lauder Foundation. In the subsequent years, politicians and leaders of world Jewish organisations also served as the Committee members, among them Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, Jan Karski and Zbigniew Brzeziński.
More committees were set up - in New York in 1994, and in Germany and Poland in 1995. In 1996, the project team, namely the Committee for Planning the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, was established. Its aim was to develop the Museum’s programme and to manage the project’s implementation. On the wall, next to the text related to that, there is a copy of the resolution of the Board of the Jewish Historical Institute pertaining to the creation of the team and providing a list of people appointed to the Committee.
The year 1997 was one of the project’s milestones. On 17 April, the City of Warsaw granted the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute the plot of land, next to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, upon which the Museum would be constructed. In 1998, the Association of JHI and the Polish Committee for the Support of Building the Museum organised a concert, featuring New York based cantor, Joseph Malovany, at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, as well as numerous members of the Polish government, were among the guests at the concert, which was the first cultural event held to promote the project.
The year 1998 also marked the beginning of the programming work. Incomplete source or a lack of sources and historical artefacts were among the main problems faced. This resulted in the decision to create a narrative museum, i.e. a museum in which the point of departure would be a story rather than a collection. As well as the exhibition media themselves, the primary sources were to be selected in reference to the actual story to be told.
2. The Project’s Development 1998-2004
- What audience was the Museum to be aimed at?
- What story would the core exhibition tell?
- How was that story to be told?
In 1999, the Museum Council was created, headed by Marian Turski, Chairman of the Board of the JHI Association. Professor Władysław Bartoszewski, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, became one of its members. It was at that time, also, that the Museum website and its first promotional materials appeared.
Alongside seeking of documentation and conducting of research, a search was launched for exhibition designers. This resulted in collaboration with London-based Event Communications. Work on the actual design commenced as late as 2001.
3. Breakthrough – 2005
On 25 January 2005, long-term efforts of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland finally bore fruit. On that day, on the initiative of then Mayor of Warsaw Lech Kaczyński, the Museum was formally established as a public-private partnership. The agreement, which brought to life the jointly financed cultural institution, was signed by Mayor Lech Kaczyński, Waldemar Dąbrowski, then Minister of Culture and National Heritage, and Professor Jerzy Tomaszewski, Deputy Chairman of the Association of JHI.
Soon after the agreement on establishing the Museum had been signed, an international architectural competition for the project of the Museum building was launched. The carefully formulated competition postulates included the information on the Museum mission as well as on the imperative to consider both the historical context of the future building’s location and the existing project of the core exhibition which was designed to be placed underground. The submitted entries were assessed by an international jury which comprised architects, representatives of the Association of JHI and of the Ministry of Culture.
Eleven projects were then shortlisted. The winner, Rainer Mahlamaki from Finland, was announced on 30 June 2006. The jury stated this in explaining its decision: “The octagonal building, designed on a square floor plan, opens up through a riveting, flexible space, onto both the Monument and the park. This dramatically, undulating space, clad in limestone and lit from above, was compared by its creators to the parting of the Red Sea - yam suf - which can be interpreted as the ritual of passing, or transcending, along the long path of Polish-Jewish history, through and a symbolic and generous opening, to a peaceful future.”
Jerzy Halbersztadt, the first director of POLIN Museum, played a vital role in the process of establishing the Museum in the years 2006-2011. Between 1999 and 2011, he headed the Association of the JHI’s works as a Project Director, and next as the Association’s coordinator for the Museum.
4. A Museum Without Walls 2006–2013
The Official Opening of the Ohel took place in November 2006. It took the form of a light blue, open tent, its shape reminiscent of the undulating walls of the Museum’s main hall. In Hebrew, the word ohel means a tent’.
The tent was represented at the How To Build a Museum temporary exhibition, as a specially arranged space. It was separated from the rest of the exposition by textiles featuring large-format photos of the Ohel which hung from the ceiling. A film documenting events held at the Ohel was screened on one of the textile walls in the middle - the viewers could watch it while sitting on soft beanbags. An imitation of the information pillar, featuring posters of the events, was also located within the space. In addition, there were also audio commentaries on the ideas of an open museum, culture 2.0, microhistory and oral history – all of which were reflected in the activities organised at the Ohel.
5. The Museum Rises – 2006–2013
On 9 September 2006, representatives of the Mayor of Warsaw and the Ministry of Culture, as well as Michał Borowski, the Chief Architect of the City of Warsaw and Bogdan Romaniuk, Director of the Office for Urban Development of the City of Warsaw, signed a contract with Rainer Mahlamaki for the preparation of building permit and technical documentation.
The signing of the contract was preceded by several months of project modification in accordance with comments made by the Museum staff and the designers of the core exhibition. Studio Lahdelma & Mahlamäki selected a partner Polish architectural studio - Autorska Pracownia Architektury Kuryłowicz & Associates.
On 25 June 2008, the Capital City Development Board, which the city had entrusted the management of the project, put the construction officially out to tender. The successful tender was submitted by Polimex-Mostostal. Construction commenced on 30 June 2009.
6. The Official Opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews
The official opening of the Museum building took place on 19 April 2013 with the participation of representatives of Polish state authorities and guests from around the world. Activities, long-planned for, were now implemented. They included cultural and educational projects, theatrical performances, musical performances, film screenings, as well as educational activities for children and families, plus public lectures. However, Museum guests would still have to wait a while longer in order to visit the core exhibition.
The Grand Opening of the core exhibition of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews took place on 28 October 2014 and was the most important event for the Museum to have taken place in that year. The exhibition was symbolically opened by representatives of two different generations of the Polish Jewish community - Marian Turski, Chairman of the Museum Council, Holocaust Survivor and thirteen year old Joasia Widła, a graduate of the Lauder-Morasha School in Warsaw. Guests had the opportunity to view the core exhibition and, in the evening, could join in the outdoor concert Gramy Otwarcie! Those present at the Opening included Polish President Bronisław Komorowski, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, Speakers of the Polish Sejm and Senate, the Mayor of Warsaw and representatives of many countries from around the world. More than 1,500 guests were invited to the Opening and the event was covered by more than 600 journalists.
A rich programme of events followed on 28-30 October 2014. Special tours were arranged for representatives of the Jewish community, journalists, residents of Muranów and for the Museum donors. Many educational and artistic events also took place relating to the themes of the core exhibition, as well as to its creation and the creation of the Museum itself. Contemporary Jewish culture was also presented.
A Chronology of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews (1993-2014)
- Grażyna Pawlak, Organisation and Information Director of the Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH), attended the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Upon her return to Poland, she suggested that the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute establish a museum about life, which would present the history of Jews in Poland.
- Chaim Herzog, former President of Israel and Ronald S. Lauder, President of the Lauder Foundation, became Co-Chairmen of the Honorary International Committee. Shortly after, leaders of Jewish organisations from around the world joined the Committee (among them being Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, Jan Karski, Zbigniew Brzeziński. The project was also supported by Hillary Clinton, Stuart E. Eizenstat, Szewach Weiss and Gerszon Zohar). The aim of the Committee was to promote the concept of the Museum project, to garner support from international organisations and to coordinate their activities at an international forum.
- The Association of the Jewish Historical Institute begins working with Yeshayahu Weinberg, former Director and creator of the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv and the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Together with him, representatives of the Association prepare general principles and a budget for the project.
- The inauguration of the Museum project and its first international presentation take place during a reception at the Polish Consulate-General in New York in the presence of 150 guests.
- The Association of the Jewish Historical Institute Board formally appoints a Museum of the History of Polish Jews Project Team, chaired by Yeshayahu Weinberg. The project Director is Jerzy Halbersztadt. The team’s task is to develop the Museum’s program, to work with individuals and organisations, in Poland and abroad, who can help bring the project to fruition and to manage the work being conducted.
- Ronald Lauder’s foundation provides the first funds for the work of the Museum Project Team.
- Under a notarised deed, the City of Warsaw gives the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute perpetual use of 13,000 m² of land upon which to construct the Museum. The land lies in the heart of the pre-War Jewish district, opposite the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes.
- Archaeological work commences of the site designated for the construction of the Museum.
- British firm Event Communications is selected as the designer of the Museum’s core exhibition and, in the following year, work begins on the exhibition program.
- Work commences on the core exhibition “Masterplan” – the most important topics are selected, key exhibition elements are identified. The exhibition is divided into galleries corresponding to epochs.
- 2002: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is appointed as a permanent consultant to the exhibition. She is Professor of Performing Arts at the Tisch School of Arts, New York University. She is a cultural anthropologist and a researcher into contemporary museum theory.
- 2003: The Polish government announces its financial commitment to the construction of the Museum.
- Lech Kaczyński (Mayor of Warsaw), Waldemar Dąbrowski (Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage) and Prof. Jerzy Tomaszewski (Vice-Chairman of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland) sign an agreement establishing a common cultural institution called the “Museum of the History of Polish Jews”. Jerzy Halbersztadt becomes the Museum’s first Director.
- The Association of the Jewish Historical Institute announces an International Architectural Competition to design the Museum building. From 119 entries, the jury select 11 candidates who are invited to take part in workshops and to prepare competitive designs. The winner is Rainer Mahlamäki (Architects Lahdelma & Mahlamäki, Finland).
- The Association of the Jewish Historical Institute, together with the Museum, begins historical program devoted to the personal stories of Polish Jews – The Collection of Family Memories, Polish Roots in Israel and Recording the Jewish World in Poland.
- The “Ohel” (Heb. tent) begins activity on the site of the future Museum. It conducts artistic, cultural and informative activities intended to promote the Museum.
- The Museum’s foundation stone is laid. Those taking part in the official ceremony included representatives of the highest levels of government in Poland and abroad. Among them are Lech Kaczyński (Polish President), Aleksander Kwaśniewski (Polish President,1995–2005), Richard von Weizsäcker (German President, 1984–1994) and Tevi D. Troy (representing the US President). The Catholic Church is represented by, among others, Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz (Archbishop of Warsaw). Museum donors and friends include Danuta Hübner (at the time, European Commissioner for Regional Politics), Szewach Weiss (former Knesset Speaker and Israeli Ambassador to Poland), Meir Lau (former Chief Rabbi of Israel) and Michael Schudrich (Chief Rabbi of Poland).
- The Association of the Jewish Historical Institute begins raising funds from individual and institutional donors in Poland and abroad (Capital Campaign), in order to create the core exhibition. This fundraising effort provides important support for the Museum’s ongoing activities.
- The construction of the Museum commences.
- Work is completed on the detailed documentation of the concept which precisely defines the structure and substantive content of the core exhibition. At the point, work with Event Communications ends.
- Reconstruction of the first item of the core exhibition begins – the timber ceiling and vaults of the 17th century synagogue of Gwoździec. Students from Poland, Israel and the United States take part in an educational workshop project entitled “Gwoździec -Reconstruction”. Under the watchful eyes of a group of international historians, architects and artists, together, they create one of the main items of the “Miasteczko” (The Jewish Town) gallery.
- The Polish firm Nizio Design International is chosen to finish the project and to create the core exhibition based on Event Communications’ concept.
- 19 April: The official opening of the Museum building takes place with the participation of Polish state authorities and guests from around the world. Cultural and educational projects begin – temporary exhibitions, theatrical performances, musical performances, film screenings, educational activities for children and families and academic lectures.
- 28 October: The Grand Opening of the POLIN Museum’s core exhibition takes place.