History of mankind told by blood – in conversation with Dr Małgorzata Stolarska-Fronia, the exhibition curator

Uśmiechnięta brunetka w turkusowej bluzce.
fot. Magda Starowieyska / Muzeum POLIN

Why does POLIN Museum open the exhibition devoted to the subject of blood?

This is the first exhibition at POLIN Museum devoted to a subject that is universal and simultaneously deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and rituals. Its narrative aims at presenting a very specific bloodstream of cultures, whose paths sometimes diverge and sometimes come together.

The exposition provides an opportunity for the viewers to get acquainted with vital rituals of Judaism, such as circumcision, ritual slaughter or those pertaining to family purity. It does raise difficult and disputable issues, such as ritual murder, racial theories or contemporary dilemmas e.g. blood transfusions or IVF. The exhibition is rich in content that has been conveyed by means of beautiful objects borrowed from collections stemming from all over the world. It is also the first exhibition at POLIN Museum that brings together historic objects and contemporary artworks, three of which were produced especially for this occasion.

I suppose bringing together culture and medicine is not very common?

But life proves to something completely opposite: these spheres intertwine and not one of them exists in a vacuum. This refers also to hot issues such as blood. The saying ”it is in his/her blood” evokes various connotations –from medical ones to the ones pertaining to our moods and personality traits. It is worth remembering that differences in blood groups has until recently been used as a tool to create divisions between people.

We may retell a very true story of the mankind by the means of blood–the story of traditions, religions and sciences. It would be a story of building a community, of religious dogmas, of traditions and rituals, of sciences such as serology, genetics, physical anthropology, of folk culture and of dangerous ideologies… There are more and more scholarly papers that approach the subject of blood from the perspective of both sciences and humanities. The essays written by experts who collaborated with us on preparing this exhibition, published in the exhibition catalogue, serve as the best example of this.

Which of the stories presented at the exhibition do you feel most connected to?

I feel most connected to the first section titled Ritual and Belief, which is extremely rich, both visually and content-wise. It features, among other things, an 18th-century parochet (curtain which covers aron hakodesh) depicting the sacrifice of Isaac, a knife used for ritual slaughter with a beautifully carved box, or instruments used during circumcision. These beautiful and interesting objects are most helpful in conveying the complex content pertaining to Jewish religious rituals.

I do hope that this section will broaden the viewers’ knowledge while being aesthetically pleasing. The viewers will also have a chance to admire contemporary artworks interwoven in the narrative amongst the historic artefacts, such as a dress made of animal membranes by Eliza Proszczuk, dedicated to the subject of female blood in Judaism.

Originally, the exhibition was presented at the Jewish Museum London. How is the POLIN exhibition different  from the London original?

The exhibition at POLIN Museum is not a replica of the London original, nor is it its expanded version. Practically the entire script has been developed anew, and each of the modules has been thoroughly modified. We have stuck to the division into topical modules that had been developed in London, as well as to some of the objects that had been displayed at the Jewish Museum London exhibition.

The first and most important difference is adding a new module – Blood and Identity. It serves as a sort of epilogue to the exhibition, as it allows the viewers to look at the subject of blood from the contemporary perspective. This section, aside from a video installation by Bogna Burska, will feature interviews with Polish Jews who elaborate on their attitude towards the subject of blood, both from the religious and private perspectives.

Further differences involve changing the exhibits, or including new objects from the collections from Poland and abroad, and–consequently–change of texts and shift of the emphasis. We have managed to acquire many interesting objects that will be displayed in this context for the very first time. Some threads were added, some were expanded, e.g. the motif of ritual murder which leads up to the Kielce pogrom, even though at the London exhibition it ends with the story of Simon of Trent.

In the module on Blood and Medicine, on the other hand, I added the thread devoted to folk medicine, and developed further the history of blood group studies conducted by Ludwik and Hanna Hirszfeld. Including contemporary artworks into the exposition is also a novelty. Anish Kapoor’s Blood Cinema, displayed at the Museum’s main hall, will serve as a spectacular prologue to the exhibition.

Polish exhibition also has a different visual feel to it; it has been designed anew. We have published a catalogue accompanying the exhibition, rich in reproductions of many objects displayed, and featuring texts penned by experts who collaborated with us in working on the exhibition content.

Why are there so many changes?

The original exhibition occupied a much smaller space, was based on the objects from the Jewish Museum London collection, and as such it presented the issue of blood within the Anglo-Saxon and Sepharadi context. I envisaged an exhibition embedded in the context of the history of Polish Jews, which elaborates on the threads that were barely touched upon in London. I was also aware that there are very many precious objects in the Polish collections and I was determined to make use of them.

I thought that the visitors coming to POLIN Museum from all over the world should be presented with the history of blood enriched with a contemporary context–how do Jews living in Poland today approach the subject of blood. Also, by adding another module, I wished to encourage them to self-reflect on the role of blood and on how they perceive themselves and others.

What kind of reaction would you like to provoke in the viewers?

I hope the subject of blood, especially in reference to Jewish culture, ceases to be associated with the unknown, with something dark and mysterious. I want the viewers to get comfortable with this subject, and to understand that there is not one story of blood, and that this story cannot be appropriated by one ideology or culture. The word “blood” evokes strong emotions, often associated with superstitions. I hope it will allow the viewers to verify those emotions and confront them.

I hope that the viewers find the exhibition fascinating. I hope they leave the exhibition aware that blood is more than mere physiology, that it is an integral part of the daily life, deeply rooted in culture, or in fact many cultures. It is vital for each and one of those cultures, and we must respect that. I also hope that the viewers will marvel at the objects as well as artworks by contemporary artists interwoven in the exhibition narrativew.