Materiality and digitization in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Barbara Kirschenblatt Gimblett, NYU Performance Studies and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is being created in Warsaw on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto and facing the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. At the heart of this educational and cultural center is a multimedia narrative museum presenting a millenium of Jewish presence on Polish soil. While we will show original historical objects, we do not depend primarily on them to tell this rich story.
There is a general perception that if we are not basing the exhibition on objects we must be a “virtual” museum–and that is generally taken to mean a museum that lacks materiality. I offer one example here of our work as a challenge to the generally accepted dichotomy between
virtual and–take your pick–actual, digital, material.
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Source: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews
I call the problem the materiality fallacy: what constitutes an “original” or “actual” or “authentic” object. The 18th-century wooden synagogue of Gwoździec that we will feature in the 18th-century gallery offers a fine case for exploring this issue. We intend to reconstruct the timber-framed roof and polychrome ceiling of this spectacular synagogue. Now we could go to a theater prop maker, give him the dimensions and some pictures, and say to him “Make it!” The result would look pretty much like the original, but it would be a theatrical prop. That is not what we want to do. What we want to do goes to the heart of the issue of actual and virtual. We want to work with a studio in Massachusetts, whose motto is “learn by building.”
These beautiful 18th-century wooden synagogues no longer exist; the Germans burned to the ground those still standing in 1939. We can however recover the knowledge of how to build them by actually building one. What is actual about that artifact resides therefore not in the original 18th-century wood, not in the original painted interior, but in the knowledge that we recovered for how to build it.
It’s a completely different concept of the object. This approach is related to a completely different tradition of thinking about what constitutes an object.
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The best example I can think of is the Jingu Shrine in Ise, Japan. This is a shrine that is 800 years old and never older than 20 years because for 800 years they have been tearing it down every 20 years in order to rebuild it. The only way to maintain the embodied knowledge of how to build it is to build it, and to make it necessary to build it, they tear it down and then must build it again. The value is in maintaining the knowledge of how to build it, not in preserving the original materials. The result is not a replica or simulation of the Jingu shrine; it is the Jingu shrine. This is a completely different way of defining what is “actual” about such an object.
This posting is adapted from my interview with Obieg, Poland’s leading online contemporary art magazine. An English translation of the complete interview appears here:

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One Response to Materiality and digitization in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews

  1. Catherine Shteynberg July 27, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

    Great food for thought!
    This reminds me of an issues that often come up in Fez, Morocco. While I was in undergrad, I studied there for a term, living in the old medina with a local family. We met briefly both with an administrator of the UNESCO World Heritage site in Fez and with a few Westerners who were restoring riads in the city. Problems of “preserving” Fassi architecture and history came up over and over again. Locals complained that UNESCO wanted to “make everything into a museum”–basically turn old buildings into tourist sites that wouldn’t necessarily service local needs/interests. Similarly, riads were often being “preserved” in their “authentic” crumbling state rather than hiring local artisans to restore zeliij (tile) work or flooring. As a result of these attitudes towards restoration, many young artisans didn’t possess the skills to do intricate tile work or woodwork.
    UNESCO came up with a few solutions, one of which was hiring old artisans to train younger artisans and then hiring them to help with the restoration of mosques and other important community spots (the notion that old zeliij work was somehow more “authentic” than new zeliij work done well was ridiculous to these artisans). They also refocused energy on smaller projects that could help the community–new tile work and plumbing for non-functioning community fountains and rebuilding of doorways so that they would be structurally sound and people could actually use them! Hopefully outsiders buying up old real estate are similarly tapping into the skills of newly-trained artisans to update their riads.
    You would hope that especially in these situations where outsiders are coming into a community that there could be some kind of compromise between the extremes of ripping everything down for the new or clinging to non-functioning architecture because of romantic (and innaccurate) notions of authenticity.

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