By Zachary Albert, 2012 AJC Fellow
As a 2012 Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellow and (at the time) soon-to-be Museum professional, I relished the opportunities to visit the many Polish museums dedicated to World War II. One museum in particular, located in the former Oskar Schindler Factory, peaked my interest by forcing me to ask the question: “What role, if any, does reality or authenticity need to play in constructing a museum experience?”
As I understand them, museums do not simply present objects, they transmit a message. A related history is always a mediated history, though this doesn’t negate authenticity. In museums, exhibits need relationships – with the curator as well as with the visitor – in order to speak. In this sense, any museum provides a trace of its makers: its founders, curators, and educators, for example. For me, The Museum of the Nazi Occupation of Kraków housed within the former Schindler Factory tells the story from a Polish perspective, focusing specifically on the local experience interpreted by local professionals.
First, it is important to note that Oskar Schindler and the 1,100 Jews he saved are not the central players in this museum. This comes as a surprise to many. While the setting is within this historical haven, the narrative is of Kraków during Nazi occupation. It is designed to allow the visitor to experience Polish life from the cobblestone streets of 1940s occupied Kraków through the Soviet liberation in 1945. On “the streets of Kraków,” a visitor must navigate between floor-to-ceiling Nazi flags, and liberation is depicted metaphorically as a dark tunnel with an unstable floor. The museum uses these visuals to guide visitors through an “experience.” In stark white rooms and dimly lit spaces, the Museum’s architecture alone tells its story. The images of swastikas at eye-level and on floor tiles, and the uneven rubber floor of the liberation exhibit force one to interact with the museum’s narrative. A visitor “feels” and “experiences” this history. The most fascinating aspect is that interactive and visual elements of pre-war life in Poland are re-created in a museum in contemporary Poland. Reality is substituted for a directed experience. This implies that a constructed space can become more accessible than a location in situ.
For a foreigner visiting the Holocaust memorials and museums of Poland, this dissonance disrupts any positive role authenticity could have played in the Museum experience. Yet, the question remains, “Is authenticity even necessary when telling an emotionally based story?” For The Museum of the Nazi Occupation of Kraków, I think the answer is no. In this museum visitors encounter a Polish sense memory of wartime Kraków: a memory that focuses on the sensation of oppression, and in a museum setting, a memory that relies on production over artifacts to elicit a history of domination. Yet, the visitor comes away with an intense understanding of Nazi-occupied Kraków regardless of the exhibit’s “authenticity.” At Schindler’s Factory, constructed emotional cues are the method conveying the lessons of the museum. Created space layered over physical location allows this museum to shape emotion in such a way that it may remember the past while depicting the present.
Zachary Albert is currently the Education and Public Engagement Coordinator for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. He received his B.A. in religious studies from Rhodes College. As an undergraduate, he was a four-year Bonner Scholar and an inductee into the College’s Hall of Fame. In 2008, he traveled to Ostrava, Czech Republic to volunteer with the local Jewish community and restore pre-WWII cemeteries that were desecrated by the Nazis. He received his M.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University in 2012. He focuses on the study of Holocaust narratives and memory in memorials, monuments, and museums. Zachary was a 2013 Council of American Jewish Museums Conference Fellow.