1993 - 2014

How to make a museum?

POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

the exhibition about the foundation of POLIN Museum

The idea of a Museum of the History of Polish Jews originated among people affiliated with the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute. Conceptual work on the project was commenced in 1993 and was continued – as a social initiative – until 2005.

The Great Synagogue and the Institute for Judaic Studies on Tłomackie Street, 1930s photo: Jewish Historical Institute

The opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, led by the eminent museologist Jeshajahu Weinberg, inspired the idea of creating a Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Dr. Grażyna Pawlak, then vice-director for development at the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute, took part in the opening ceremony, held on 22 April 1993. A modern narrative museum, retelling the history of the Holocaust, gave her the idea for a museum in Warsaw that would extend that narrative by including the story of Jewish life before the Shoah.

Prof. Jeshajahu Weinberg, fot. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I was very happy to hear about your plan of reshaping the permanent exhibition of the Jewish Historical Institute and changing it into a Museum of the History of the Jews in Poland. Naturally, I will be ready to support you in this important undertaking to the best of my ability.

Letter from Professor Jeshajahu Weinberg to Grażyna Pawlak, 17 October 1993

„Collecting and presenting paintings, objects of religious art, original artefacts preserved from past epochs remains an obvious task of all historical museums. However, it is not enough to offer the knowledge and experience of the past to the future generations today, especially the remote, or not the well-documented past. That is why we propose creating a Museum of a new type in Warsaw. Creating a course of visual narration will be at its core; it will depict not just objects, but historical phenomena and processes”. 

Jeshajahu Weinberg, Modern historical museum

On 19 April 2005, Marcin Święcicki, Mayor of Warsaw, established the Polish Committee for the Support of the Building of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and became its chair. Foreign support committees also began to be founded at the same time, including in Germany (chaired by the President of the Republic of Germany Roman Herzog), the United States, England and France.

Proclamation of Marcin Święcicki, Mayor of Warsaw, on the occasion of establishing the Polish Committee for the Support of the Building of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, 19 April 1995
The meeting of the District Council of Warsaw-Śródmieście

On 17 April 1997, the City of Warsaw transferred a plot opposite the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes to the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute as the site for the future museum.

Jerzy Halbersztadt, project director of the MHPJ between 1998 and 2004 established the international team to the Core Exhibition which consisted of designers and historicians.

Jerzy Halbersztadt, project director of the MHPJ between 1998 and 2004 and director of the MHPJ in 2005-2011

“Establishing the Museum is also the Poles’ concern. The Jewish community in Poland is very small today – it is a question of heart, remembrance and honor to support [the Museum] in order to save the heritage of Polish Jews from oblivion.”

“Jews lived amongst us for centuries. Many prominent world-famous artists, medical doctors and scientists were Polish Jews. Their tragedy is our tragedy and our loss. We would like to preserve the memory of Polish Jews; not just about the Holocaust, but also about the glorious past and the shared, often difficult, lot.”

President A. Kwaśniewski's speech

Fundraising for the Museum in the United States was conducted mostly by American Jews in some way associated with Poland. The meeting of Władysław Bartoszewski, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, MHPJ development director, with representatives of American Jewish organizations, held in New York in 2000, was one of the first steps in the process. It was at this time that the first Museum’s Founding Benefactor, Victor Markowicz, decided to donate one million PLN towards building the Museum.

A stand promoting the Museum of the History of Polish Jews at the 92nd Street Y Fest – a famed New York street festival, 2002. 

“The vast majority of American Jews, nearly 80 percent, have Polish roots … Poland is the country of my ancestors, and of yours. When the Nazis perpetrated genocide, American Jews were unable to effectively help Polish Jews, who were being killed. The time has come when they should help restore the memory of their forefathers, who had lived in Poland for a thousand years.”

Wiktor Markowicz

Wiktor Markowicz
Zygmunt Rolat
Tad Taube

In 2004 the the American Committee of Friends of the Museum was formally registered as the North American Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews – NAC, headed by Victor Markowicz and Sigmunt Rolat. The Committee’s task was to coordinate donors' participation in the process of building the Museum.

The first MHPJ logo was designed by the DDB agency in 2000. The image of a burning menorah set against the outline of a tree referred to the Jewish symbols of the light of memory and the tree of life. The tree also symbolized the rootedness of Jewish history in Polish soil. The first version of the logo, in dark grey and green, was soon altered by At Work Studio. The colors were changed to a more pronounced blue – an important color in modern Jewish history (the color of the Zionist movement, and then of the State of Israel).

The first logo designed by DDB agency. 

In 2003, work was completed on the core exhibition plan (the Masterplan): the division into galleries corresponding to historical periods was agreed, the main themes and problems to be discussed were selected, key artifacts were chosen. Aside from providing an outline of the exhibition’s historical program, the Masterplan defined the Museum’s mission and goals as well as basic principles to be observed by both the designers and the authors of the narrative.

L.Kaczyński, J.Tomaszewski, W. Dąbrowski

On 25 January 2005, Lech Kaczyński, Mayor of Warsaw, Waldemar Dabrowski, Minister of Culture and National Heritage, and Professor Jerzy Tomaszewski, vice-chair of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute, signed an agreement establishing a new jointly financed institution of culture under the name Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

International Jury appointed by Association of the JHI

Shortly after the signing of the agreement establishing the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, an international competition for the design of the Museum building was announced on 9 February 2005.

The competition guidelines were very carefully laid out. They related to the Museum’s mission, emphasized the need to take into account the historical context of the location, and listed the main functional areas of the Museum.

“The challenge for the architect is to provide an architectural concept for a building which will respond to the programmatic requirements contained in the Museum’s program, with special emphasis on the spatial provisions for the Core Exhibition, and simultaneously to create a landmark of the highest architectural quality, which will become one of the Jewish symbols of the contemporary Warsaw.”

During the first stage of the competition the participants were asked to send a portfolio of their best work, as well as a list of their assumptions in designing the Museum building. 250 applications were received, out of which 119 were deemed acceptable as providing all of the required documentation. From the 119 accepted entries, the jury selected 11 candidates who were invited to take part in workshops and to prepare a design for the competition.

On 30 June 2005 the results of the International Architectural Competition were announced at the Warsaw University Library. The winner was Rainer Mahlamäki, an architect from Finland. The Competition Jury, after long deliberation, has come to the conclusion that this project is superior to others not only due to its compact form and very elaborate internal modular layout, but also due to the way it defines the shocking public space near the monument of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. "Designed on a square plan, in agreement with the newly defined area surrounding the monument, this octagonal building opens up via a dramatic, organic space both onto the monument and the park. This dramatically curved space of limestone texture, illuminated from above, was compared by the Authors to the sea coming apart (Yam Suph), which may be interpreted as a ritual of the crossing or transcendence between a long and winding road of Polish-Jewish history and a symbolic, wide opening to a peaceful future. This form opens up onto the main circulation area with stairs and lifts, what will allow the visitors to easily reach main exhibition areas of the Museum. The fact that the space was organized in such a flexible way around the central circulation area was the key design criterion for the Competition Jury when awarding this project with the First Prize.”

Rainer Mahlamäki, fot. Aleksi Poutanen
The winning project of Rainer Mahlamäki

The MHPJ team was eager to start communicating the Museum’s mission to the residents of Warsaw and Poland as soon as possible – to make contact, open up, engage in dialogue and build a social network for the future institution. In November 2006, the Ohel was inaugurated – a light blue, open tent, reminiscent in its form of the future main hall.

Museum without walls - the Ohel in 2006-2009

The exhibitions, workshops, panel discussions, concerts, performances, and social initiatives organized in and around the Ohel in 2006-2009, although varied in terms of subject matter and addressed to different kinds of public, were intended to revive the memory of Polish Jewish history and to present contemporary Jewish culture in a way that encouraged participation and personal engagement. Trying to make Polish Jewish history less inaccessible, the organizers often used popular forms of recreation, including sports, entertainment, tourism, or art, music, film, and theater. After some time the Ohel turned out to be too small, and it was necessary to go beyond it – into the urban landscape of Warsaw, into Poland, and into the world.

On 9 September 2006 representatives of the City of Warsaw and the Ministry of Culture Michał Borowski, chief architect of the city of Warsaw, and Bogdan Romaniuk, director of the Municipal Board for Urban Development, signed an agreement with Rainer Mahlamäki to prepare the technical documentation for the building.

On 26 June 2007, the official ceremony of laying the Museum cornerstone took place. The stone was signed by President Lech Kaczyński, Kazimierz Ujazdowski, Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Mayor of Warsaw, Marian Turski, chair of the Association of the JHI, Victor Markowicz, the first Museum’s Founding Benefactor, as well as representatives of organizations and committees for the Support of the Museum, including Marcin Święcicki, chair of the Polish Committee and Mayor of Warsaw in 1994-99.

On the corner of the former Gęsia and Zamenhofa Streets, we are laying the cornerstone of the building of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews into the foundations of a ‘City that is no more,’ the former Jewish quarter of Warsaw, destroyed by the Nazi occupiers of Poland.

Groundbreaking Act, June 26, 2007

The Museum Council was appointed on March 24, 2009, by the institutional founders of the Museum: the City of Warsaw (represented by President Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz), the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage (represented by Minister Bogdan Zdrojewski) and the Council of the Jewish Historical Institute (represented by its chairman Marian Turski).

The Museum Council is a collective body which brings together various parties and institutions involved the Museum’s establishment process. The Council provides a common platform for the discussion and exchange of ideas. In addition to authorities from various fields, the Council includes prominent scholars and experts in Jewish and general history. Its role is to evaluate the Museum’s to-date achievements and to determine directions for future development. The Council is also mandated to approve the final appearance and content of the Core Exhibition.

The Council currently includes the following members: prof. Władysław Bartoszewski, Waldemar Dąbrowski, Corinne Evens, Rafał Grupiński, Wiktor Markowicz Małgorzata Niezabitowska, Włodzimierz Paszyński, Shana Penn, Zygmunt Rolat, prof. Adam Rotfeld, prof. Henryk Samsonowicz, prof. Bożena Szaynok, prof. Janusz Tazbir, Marian Turski, Renata Wiśniewska.

Establishing of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews Council, photo: Krzysztof Słomka

On June 30, 2009, a ceremonial commencement of the Museum construction took place. It was attended by the Museum donors and representatives of the municipal administration and the government.

Footprint area – 4400 square meters 

Grand Internal Area (GIA) – 16 400 square meters 

Building height – 21 meters 

Number of floors above the ground level – 4 

Number of floors at the underground level – 2

Basement level – 1

Official transfer of Jan Kulczyk’s donation towards the Core Exhibition: Piotr Wiślicki, Chairman of the Association of the JHI, Bogdan Zdrojewski, Minister of Culture, and Jan Kulczyk.

Official transfer of Jan Kulczyk’s donation towards the Core Exhibition: Piotr Wiślicki, Chairman of the Association of the JHI, Bogdan Zdrojewski, Minister of Culture, and Jan Kulczyk.

The first visitors entered the main hall during the Open House on 20–21 April 2013. They could vist the building, take part in workshops and lectures and share their thoughts on pieces of paper and add a branch to a “Tree of Dreams.”

“Light up by light flowing from above and evoking strong emotions, this interior is the poetic heart of the building, connecting to it all its levels and all parts of the program. For the designers of the project, the abstract form of the tear symbolizes the parting of the waters and the Jews crossing the Red Sea, while at the same time expressing the journey of the Jewish community through its complicated and tragic history. The mind’s geometry collides here with a shape expressing the dynamics and irrationality of the ruthless uncompromising progress of history.”

Bogdan Paczkowski

In April 2013, following the completion of construction works and the move to the new building, the Museum launched its program activities.

The Museum Team faced a difficult task – that of initiating its first meeting with the public and creating a program with its “heart” – the core exhibition – not due to open for another year.

This intervening year was filled with a rich cultural program: temporary exhibitions, film screenings, theater performances, concerts, panel discussions, and artistic residences – all of this intended to show that Jewish culture is an integral part of Polish history and culture, its traces still visible in our contemporary world. The Museum also put together a very rich educational program addressed to children and young people, and based on the assumption that to achieve a better future, one should begin with the young.

Throughout this whole period the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland continued finishing works on the exhibition, as the Museum team prepared for its use.

After the April opening the Museum launched its program activities on a full scale. The exhibitions “Letters to Afar,” featuring prewar amateur film footage from small Jewish towns in Poland, and “Warszawa, Warsze,” highlighting Jewish contribution to the history of Warsaw, a concert of Bundist workers’ songs performed by Wojciech Mazolewski’s Bund Band, the play “All Backs Were Turned,” directed by Michał Zadara, an episode of the cabaret Pożar w Burdelu – are just some of the many cultural events that took place at the Museum during its first year of activity in the new building.

28 October 2014 - we have been waiting for this day for over 20 years! The opening of the Core Exhibition of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews entitled “1000 year history of Polish Jews”.

This exhibition presents selected parts of the temporary exhibition “How to make the museum?” which is presented in the Museum to 2 February 2015.

Credits: Story

Kurator wystawy "Jak zrobić muzeum?" — Tamara Sztyma
Producent wykonawczy — Radosław Wójcik
Konsultacja merytoryczna — Marek Łoś

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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