ŻYCHLIŃSKA: A date at the museum. Where sensuality, knowledge and power blend

The stakes are high in the museum game. It is no secret that knowledge is power

Tr. Aleksandra Małecka

They matched on Tinder and one of their first dates was at the Warsaw Rising Museum. “Great date, very promising!” – I hear the young girl shouting into her phone. We are on the tram, I try not to eavesdrop, but the talk of a date at the museum pulls me out of my afternoon slumber. The idea seems weird, even exotic. When I was entering adulthood at the turn of the nineties and the first decade of the 21st century, the dominating narrative was “choosing the future”. My peers were not particularly interested in history, and they surely did not go on dates to museums. We associated them with cluttered dusty rooms, the ritual of putting on worn-out protective slippers and a whole array of dos and don’ts: “do not touch”, “do not photograph”, “follow the tour route”.

In the arms of new museums 

The Warsaw Rising Museum, which has been enjoying great popularity in the recent years, does not fit the above description. Its opening in 2004 began a new era in Polish museology, even though in the Western countries the discussion on the social role of museums and the need for changing the way they communicate to the mass audience started about two decades earlier[i]. Museums have found themselves in a very special situation today. On the one hand, they enjoy historically unprecedented popularity. On the other hand, they compete with sports centers, shopping malls, and amusement parks[ii]. It is thus not surprising that the marketing departments of museums survey the expectations of visitors and outdo themselves in coming up with ideas for making their – not necessarily educational, but often commercial – offer more appealing. The museums that successfully attract large attendances function like well-managed enterprises. The aim is to create a recognizable brand, hence so much attention is devoted to esthetics: architecture and design, as well as a considerable effort directed at “increasing visibility” and shaping their public image. Museums, like companies, manage many types of capital. Among these capitals the most important one is symbolic capital – with popularity, prestige, and social trust playing currency.

But is a museum commemorating one of the most tragic events of Polish World War II history an appropriate place for a date? What attracted the newly-acquainted couple – the modern display design, the opinion of it being a Warsaw must-see, or perhaps the desire to pay homage to the insurgents and the national imagined community? A date at the museum is a social situation that blends together several contexts, including politics, ideology, identity, esthetics, technology, and marketing.

The power of the gaze

Though the word “museum” has its roots in the ancient cult of the muses, the institution itself belongs to the order of modernity – it is rooted in the ideals of Enlightenment philosophy. In the words of art historian Victoria Newhouse, the museum represents a new secular religion[iii]. The first public museums came into being together with the modernizing and centralizing European states. It was then that appeared the idea to create a special space for exhibiting the treasures of culture – collections of art and the contents of cabinets of curiosities, donated or bought from private owners, as well as spoils from overseas voyages, wars, and conquests, which testified to the imperial power of the state[iv]. The rules by which museums function, formulated during that period, are still operate today. First of all, the collection is made available – free of charge or for a small fee – to the general public audience for educational purposes. Secondly, the exhibition is purposefully arranged, in accordance with experts’ guidelines. Finally, a team of specialists employed at the museum supervise the collection on behalf of the state, taking care that it is not destroyed or dispersed[v].

The museum collection was created to exclude objects from everyday utilitarian circulation – to free them from the impact of commonness, immediacy, and chance – and then give them new meanings[vi]. As labeled exhibits, they become part of the museum’s message. Their role is to give testimony, to exemplify, to amaze. But the interaction between the items on display and the visitors is mediated by the invisible presence of the museum’s experts and policymakers. Counter to appearances, museums are not ideologically neutral repositories of knowledge, but highly political institutions. Proof of this can be found in the mission statements, aims, and values written down in their statutes and program documents, which directly impact the stories that are told in them.

Museums give meaning to the past – they explain the world. Their task is to convincingly tell a story with a thesis, to which the script of the tour is crafted. The museum’s narrative is a construct of memory that says more about the times and conditions in which it was designed than about the past it presents. Because the past – in the words of the American historian Hayden White – belongs to the realm of imagination[vii]. The same story can be told in many ways, depending on the adopted point of view. The museum’s narrative is one of the possible interpretations of the past, usually a rather selective and simplified one, which the museum – using its social authority – lifts to the rank of objective historical truth. This is why it is worth considering which subjects were omitted or marginalized in its narrative. It is a good exercise of imagination: to tell the story of an event from a different perspective in order to prove a thesis that is not necessarily in accordance with the politics of the museum.

The stakes are high in the museum game. It is no secret that knowledge goes hand in hand with power. In the past, museums were institutions of elite character. The visitors were not very different from the curator and donors – mainly white, upper-class men. Their gaze legitimized the existing hierarchies of power and prestige, contributing to the reproduction of the social order of their time[viii]. Contemporary museums are rather supposed to change the status quo: to rewrite old narratives into new ones, to shape the taste and views of the mass audience. Regardless of whether they tell the story of one particular historical period, war, battle, or somebody’s life, their narrative is always about a greater whole – history, culture, identity. The story about people and events from the past becomes the key to comprehending ourselves – now and in the future. At the same time, thanks to the adopted display strategies, knowledge and power become diffused in the museum. This does not mean they disappear, quite the opposite – they become more difficult to grasp, so they act more efficiently.

Creating the past

The new museum is in a way the fulfillment of the dream of the time machine. It evokes in its audience the experience of the past, which it not as much recalls as actually calls into being with the use of a set of techniques of interaction. Though so much is being said about the innovativeness of museums, after stepping through their threshold one may experience the feeling of déjà vu. The display is organized into small, separate units, differing in style and mood. The space is dominated by iconography: large-scale photographs and many individual images, multimedia animations, and slideshows. Monitors and telephones built into the walls invite one to hear looped witness accounts. Information is hidden in drawers, compartments, and other hard-to-reach nooks. The mood, created through carefully dosed sound and changes in lighting, plays an important role. And, we must add, there is no modern museum without reconstruction! At the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews you can take a stroll along the pre-war Zamenhoff Street, at the Warsaw Rising Museum you can wander in the darkness of sewers, and at the European Solidarity Center, you can sit at the controls of a crane or live through moments of terror in a communist-era police van.

The new museum, however, does not use a lot of text. Text creates unnecessary distance between the display and the audience, who should turn off critical thinking and focus on the emotional experience. The intensive stimulation with image and sound is supposed to make the visitors feel like they are part of an action movie[ix]. The politics of the museum are thus not carried out through traditional teaching, but by making the visitors live through the story that is being told. Knowledge mediated through personal feelings and bodily sensations is difficult to verify or subject to critical evaluation due to its subjective character[x]. Especially the youngest visitors are vulnerable to the visual attractiveness and emotional intensiveness of the museum’s message. Even if their education equips them with – be it the most basic – tools for interpretation of texts, they are not taught any methods for critically analyzing visual culture. They are the most likely to identify with the museum’s narrative, and it is with them in mind that the curators keep vivifying the past shown there.

Museums of the future – the future of museums

What will the museums of tomorrow be like? There are many challenges before them. Betting on interactive and multimedia communication forces them to closely follow new trends, since nothing ages faster than new technologies. Perhaps soon the exhibits will be completely replaced with digital images, and museum tours will become completely gamified thanks to the application of augmented reality. The museum game will offer several scripts, paths, and levels, rendering the experience of the visitors – who will take on different roles, perform various tasks, and perhaps collect points while doing so – even more individualized than today. The sensual experience of the past will be almost total, skipping the parenthesis of convention. Many persons will enthusiastically approach the increased attractiveness of this form of “museum tour”, not noticing that it also reinforces the hegemonic control of the museum over the way messages are interpreted by visitors. And perhaps after the period of experiments with technology is over, we will return to traditional methods of displaying and building narratives around individual artefacts, so they impact the imagination of visitors instead of their senses.

I will venture the thesis that in a world of progressing entropy of culture – the dispersion of knowledge, the pluralization of values, and the erosion of the cannon – museums will continue to enjoy popularity and their social importance will grow. Their strength will be founded upon recognition, accessibility, and durability. These traits gain particular importance when participation in culture diversifies to the point that it is difficult to find common ground for experiences and thoughts connected with it. Museums not only offer attractively presented messages, but also the opportunity for people with similar views to come together. For those looking for identity or craving for the feeling of community, they play the role of social and cultural keystones. This can lead to a situation in which the regulars and enthusiasts of a given museum – and the vision expressed in it – will mutually reinforce each other in their convictions. The community-building potential of museums is undeniable. Perhaps this was why the couple from Tinder decided to go on a date to the museum? Perhaps they wanted to place their – probably still quite fragile – relationship within a broader structure of meaning, in a context larger than the individual. Their decision is proof that museums are not losing their value. There is simply no way we can discard them as relics of the past.

Monika Żychlińska – sociologist and Americanist, doctoral student at the Institute of Sociology of the University of Warsaw. Her interests include cultural memory and identity and new museum studies. Monika Żychlińska holds a grant from the National Center for Science and was awarded a scholarship from the Kościuszko Foundation at the New School for Social Research. She is a member of the Memory Studies Association

The article was first published in “Res Publica Nowa” nr 3/2017 and translated into English with support from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education’s research dissemination funds (contract no. 692/P-DUN/217).

Tr. Aleksandra Małecka

Tłumaczenie na język angielski artykułów z numeru kwartalnika “Res Publica Nowa” 3/2017  – zadanie finansowane w ramach umowy 692/P-DUN/217 ze środków Ministra Nauki i Szkolnictwa Wyższego przeznaczonych na działalność upowszechniającą naukę.

[i]           Sarah A. Crane, Of Museums and Memory, [in:] Museums and Memory, ed. S. A. Crane, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 2000, p. 2.

[ii]           Victoria Newhouse, Towards a New Museum, New York 1999.

[iii]          Ibidem, p. 190.

[iv]          Peter Aronsson, Explaining National Museums, [in:] National Museums: New Studies from Around the World, Routledge, London-New York 2010, p. 29-31.

[v]           Krzysztof Pomian, Collectors and curiosities. Paris and Venice, 1500–1800, translated by Elizabeth Wiles-Portier, Polity Press, Cambridge 1990, p. 258–260.

[vi]          Ibidem.

[vii]          Hayden White, Poetyka pisarstwa historycznego, ed. E. Domańska, M. Wilczyński, Universitas, Kraków 2000.

[viii]         Carol Duncan, Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship, [in:] The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. by Ivan Karp, Steven D. Lavine, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington-London 1991.

[ix]          See for example interview with J. Ołdakowski – director of the Warsaw Rising Museum, “Historia jak w filmie”, Gazeta Stołeczna, October 2–3, 2004.

[x]           Geoffrey M. White, “Emotional Remembering: the Pragmatics of National Memory”, Ethos 27 (2000): 505–529.

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