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  • The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in WarsawA New Approach to the History of the Jews in the Polish Lands
  • Antony Polonsky (bio)

The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen not only the establishment of a large number of new museums but a significant change in their function. In an article in The Economist on 21 December 2013, Fiammetta Rocco observed:

To be sure, museums remain showcases for collections and repositories of scholarship, but they have also become locations of popular debate and places where children go for sleep-overs. They are no longer places where people look on in awe but where they learn and argue, as they would at universities or art schools. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Britain's Tate galleries, describes the museum as 'a forum as much as a treasure box'.1

This change in function has brought in a much larger public, as museums have sought to provide narratives for their exhibitions, establishing a context for the objects they display and making extensive use of electronic means of communication. In 2012 American museums received 850 million visitors, in England over half the adult population visited a museum or gallery, while in Sweden three-quarters did so. In the same period, the Louvre in Paris, the world's most popular museum, had 10 million visitors. The number of museums has increased in the last two decades from around 23,000 to at least 55,000. Many are housed in striking buildings, such as that designed by the Canadian American architect Frank Gehry for the Guggenheim Museum in the port area of Bilbao, which also had the added benefit of reviving the blighted area of the city. Some are also located in what the French historian Pierre Nora has described as lieux de mémoire2 such as the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, the Alamo Museum in Texas, and the museum at the battlefield of Culloden in Scotland. Most in the developed world are financed by a combination of public, corporate, and individual support. [End Page 327]

These phenomena have also affected the world of Jewish museums and of historical museums in central and eastern Europe. A key role in the transformation of Jewish museums has been played by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), which has established itself, alongside Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, as one of the two principal Holocaust museums and memorial sites in the world. Established in 1979 and opened in 1993, it is located on the National Mall in Washington in a striking building designed by James Ingo Fried. Its permanent exhibition, whose structure owes a great deal to the museum's first director Jeshajahu Weinberg, provides a clear narrative of the Jewish experience first of persecution and then of mass murder. Holocaust museums have subsequently been established in many United States cities, while New York has seen the creation in 1992 at Battery Place, within sight of the Stature of Liberty, of the Museum of the Jewish Heritage in another striking building alongside a memorial garden. According to Wikipedia's incomplete list, there are now over 150 Holocaust museums in 26 different countries. In 2010 the new home of the National Museum of American Jewish History was opened on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. Jewish museums have also been established or reorganized in Europe, most notable among them being the one in Berlin, which is housed partly in the remarkable building designed by Daniel Libeskind, and the one in Moscow, which is also described as a 'tolerance centre' and is located in the restored Bakhmetyevsky Bus Garage, a key avant-garde building erected in the 1920s. There are also contentious plans for the comprehensive remodelling of the Diaspora Museum (Beit Hatfutsot) in Tel Aviv, which will culminate with the opening of the Synagogue Hall in 2016 and the new museum exhibition in 2018.

In Poland, since the end of communism, museums have changed greatly, reflecting the debates in the country over identity and Poland's desire to be part of the new integrated Europe. The display in the state museum at Auschwitz has been revamped and a new memorial has been...


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pp. 328-350
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