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Curating between hope and despair

Curating between hope and despair

An extraordinary museum on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland is a symbol of hope after one of the darkest periods in history.

Described as “a symbol of hope in a place of tragedy”, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews embodies a thousand years of Jewish history on the original site of the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland.

It’s 20-year creation and international significance is the focus of a University of Auckland public lecture by its chief curator, Professor Emerita Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett from New York University.

She says the stunning glass museum, full of light, air and space, “began from the rubble, without a building or a collection, but with the greatest treasure of all, a story to tell; all the drama is on the inside”.

The museum completes the memorial complex that began with the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, which sits in front of it.

“At the monument we honour those who died by remembering how they died, at the museum we honour them by remembering how they lived,” she says.

“My lecture explores the creation of POLIN Museum and its multimedia narrative exhibition as well as its potential to be an agent of transformation that can move an entire society forward.”

Starting from the Middle Ages and encompassing eight galleries, the core exhibition looks at the beginnings of Jewish settlement in Poland, the development of Jewish culture and the social, religious and political diversity of Polish Jews, and dramatic events from the past, culminating in the Holocaust. A final gallery depicts Polish Jewish life in modern times.

A vibrant hub in the city, POLIN also runs temporary exhibitions, educational activities, conferences, and academic and artistic residences.

Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett sees the museum as a place “where people can confront the stereotypes and face the perils of today’s world, such as xenophobia and nationalistic prejudices”.

“By promoting openness, tolerance and truth, POLIN Museum contributes to mutual understanding and respect.”

Before the Holocaust, Poland had one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. By 1945, three million Polish Jews, 90 percent of the pre-war Jewish population, had been murdered or perished. In total, about six million Jews perished in the Holocaust.

Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s lecture, Curating Between Hope and Despair: Creating POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, is at 6pm on Tuesday 12 March at Old Government House in Auckland. Register to attend at:

Editor’s notes:
• Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is being hosted by the Faculty of Arts

• In 2016, POLIN Museum won the European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA 2016). It is the first public-private partnership for a major cultural institution in Poland.

• Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is Professor Emerita of Performance Studies at New York University. Married to wellknown New Zealand artist Max Gimblett, she first visited New Zealand in 1972 and has come regularly ever since.

• Her books include Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage; Image before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864–1939 (with Lucjan Dobroszycki); and They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust (with Mayer Kirshenblatt).

• She received the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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