Making #Heritage Great Again

Step inside the newest volley in Poland's culture war, the #Heritage exhibit in Krakow.

The  #Heritage (#Dziedzictwo) exhibition at Krakow’s National Museum is imposing, grand, and low-tech. It is an old-school, collection-based exhibition that exemplifies a traditional form of museological deceit, where profoundly political work is disguised as objectivity and benevolent custodianship. But #Heritage is novel because it co-opts not only the seeming neutrality of the original museum-as-treasure-box, but also the trappings of more recent, democratic approaches to curating, all while neutralizing true civic debate.

Organized on the eve of the centenary of Poland’s reconstitution, subsidized by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage as part of the “Independent Poland” program, and under the Honorary Patronage of the President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda, the exhibition has clear political leanings. It sprawls over the entire temporary gallery space and offers visually impressive and deeply nationalistic objects – key documents, high and decorative art, elite clothing, ritual objects, and weaponry. Both the content and the design choices hearken back to the museum founders’ aspiration of envisioning, and giving material evidence for, a once and future Poland. Imperial in scope, with a lush floor-to-high-ceiling installation of works framed by dark walls, #Heritage celebrates the might and reach of these objects’ previous owners. Room after room of Polish achievements impresses viewers with an image of a nation that is wealthy, indomitable, longsuffering, and just. This Poland sends visitors abroad who are welcomed for their generous and enduring contributions, and serves as an excellent host to multicultural “guests” at home.


The curator is museum Vice Director Andrzej Szczerski, brother of Krzysztof Szczerski, head of the Polish President’s cabinet. For him the goal of #Heritage is to make “a contribution to the debate about Polish identity which is taking place today” (the hashtag referring to open discussion). Szczerski does not clarify which particular debate he has in mind, but the contribution the exhibit makes is apparent. #Heritage is an epic, conservative gesture, pushing back against Poland’s real and imagined critics whose only crime is calling for a candid reassessment of Polish history that includes its darker inheritances.

#Heritage’s politics may be obvious, but they are not honestly curated. According to the brochure, the exhibition “shows how museum collections can describe our identity.” While it certainly uses the Krakow museum’s collection to describe a very particular Polish identity, it does nothing to show how museums do this. In a gesture either misconceived or purposely misleading, the opening wall text begins with the idea of “posing questions about ourselves, how we define our history,” but it ends by clearly describing heritage in terms of truth, self-evidence, and treasury. This is the vocabulary of authority. #Heritage uses the trappings of “new museology” to disguise a very old one.

Nothing in the curator’s approach suggests an understanding of just how difficult it is to use a modern Western national museum – an institution designed for nation-building – to provoke open debate about national heritage. And nothing about the exhibition invites dialogue. Rather, many of the exhibit’s curatorial choices work to naturalize a particular Polish identity, while erasing aspects of potential Polishness that are “undesirable”.

At first glance the curator seems to take an inclusive, malleable view of Polishness. Using hashtags to subdivide the galleries, he suggests that Polishness has, over the centuries, been sought in #geography, #language, #citizenship, #customs, and more. These categorizations appear to invite a debate about the many ways Poland could be defined, but the exhibit as a whole offers a very different story – one of an immutable, singular Poland.

Founded with donations from noble families, the museum’s notion of Polish heritage emerged from the tradition of elite art collecting. Polish high art was Polish culture, which the museum would protect. In 1920 the young National Museum shifted its “ethnographic” collections – objects seen as defining peasant culture – to the city’s then new ethnographic museum across town. One can imagine the more expansive vision of “Polish heritage” a curator might open for discussion if he or she had decided to reach beyond the museum’s own collection – or deeper into in its postwar holdings. Instead, #Heritage hews to the particular partisan vision of the institution’s 19th century founders, in both form and content.

The need to reassure the museum visitor of the continuous existence of this Polish essence produces an over-eager tone throughout the exhibit. It emphasizes continuity over change, and achievements over the vagaries of national projects. The overall feeling is of an anxious nation, needing to prove itself in Western terms, or at least to unappreciative Western viewers.

The exhibition suggests – and the curator’s tour was explicit about – Poland’s struggles for existence, and the ravages the country has suffered. Multiple occupations and colonizations have attempted to diminish or destroy Poland’s heritage, and institutions like the National Museum in Krakow were created to help safeguard it. Fair enough. But the notion of heritage has undergone crucial developments in the last half-century, and remains an area of great debate. There is a growing understanding that open exchange and multiplicity are what keep heritage a living force. Here, on the contrary, heritage is linked to the power of elites to amass and preserve what they deem valuable.

This approach is suggested in the curator’s decision to open the exhibition with the book listing the first donations that established the museum’s collection, along with a display of colourful antique bottles containing the liquids and powders used in chemical conservation processes. The implication is that Polish heritage has survived not because it is dynamic and debatable; but rather because it can be fixed and embalmed.

Real Poles don’t “contribute”

When I walk into an exhibit, especially at a national museum, I’m always on the lookout for personal pronouns. Who are we, and who are they? These small, seemingly inoffensive terms point to deep, unquestioned divisions and hierarchies among social groups. Who is the host and who the guest? Who looks, and who is subject to the gaze? Who “contributes” to a culture, and who embodies its essence?

The #citizens gallery showcases a welcome diversity of ethnic and social groups – Highlanders, Jews, Roma, and Armenians, burghers and workers. The self-congratulatory wall text frames the museum’s collection as showcasing Poland’s “democratic and egalitarian” image. But in the same breath it suggests that Polish heritage was “attractive” to certain groups of citizens described as “people who contributed to our history.” They are depicted mostly in sepia-toned portraits of classic 19th century ethnographic “exotic types”: the Jewish rabbi, the Roma musician, the costumed mountain folk. These generic, un-named representatives of “other” cultural groups were posed and documented for the scientific scrutiny and aesthetic pleasure of those controlling the camera. The label states that they represent Poland’s “flavour.”


One can only conclude that the “real” Poles – those who collect, donate, and curate, as well as creating heritage and defining history – must be the Polish szlachta, or nobility. They are the essential Poles. They provisionally include other social groups (peasants, women, Jews, Roma) to the extent that they contribute to the national project as defined and controlled by the genuine articles. Museum visitors are positioned in the shoes of these true and noble Poles. They are invited to imagine themselves as those who took the photographs, not those depicted in them.

The provisional welcome for these lesser, “contributing” Polish citizens is reinforced by where and how they appear throughout the exhibition. This makes for some strange positionings and erasures. On both of the expansive main floors of the exhibit, women are largely relegated to two tiny corners. With the exception of a small engraving of medieval queen Jadwiga, a portrait of noblewoman revolutionary Emilia Plater, and the iconic Marie Curie on a 1980’s 20,000 zloty bill, women are prized here for pleasing the male gaze: an actress, a dancing “gypsy,” two pious old women praying, and a fashion designer (Joanna Dłuska).

Jews are present in quite a number of the galleries (a presence Szczerski emphasized by pointing out Jewish objects in both the Polish and English-language tours). Yet the Jewishness depicted or suggested by the paintings and objects hews to well-worn stereotypes: as religion, in the form of rabbis or ritual garb and paraphernalia; as commerce, depicted by merchants, moneychangers, or actual coins; and as victims, with one artwork referring to the Holocaust: Władysław Strzeminski’s portrait of his star student Samuel Szczekacz, titled “Following the Existence of Feet which trod the Path” from the 1945 cycle “To my Friends the Jews.” The choice and placement of this one moment of potentially “difficult” history is tamed by its conciliatory title and its odd placement among the nameless ethnographic “types”, effectively othering any sovereign perspectives of this longstanding and internally diverse Polish population.

Had the exhibit contained a single object from the collection that offered a view from a differently positioned Polish citizen, it might have helped seed an authentic discussion about Poland’s historical ethnic, political, gender, and class diversity. Perhaps, for example, a work by surrealist Krakow Group painter, Polish Jewish Communist and Holocaust survivor Erna Rosenstein, whose parents were murdered by a Polish bandit during the Nazi occupation, a subject to which many of her works refer. Two artifacts in the show that might testify to a broader range of cultural aspiration of Poland’s Jews – a poster advertising the First Academic Ball of the Esperanto Association, and a notebook filled with Edmund Erdman’s ideografics, a utopian international alphabet – are presented in the gallery without mention of their protagonists’ Jewish origin. The poster is displayed as an example of graphic design by Polish artist Edmund Ludwik Bartłomiejszczyk.

During his curator’s tour, Szczerski suggested that the museum had been prescient in amassing its collection of Jewish ritual objects in 1939 – even of suspecting the tragedy that lay ahead – thereby strengthening the association of Polishness with heroic rescue. But this suggestion glosses over the fact that by this point “Judaica” had been established as “art” in European museology, attested by contemporaneous collections and exhibits in Vienna, Lwów, and elsewhere. The Krakow museum had an enormous “source community” on its doorstep, and its directors were in close contact with Jewish elites, who increasingly saw these objects as “material culture” valuable for future Jewish generations. Jews as collectors rather than collected – as agents influencing the constitution of the museum’s national “we” – would rub against the current exhibit’s ethno-national celebration of Polishness.

Decolonizing museology?

In curatorial terms, #Heritage is more than anything a rejection of trends in curating that take seriously progressive, pluralizing cultural critique, like art historian Piotr Piotrowski’s short-lived “critical museum” program for Warsaw’s National Museum (and most spectacularly his blockbuster show Ars Homo Erotica in 2010). Perhaps the clearest sign of Szczerski’s disavowal of such critical museology is #Heritage’s striking omission of colonialism. Imperial projects and attitudes, where invoked at all, are only those that Poles suffered from, not those that benefitted them.

The display #forourfreedomandyours showcases sites where Poles had fought in other nations’ revolutions and left a legacy of gratitude: Haitians still use a creolized version of the phrase “like in Krakow” (m’ap fe Krako) to mean something is done well! The highest mountain in Australia is Mt. Kosciuszko! The first map of Tahiti was drawn by a Polish geographer! Polish overseas exploits are selected and framed to illustrate Poland’s openness to the world. The sections on #asia and #africa note the Polish “fascination” for these continents, along with the art, photos, and hunting trophies Polish explorers and artists brought back from their expeditions. The broader cultural frameworks that shaped this fascination, and the political circumstances that made this world available for and subject to European curiosity and enrichment – namely colonialism – are barely mentioned. Where they are, Poland – a European country without overseas colonies – gets to be the good guy.

Three photographs by Polish-German explorer Stefan Szolc-Rogoziński in 1883 depict “Cameroonian elites” under German colonial rule, in classic ethographic style. Viewers are offered these anonymous “others” not just unproblematically, but apologetically (in the classical Greek sense of the word, as a justification). The accompanying text suggests that the images on the one hand mirror the photographic style of the day (by way of excusing them), and on the other are actually particularly humane because the photographer included information about his subjects’ social station, and visibly captured their dignity with his egalitarian approach (by way of praising them).

This single display summarizes the exhibition. It replicates longstanding colonial tropes – celebrating Polish research on an “unknown” part of Africa, where Rogoziński bought an island and tried to teach its inhabitants the Polish national anthem – while critiquing only the oppressive German colonists of the day. Poland’s colonial imagination, that is to say, wasn’t really colonial.

The modern museum itself as part of Poland’s colonial heritage, and the way it teaches Europeans to gaze upon the rest of humanity, is clearly not of interest here. Thus this exhibit avoids productive questions about the enduring heritage of colonialism that could be raised were these “non-colonial” photographs juxtaposed to the still-popular 1924 children’s book Little Black Bambo [Murzynek Bambo], by renowned Polish-Jewish author Julian Tuwim.

Szczerski stated during the tour, “We were educated by the Communist government that nobles were narrow minded and stupid.” Highlighting Polish engagements with the wider world is meant to belie that idea. His comment also points to one of #Heritage’s key raisons d’etre: the disavowal of four decades of Communist rule as a colonial imposition, and thus no meaningful part of Poland’s inheritance. This era is thematized in a single small section of gallery – the only room with two bare walls – containing two items: Bogusława Michałowska-Kowalska’s ingenious 1971 “furniture wall” [mebloscianka] designed to meet citizens’ basic needs of domestic outfitting in a single, convertible item with foldable beds, couches, tables, and hidden cupboards; and Andrzej Sadowski’s 1977 painting “Piotrkowska Street,” featuring a classic – then modern – car from the era.

The PRL is invoked in only one other place, where the museum’s first-floor mezzanine recalls and celebrates the landmark 1979 exhibition Poles: A self-portrait (Polaków portret własny). The reference to this earlier exhibit is telling of #Heritage’s aspirations. Officially to celebrate 100 years of the museum’s existence, Self Portrait was a display of hundreds of portraits of Poles from various historical moments, staged just as the Solidarity movement was consolidating. It can be read as resistance against the Soviet backed regime, asserting a continuous Polishness and rallying national identity in the face of cultural repression. A major cultural and political event, visitors packed the exhibit, traveling across the country and standing in long lines to enter.

A few other items may be read as dog whistles to right wing idées fixes, like the medieval map of Oświęcim illustrating the town’s bucolic presence before the Germans permanently sullied it by turning it into Auschwitz; or the medieval print of the “Relief of Smoleńsk” from the occupying Russian army, recalling the more recent Polish-Russian conflict around the same city, around which conspiracy theories swirl regarding the 2010 plane crash there that killed then Polish president Lech Kaczyński.

Jacek Gołęmbiewsk’s 2017 “Manekins of the Polish population at a scale of 1:5”

In a short corridor leading to the final room, dedicated to contemporary art responses to the museums’ collection, there is a seemingly incidental display. Jacek Gołęmbiewsk’s 2017 “Manekins of the Polish population at a scale of 1:5” presents a set of “Poles” made from 3D printed plastic that “reflect the anthropometric characteristics of the Polish population…at the turn of the second and third millennia.” Intended to optimize the design of passenger trains, the figures are grouped into heteronormative scenes of courtship, pregnancy, and nuclear family groupings. Their placement across from two wall stencils visualizing a Polish man and woman with anthropometric measurements (intended for inclusive product design) reads ambivalently, open to interpretations linking nation to biology. (A little girl measured herself against the woman as the tour group passed).

There are superficial nods to a new “deconstructive” approach to museology, for example in the choice to draw attention to doorways (#entrance), offices (#backstage), and humidity sensors (#conservation) with hashtags, as if they were also objects worth appreciation (as of course they are, pointing to the material and ideological conditions of museum display). But as the gesture remains unexplained it feels gimmicky and serves only to normalize and essentialize the “real” objects on display, as if they deserved as little critical questioning as a doorknob is generally given. #Heritage is further self-certifying (and unwelcoming to the kind of debate it advertises) in the supplementary spaces where visitors are invited to “participate.” On the mezzanine, a wall-sized screen displays „selfies” tweeted by visitors in the galleries. It asks us to visually inscribe ourselves in, and thus implicitly affirm, Szczerski’s version of heritage. If this gallery were unedited it would be an interesting site for intervention; visitors could photograph themselves holding critical texts or adding in missing „heritage objects” – but I presume any such „debate” would be edited out; none was visible. The relentless avoidance of difficult – read: actually debatable – topics and the celebratory tone of the resulting vision of heritage can only be sustained by the disavowal of much of Polish history. This can be seen categorically in the separating out of World War II and the Holocaust into a simultaneous exhibit Face to Face: Art in Auschwitz in the museum’s smaller Szołayski House branch; but even this show conveniently keeps Nazi crimes hermetically sealed off from a broader landscape that might raise questions about Polish wartime deeds.

If #Heritage’s attempt to return to a glorious past of imperial aspiration – to make heritage great again – resembles broader European trends (see Berlin’s grandiose Humboldt Forum), only a few streets away the local stakes of this regressive cultural project could be keenly felt. After my Sunday visit in mid-July I walked from the museum into Krakow’s main square where thousands of enraged citizens had gathered to protest the most recent authoritarian acts of the Law and Justice government, who have been consolidating their power in troublingly anti-democratic ways. #Heritage is clearly a salvo on the cultural front of this broader rightward crusade.

In an article titled “Democracy’s Disappearance,” Roosevelt Montás notes that “liberal democratic societies depend on the open flow of ideas…respect for diversity; tolerance of difference; concern for vulnerable members of society” and raises the spectre that universities have been complicit in the deterioration of these values. The same finger might be pointed at museums. If #Heritage advertised a platform for debate, it offered visitors only the opportunity to disagree. “This isn’t my heritage” [“To nie moje dziedzictwo”] muttered a gallery guide as our group parted.



Erica Lehrer is Canada Research Chair in Museum and Heritage Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. More of her writings can be found on Academia.edu.