I spend a lot of my time in Europe checking out museums, to evaluate and describe them for our Rick Steves guidebooks. But on my latest trip to Poland, I had the most thought-provoking museum tour of my career, at the new, high-tech, and highly controversial Museum of the Second World War, in Gdańsk. My review of the museum is mixed…for political reasons. That’s because the museum I saw is not the one that was originally intended. Instead of leaving the exhibits to historians, Poland’s government decided to make some… “adjustments.”
Poland took a hard right turn when the Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015. Regardless of my personal politics, I have no problem with Poland having a right-wing government. There’s a natural and healthy pendulum swing to Polish politics, which I’ve observed up close over the 20 or so years that I’ve been traveling here regularly. And regardless, Poland has always been far to the conservative end of the European spectrum.
But the Law and Justice party is something different. Like Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government in nearby Hungary, or Donald Trump’s presidency stateside, the Law and Justice party has made bold moves that feel outside of the “normal” bounds of a democratically elected government. All of the specifics — including aggressive changes to the judiciary, the military, and the media, all while flouting EU censure — are beyond the scope of this post, but this video by Vox provides a helpful primer.
From my perspective as a guidebook author, the Museum of the Second World War provides a fascinating case study in how the politics of a place you visit can have an impact on your sightseeing.
The original director of the Museum of the Second World War, Paweł Machcewicz, pursued a bold vision to present an ambitiously global, yet personal, perspective on the war that began right here in Gdańsk in 1939. When I first heard about this plan, many years ago, I couldn’t wait to see it.
It should be noted that Poland does museums exceptionally well. In the Gdańsk area alone, recent years have seen the opening of new, state-of-the-art museums about Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarity strikes of 1980, and about Polish emigration to the New World. Both are among the best historical museums in Europe. And the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2014 in Warsaw, is simply breathtaking — ambitious in scope, intimate in detail, and masterful in telling its story.
The bar was set high. But it seemed that the new World War II museum might just be able to clear it. Unfortunately, after the Museum of the Second World War was completed — but before it had opened to the public — Law and Justice government officials deemed it too pacifistic and “not Polish enough,” demanding changes to make it more singularly patriotic. Machcewicz was replaced as the director, and the other historians and curators who had designed the exhibit were also fired or left. By the time the museum opened in March of 2017, several exhibits had been altered.
It was through this lens that I visited the museum for the first time, just a few weeks ago. I was curious whether I’d be able to tell what had been altered. And — from my perspective as a travel writer who has evaluated literally thousands of museums across Europe — I also wondered, simply, was this version of the museum any good?
The purpose-built museum complex — steered by a committee that included Polish American architect Daniel Libeskind — is striking. Surrounding the building is a flat, neatly landscaped plaza — representing the present. Above it rises a jagged, glass-and-rusted-steel tower — representing the future. And the exhibit occupies more than 50,000 square feet, entirely underground — representing the past, or perhaps something like a tomb.
Once inside, the permanent exhibit curls through a central corridor, telling the story of World War II beginning with the fragile peace that ended the First World War. The museum is blessed with remarkable artifacts, which it weaves together with modern effects, touchscreens, and some elaborate dioramas (such as a walk-through Polish city street, before and after the war).
Touring the exhibit leaves you with powerful impressions: A boxcar that was used to transport Jews to concentration camps. A wooden wheelchair from a psychiatric hospital near Gdańsk, all of whose patients were executed by the Nazis. An actual Enigma machine, with an exhibit explaining how it was Polish mathematicians who originally broke the German code…before sharing that information with Alan Turing and Bletchley Park. A film by American correspondent Julien Bryan, who was in Warsaw during the invasion and bore witness to the Nazis bombing a church during Mass, an attack on a maternity ward, and a village of peasants strafed by Luftwaffe gunfire while digging up potatoes.
I went in looking for examples of what might have been changed by the new director. Some were obvious: In the middle of a powerful exhibit about the Holocaust — awkwardly plastered to a wall that felt like it was supposed to have been left empty — was a display explaining how the Polish people stood up to save their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis, at great personal risk. While this certainly took place (and such people are rightly honored by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations”), many Poles also looked the other way — or collaborated. This is an important — and somewhat controversial — topic that is handled evenhandedly in Warsaw’s Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, among other places. But this museum, supposedly the definitive statement on World War II in Poland, makes no mention of any Poles who aided the Holocaust. Rather than posing questions, it provides a definitive (yet incomplete) answer.
Another notable change was playing up the role of Poles as victims and martyrs. Posters were added throughout the exhibit profiling everyday Poles (often clergy) who were persecuted during the war. This struck me as odd; in other cultures where nationalism takes root, the tendency is to downplay victims and elevate heroes. Later, a Polish friend reminded me that much of the Polish national identity is tied up in its spectacular failures. Victimhood is not weakness; it’s the foundation of strength. And here again, the exhibit was working hard to pluck the Polish heartstrings.
And I sensed a tone, throughout, of simplistically painting Nazi Germany and the USSR with the broadest of brushes. I’ve toured many museums — less mired in politics than this one — that relate the events of history with honesty, intelligence, and nuance, which is devastatingly effective in documenting just how coldly ruthless World War II’s authoritarian regimes were. Those museums trust their audience to draw the appropriate, reasonable conclusions. But this museum self-consciously strives to make everything as overt as possible: “Boy, those Nazis were bad hombres, amirite?” And in doing that, paradoxically, it weakens its message.
One exhibit explicitly condemns “nationalism” on the part of the Nazis and the Soviets — which struck me with some irony, since the Law and Justice party itself is often labeled as nationalistic. I suppose nationalism looks bad when someone else is wearing it.
After visiting, I talked with a tour-guide friend of mine who’s based in Gdańsk. She confirmed my hunches about what had been changed. And she would know, since she had been fully trained and licensed to lead tours through the original exhibition. With the change in management, however, all of the tour guides were given a document to sign, agreeing that they would offer only the authorized narrative to visitors, without any supplementary information or personal insights. Approximately two-thirds of the guides — including my friend — had refused to sign, and the museum scrambled to train new ones who would march in lockstep with their version of history.
Still chewing over this near-miss of a great museum, several weeks later, I keep returning to one key question: What is the purpose of a museum? To educate about facts…or to manipulate emotion?
To be fair, I suppose most (good) museums strive for a balance between these two goals. That’s the artistry of museum curation: If you tell the story properly — and objectively — it creates powerful emotions.
A spokesperson for the museum has said that because the Polish taxpayers financed it, they deserve a museum that pushes a Polish narrative. But of course, the original version of the museum also gave voice to the Poles; perhaps the difference was that it stopped short of telling them exactly how to feel about all of this.
Great art — and a great museum — tells its story thoughtfully, and the emotions occur organically. And, yes, it makes the viewer work a little harder on their own. But that’s what makes the experience more powerful. It’s the difference between an art film and a telenovela.
On the other hand, walking through exhibits with a nationalistic bent, I tried to put down my hackles and see the place through Polish eyes. If ever there’s a time to give strong voice to a specifically Polish point of view, is it not in a Polish history museum? Can it not be said that the Jewish museum in Warsaw is “skewed” to the Jewish point of view, or that the Museum of African American History in Washington DC is “one-sided” in presenting the experience of Black Americans?
And yet, the Museum of the Second World War fails where the Polish Jews and African American museums soar. That’s because there’s a precipitously fine line between presenting a perspective and forcing an agenda. And for me, Poland’s re-envisioned World War II museum crosses that line. It’s a museum that makes me mistrust what it’s telling me. Because I know that it’s politicians, not historians, who are presenting this story. And once a museum — or a teacher — has lost the respect of its students, how can it effectively teach?
More than anything, it’s the museum’s final exhibit that rankles me. After 18 intense rooms of exhibits — feeling like you’ve been put through an emotional wringer — you arrive in the final hall, with a literal Iron Curtain cutting through the middle of the room, and photographs of bombed-out Polish cities on the walls. Overhead plays a brief film called “The Unconquered,” bursting with cherry-picked historical details, generalizations, and exaggerations. The movie is charged with an intense, unmistakable message of national pride and military might. With cheaply produced CGI effects, an urgent voiceover, and bombastic music, it feels like a trailer for a first-person shooter video game. (You can watch it here.) Sadly, this is the taste that the museum leaves in your mouth.
My tour-guide friend said that the final film had originally concluded the exhibit on a more thought-provoking note, accompanied by wistful folk music and challenging questions. Later I read an interview with the original director, Paweł Machcewicz, who said, “Through this film, we had wanted to show that the war wasn’t a closed chapter, it wasn’t the past. Violence, the suffering of civilians, is still going on around us. The propensity to violence is inside us; it is part of the human condition. It served as a warning and emphasized the universal meaning of the exhibition.” I sure would like to see that film.
And by the way, Warsaw’s magnificent Museum of the History of Polish Jews — in contrast — is not afraid to ask tough questions on its way out the door. In that museum, the final room pointedly asks: Is there any future for Jewish people in Poland, a place where they were very nearly wiped from existence? Conflicting viewpoints are presented — from contemporary Jewish communities in Poland, and from Polish Jews in Israel — but it doesn’t instruct you how to feel. It trusts you enough to wrestle with tough questions without slipping you the answers.
At the end of the day, the Museum of the Second World War is still an impressive accomplishment. It succeeds at providing important, mostly well-rounded insight on an extremely significant event, from the perspective of the country that was perhaps more grievously impacted by that event than any other. I will recommend it in the new 10th edition of my Eastern Europe guidebook— but with a caveat.
Good as the museum is, I can’t stop thinking about how much better still it could have been. Full disclosure: I am one-quarter Polish, and I wear my Polish ancestry with great pride. It saddens me, as a Pole at heart, that my grandfather’s homeland has been denied the world-class World War II museum it deserves.
What do you think? Who gets to tell the story of a nation? Am I wrong to wish that it be historians, rather than politicians?