Today, we welcome a guest post from M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, author of History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s, on our changing ideas about museums.
During the 1976 Bicentennial celebration, millions of Americans engaged with the past in brand-new ways. They became absorbed by historical miniseries like Roots, visited museums with new exhibits that immersed them in the past, propelled works of historical fiction onto the bestseller list, and participated in living history events across the nation. While many of these activities were sparked by the Bicentennial, M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska shows that, in fact, they were symptomatic of a fundamental shift in Americans’ relationship to history during the 1960s and 1970s.
History Comes Alive is available now in both print and e-book editions.
New Museums and New (Kinds of) Histories
In the past few years, several new history museums have opened in the United States and around the world, including the Museum of the American Revolution, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the renovated Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and the POLIN Museum of the history of Polish Jews. Part of the reason that these have gained such wide attention is because of their innovative uses of new media and interactive elements in forming engaging, immersive interpretive experiences for museum visitors. These new museums have often presented a departure from their more traditional precedents, which historically have been artifact heavy, and fairly straightforward in the topics they address and the stories they tell.
I study and write about an earlier moment in this long history of museum exhibition: my book traces a moment when museum experiences, alongside a host of other kinds of historical cultural production, turned for the first time to the immersive and interactive as a way of making meaning. And even though I focus on the United States in the 1970s, I argue that these kinds of experiences are commonplace in museums now. I’m still an avid museum-goer, and I relish the opportunity to view interesting or innovative exhibitions, particularly in a context outside of the American one that I write about.
This June, I was visiting family in Poland, and had a chance to visit the Pan Tadeusz Museum in Wroclaw, which opened in May of 2016. Pan Tadeusz is one of the best-known Polish works of literature, an epic poem written by Adam Mickiewicz and published in 1834. The Museum is part of the Ossolineum, a historical publishing house and print archive that holds Mickiewicz’s original manuscript. It is this manuscript that is at both the material and ideological center of the show.
Right away, it is apparent why the Museum needs to rely on interactives: the chief artifact is a manuscript—not exactly a compelling object in and of itself. The Museum, then, uses new media to animate the story, linking it expertly to the larger historical background of its creation and publication, and connecting it outward to a more abstract, but critical concept of the “Polish spirit,” for which the story has come to stand within wider Polish culture. These topics: a single work of literature, the context of its production, and its place within a national context, are fairly unique in the world of museums. Museums, historically, have addressed more concrete topics: artwork, the history of a place or a group of people, technological implements. Literary history, when publically exhibited in any form, is usually found in libraries and archives, which are related—but very different—institutions, that come with their own sets of assumptions of how and why things are (or are not) made available to audiences.
The Pan Tadeusz Museum builds its narrative in several different ways. Individual displays include a periscope through which visitors can view digital animations of different elements of the epic; touch screens displays to help navigate the connections between genres of Romantic-era painting and music, and a reproduction of Mickiewicz’s library, where desk lamps project book pages onto a tabletop blotter (check out installation shots here)
Other features are even more inventive: visitors can use a motion-sensor to take a 3-D tour of the author’s home, or watch parts of Mickiewicz’s life story illuminated on ghostly scrims. The space itself is fully immersive: music plays in all of the rooms, and atmospheric lighting is used with a theatre designer’s eye. Going to the Museum is like stepping into the poem, and using it as a way to learn about the larger contexts of nineteenth-century life in Europe. What the Museum cannot do with artifacts, it does with new media, producing an experience that is quite unlike others that I have visited.
One takeaway from this museum and others like it is the interpretive possibilities that such implements open up. In the more traditional museum exhibition, artifacts were the anchors of display: the kind of stories that were possible to tell depended on the kind of objects that had been saved (spoiler: usually objects made and owned by political and economic elites). On one hand, that meant that the stories of people and communities on the margins of society were left unrepresented. New media-based displays that supplement and even replace artifacts have helped to tell these kinds of stories.
But something else that new media can help do is relate more abstract, complicated stories, like the one that can be told by Pan Tadeusz, its context of Enlightenment thinking across Europe, and its expression of the Polish national spirit. This is a sophisticated line of interpretation for a museum to present, and a novel one. Traditionally, museums use political or social history approaches, this is something closer to intellectual or cultural history.
The Pan Tadeusz Museum is unique because it is nominally about a manuscript; an epic poem—although it is about a lot more. While this is its advantage, its also presents its own drawbacks: I spoke to several Wroclaw locals during my visit and many said that although they had seen the museum (it is prominently located at the tourist and entertainment center of town), they had not yet visited precisely because they assumed that there was only a dusty manuscript inside. Because of the unique role of the museum, as an institution, in the production and dissemination of knowledge, we hold a defined set of ideas about them. But this newest crop, the Pan Tadeusz Museum among it, shows that they may be in the process of changing.
M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska is assistant professor of history and associate director of the graduate program in public history at American University. For more information, visit her website. You can read her earlier UNC Press Blog post here.