Museums and European History

IWMPost Article

The museum is today one of the most powerful tools shaping the collective memory of nations, often with influence on historical awareness across the globe. Curators of historical museums work on the basis of academic research, but they also refer to the collective memory of various social communities and national narratives. They confront or preserve certain ideas for future generations. 

The museum and history 

We cannot revive anything that happened decades or hundreds of years ago, but using artefacts or iconography can help people to visualize and understand the past. It can allow the audience to share emotions of sympathy and horror, and the joy and sorrow of their ancestors. The crucial concept in enhancing the role of the museum in the creation of historical narratives is that of storytelling. The storytelling museum is an idea that emerged in the 1990s as a part of a broader phenomenon in museum discourse and practice called the new museology. Among its most significant features was the extensive use of electronic media and scenography in order to create continuity in historical narratives. This new approach to developing historical exhibitions was connected with technological developments that enabled curators to create powerful simulacra appealing to the minds and the emotions of visitors. That made the museum an important instrument for influencing collective memory. A few years ago, a House of European History opened its doors in Brussels. But is it possible to create an attractive European narrative?

The most significant examples of historical museums include five that opened in the 1990s and early 2000s: the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik in Bonn, the German Historical Museum in Berlin, and the Museum of the Warsaw Rising in Poland. It is instructive to look closely at their narratives and the agendas they promote.

The Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem have presentations based on Jewish martyrdom experience and the tragedy of the Shoah during the Second World War. In the case of Yad Vashem there is an important message linking the genocide perpetrated against Jews with the establishment of the state of Israel in Palestine. In contrast, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, while emphasizing the Jewish experience, is more focused on underpinning democracy and human rights as universal and US values. A significant and moving element in Yad Vashem are oral stories by the combatants of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. This also marks a difference from the Washington museum, which focuses primarily on the victimhood of Jews.

The two principal German historical museums, the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik and the German Historical Museum, opened in the 1990s. They address the issue of German historical identity. The experience of the Second World War toppled the traditional German narrative based on love of Heimat and admiration for military traditions. In order to create continuity and legitimacy for the new federal republic, both try to link it with the historical experiences of democracy, social reform, modernization, and human rights. The period of Nazi rule is presented as a shameful chapter of Germany’s national history. However, any military tradition turns out to be a problematic element of the past. 

Finally, the Museum of the Warsaw Rising is an example of the vitality of the traditional Polish narrative in which fighting against a stronger enemy for freedom and independence is a glorious undertaking. Its approach differs from the pacifist one of the German museums by clearly declaring that establishing who was right and who was wrong is essential to appraising a conflict. It also differs from the Holocaust Memorial Museum by putting more emphasis on the active and violent response to aggression. The victimhood of Poles and destruction of their capital city is overshadowed by the emphasis on the fight in a just cause. 

The museum and continuity

A critical understanding of history as a kind of science is relatively new. Methodological rules that enable us to establish facts and distinguish them from fiction or the collective memory phenomena that often obscure visions of the past date back to the nineteenth century in Western historiography. Further back in the past, history was rather a part of literature. Thucydides wrote speeches of historical Greek figures that reflected his ideas rather than documented their words. The first Polish medieval chronicler, the anonymous writer known as Gallus, used legends about the origins of the ruling Piast dynasty alongside information based on documents and oral testimonies. He also put lyrical fragments into his historical prose. Another chronicler, Wincenty Kadłubek, invented genealogies of the Polish ruling family, reaching ancient Rome and so presented a continuity of Polish history with ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Thus history-telling or creating historical narratives can be understood as something broader than history as academic science. It comprises various activities. The same idea of establishing sense in history was fundamental to European historical paintings by Jacques-Louis-David and Jan Matejko or to the historical novels of Walter Scott and Henryk Sienkiewicz, just as it is for historical feature films today.

The need for continuity is an immanent element of political life in any nation or community, and the question should not be “if” but “what kind of” continuity we need. Thus in comparing different types of museums we ask ourselves about the accuracy of representation and the legitimacy of narratives. This is a vital problem. For example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is linked to a conflict of historical narratives, or rather a clash about Ukrainians’ right to write an independent history. But, however much we might doubt the possibility of discovering “objective” history, it does not follow that every historical concept is true and any form of representation is acceptable. 

I reject the radical idea that any attempt to establish sense in history by national narratives is dangerous. The primary reason for the emergence of history as a field of intellectual activity appears to be in creating bonds between past, present, and future rather than in distinguishing between facts and fiction. Establishing continuity, building legitimacy, and explaining political reality seem to be earlier and more essential activities than the critical assessment of sources and documents. When referring to the same chapter of European history, the museums mentioned above use different approaches and different stories. History-telling turns out to be very closely connected with the historical experience of communities. 

Bringing light by telling history

To ensure that museum narratives bring more light than smoke into narratives, we should observe the following principles. One is methodological: that the history presented must not clash with the history being established by ongoing research. Another is democratic: that the concept of history is not imposed on a society but responds to the historical views of democratic and pluralistic societies. Another important issue is museums underpinning values of freedom and human rights against authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. From that derives a goal that is probably the most difficult to achieve: that there should be a minimum consensus about some basic values in history. All these museums refer to the Nazi dictatorship and the Second World War as an evil. Meanwhile, it is far from obvious that a similar consensus can be reached on the role of Soviet totalitarianism.

Different approaches to history are connected with differences in the perception of the past. They also reflect differences of approaches and attitudes towards today’s politics or conflicts. I doubt the ability of Europeans to create a common historical narrative, but I deeply believe in European plurality and dialogue over history. It is precisely this emphasis on dialogue that should distinguish a European model of history-telling from any authoritarian approach to the past. 

Robert Kostro is the director of the Polish History Museum in Warsaw. He was a guest at the IWM in 2022.