“I try to reconstruct the processes of creating and negotiating the narratives of museums” – 5in10 with Zofia Wóycicka
Zofia Wóycicka, PhD is a researcher at the German Historical Institute Warsaw. She studied history and sociology at the University of Warsaw, the Friedrich-Schiller University Jena and at the School for Social Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAS). Wóycicka worked as educator at Polin – Museum of the History of Polish Jews/Warsaw (2007-2011) and as exhibition curator at the House of European History/Brussels (2011-2015). In the years 2015-2019 she was a researcher at the Centre for Historical Research Berlin of the PAS. She authored i.a. Arrested Mourning. Memory of the Nazi Camps in Poland, 1944-1950 (Peter Lang 2013).
How do you explain your current research projects to your students?
In my research project, I conduct a comparative analysis of twelve museums and exhibitions dedicated to people who helped Jews during the Second World War. These museums were erected or majorly refurbished within the last two decades in eight European countries (with two of them still under construction). What inspired me was the astonishment about the fact that all these museums sprang up like mushrooms within only a very short period. I wondered if we could treat this as one of the expressions of what Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider in 2001 already had announced as the emergence of a new “cosmopolitan memory” of the Holocaust.
Taking as point of departure Sharon Macdonald’s notion of a “glocalization” of European memory, understood as the “local reworking of global patterns,” I analyze the impact of mass media and the politics of commemoration of European and other international institutions on these museums. I also examine how they are influenced by global trends in the development of historical museums and exhibitions, in particular of Holocaust museums and memorials. However, at the same time I also investigate the local specificity and alternations of their narratives.
The first results of my research show that though all these museums are dealing with related issues and even often recur to a similar language of symbols, in fact each of them tells the story in a very different way. They also seem to follow disparate aims and convey different messages. It is worth noting that significant differences can be seen not only on international level, but also between museums located in one country.
What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?
After finishing my doctoral thesis on the memory and remembrance of Nazi concentration and extermination camps in Poland in the first post-war years, I worked at different museums for almost ten years, first as an educator at Polin – Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and then as exhibition curator at the House of European History in Brussels. In my research, I try to combine both my academic interests and my professional experience as museum practitioner.
After leaving Brussels, I was working as a researcher at the Centre for Historical Research Berlin of the Polish Academy of Sciences where I coordinated a Work Package of the international HORIZON2020 research project Unsettling Remembrance and Social Cohesion in Transnational Europe (UNREST). The Work Package dealt with the ways history is being presented in European World War I and World War II museums. Both my work at the HEH and in UNREST encouraged me to look at memory issues from a broader, comparative and European perspective.
In Poland the topic of the Righteous Among the Nations became very fashionable in recent years and is also subject to political instrumentalization. The nearly seven thousand Polish Righteous honored by Yad Vashem are to serve as proof that all accusations of Poles participating in and profiteering from the murder of Jews are false. Thus, my first impulse was to look closer at what is happening with the memory of the rescue of Jews in Poland. Then I realized that while the Polish case might be extreme, it should still be considered as part of a broader European phenomenon.
How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)
My most important research method is fieldwork, thus visiting, documenting and subsequent analysis of the case study museums and their exhibitions. In each country, I also try to visit other museums and memorials dealing with Jewish history, World War II and the Holocaust to be able to place the researched museums in a broader memorial context. I also conduct expert interviews with museum directors, exhibition curators, members of scientific boards, funders and other museum stakeholders.
Through archival and press research, and a review of secondary literature, I also try to partially reconstruct the processes of creating and negotiating the narratives of these museums, the public debates they provoked, and the wider socio-political context in which they were established. Finally, I also take into account the audience responses by analyzing entries in visitors’ books.
Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?
Very inspiring for my research were two workshops organized by the Centre for Historical Research Berlin of the Polish Academy of Sciences in cooperation with the Silent Heroes Memorial Berlin, the Europäisches Kolleg Jena and the Imre Kertész Kolleg in the years 2017 and 2018. The first workshop was entitled Rescue of Jews during the Second World War in contemporary European museum, the second Rescue of Jews during the Holocaust in European Memory. Both events allowed me to make important contacts and get insights into the particular national and regional contexts of the memory and commemoration of the rescue of Jews during World War II.
A very important book in the initial phase of my research was Sarah Gensburge’s National Policy, Global Memory. The Commemoration of the “Righteous” from Jerusalem to Paris, 1942-2007 (2016). The study not only strengthened my conviction that my research needs an international, comparative approach but also showed me how one can look at these issues from the perspective of a political scientist.
Two further books that inspired me a lot were Mark Rosemann’s A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany (2001) and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016). Both books provide a deeper reflection on how one can and maybe should speak about the rescued and their aid-providers, may it be African-American slaves fleeing to the northern states of the USA or Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. I am looking forward to reading the sequel to Roseman’s book Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany. On this occasion, I must thank Prof. Joachim von Puttkamer, who drew my attention to these publications.
Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?
Yes, I think that academic mobility has an immense impact on the way in which research projects are conceptualized. That’s the way it is, anyway, in my case.
Academic mobility and participation in international research projects broadens the perspective and enhances researchers to look beyond their own national horizon; it inspires new research questions and methodological approaches. As mentioned above, if not for my experience of working at the HEH and of participating in the UNREST project I would probably never have come up with the idea for such a broad comparative research or I would not have had the courage to take up this challenge.
Citation: “I try to reconstruct the processes of creating and negotiating the narratives of museums” – 5in10 with Zofia Wóycicka”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.12.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/20485.