2010 is Chopin Year and Warsaw’s tourist offices are pushing it hard, highlighting the brand new Chopin Museum and the electronic musical Chopin Benches around the city. The Chopin Museum doesn’t have a lot of Chopin artifacts, the kind of things I want when I go to an artist’s house. I like a slightly worn chaise with a suggestive stain or a strangely diminutive writing desk to instigate elaborate fantasias of the life of the artist.
Even the magnificent reconstructed rooms of its Ostrogski Palace don’t evoke the boy genius’s Musical Soirée triumphs or his later superstar performances for Paris society. In fact, you’re not going to find authentic Chopin objects in many places—too much was destroyed by love or war. In Poland and in Chopin-land reconstruction is the operative word. When you see his reconstructed birthplace at Zelazowa Wola, or the reconstructed family room at the Krasiński Palace, you will see notes cautioning that they have no objects associated with Chopin.
Krakow’s Czartoryski Museum has quite the collection and, until it closed for renovation recently, you got the old timey feel of a quirky curiosity cabinet, the personal collection of a particular family of princes, carted back and forth across Europe, in wait for a Polish nation. Your best bet for evocative objects is the Chopin Salon in Paris’s Bibliothèque Polonaise, which also houses the Musée Adam Mickiewicz.
In Warsaw you get the obligatory death mask and hand cast, some fine autograph and musical manuscripts, a pocket diary from 1848, trinkets, secondary material such as a scrapbook of death notices compiled in the weeks after. It’s all encased in imposing—and distancing–cabinets, and shrouded with ostentatiously evocative lighting and sound.
For this visitor, the main impression is a bewildering monument to techno museumology gone wrong. The goal, they say, is a completely individualized museum experience. So you get a badge to wave in front of the exhibits. The badge has a chip that transmits your language preference and your expertise preference (“for basic, for advanced, for children and for the sand-blind people”) and you animate your very own presentation. Sort of.
On a Thursday night in Warsaw, wave after wave of K-12 school groups pour through. This is the best part of my visit. School groups belong to a beguiling international culture. Energetic, happy to try things out, easily interested, easily bored, the kids swipe, they watch, they try each other’s cards, they shift, in hoards, to the next swiping place. Around the individual plastic listening pods that seem to come from Woody Allen’s Sleeper, kids jostle in scrums, swap places after a few notes, revel in the fun of pushing and shoving. They are impatient in a way opposite to mine: Less than six months old, a number of exhibits are already broken. Par for the techno course. I don’t care because I want stasis and silence and a single note to produce a contemplative moment. Which badge activates that?
The kids seem impervious to the didactic lessons on history and politics embedded in the bells and whistles. Surely they are well-familiar with the messages on how Poland’s greatest international artist came to be. Surely they have already seen a version of the map that fascinates me. On a screen in the room dedicated to his birth, a series of historical maps of Poland wax and wane making the terrible history of those shifting borders seem as commonplace and inevitable as the tides. Positioning Chopin as a political activist responding to partitions and border wars evades the more noble complexity of his art in and from a political world. It turns away from serious questions of themes and influences and inclinations and it lands right at the sentimental pillar of the Holy Cross Church in which his heart is buried.
Are the Polish school children thinking they share the same soil from which Chopin’s miracle grew? The teenagers cluster in soulful groups along the wide curves of the palace’s interior staircase. The pre-adolescents crush into dark corners and behind exhibits. The littlest ones run wherever they can, up and down the halls, in and out of salons, up and down the steep stone entrance staircase. All this healthy habitation within the space reminds me of a parental truism. The best gift for a toddler is the box in which an expensive electronic toy comes. Soon, the batteries will be installed and soon after that, some features will stop working. But at the very first moment, the box is the container and vehicle for the imagination and play.
The Chopin Museum disappoints compared to the museum it is supposed to surpass. It doesn’t come close to the brilliant, exciting, inspiring Warsaw Rising Museum. Maybe that’s because the subject of the museum is entirely different. Not about an individual artist, it describes an event in the history of the city. Its stated aim is to be a museum for “grandparents and grandchildren.” It defines and celebrates a moment of collective political will, one that gathers weight across generations. The brave and tragic rebellion in the summer of 1944 was a testament to the ancestors of those who battled for 63 days, and would become a moral compass for the succeeding generations.
You learn—you experience– this yourself. The museum plots time against space. Its floor plan is a pilgrimage to each day of the Rising, thoughtfully illustrated. You are invited to pull day-calendar pages from hooks, one for every day between 27 July and 5 October, each with a chronicle of the day’s events. By collecting the sheaves you make sure to tour all the exhibits, you mark your progress, and you create a souvenir that will serve as a text to revisit. The exhibits are rich in genuine artifacts, and in recreated scenes—the printing house, the sewers, the field postal service. The museum includes a library and archive and it presents a selection of impressive original video interviews. I couldn’t tear myself away from Matthias Schenk remembering, interrogating his experience as a German combat engineer in Warsaw.
Best of all, the Warsaw Rising Museum understands the relationship between noise and silence, between action and stillness. When I visited last summer just before the 65th anniversary, children were running around in the usual noisy clusters but also patiently learning and imagining. In the atrium beneath the Liberator B-24 airplane, a veteran was being interviewed for a TV program. Tourists and Varsovians, the young and the old were alternating between conversation and private meditation.
In the museum’s outdoor art park is a mural by Rafała Roskowińskiego that pairs the heroes of the Rising with the heroes of Solidarity. Roskowińskiego applies the signature graphics of the later, more successful, movement to a collage of photos and simple captions. It’s worth visiting after a trip to the Panoramic Tower. Above the city a Plexiglas panel annotates the 360 degree view, noting which few buildings survived the war, which were rebuilt, what is still missing. After you see the continuing effects of destruction, it is good to remember the power of inspiration and creation.