February 20, 2014

Memo from Warsaw: People Are Talking About

Both abroad and at home, The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews has steadily found itself in the news headlines since 2005, when a team of two Finnish architects, Rainer Mahlamäki and Ilmari Lahdelma beat an international roster of “starchitects,” including Kengo Kuma, Daniel Libeskind and David Chipperfield, with their design of the ambitious new museum, which intends to tell the 1,000-year history of Jewish life in Poland, once the center of the Jewish Diaspora.

After breaking ground in 2007, the building took 33 months and roughly $62 million to build. Opened in April 2013 in order to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the museum’s building has largely been celebrated as an incredible architectural achievement, described by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, director of the core exhibit, as “a visual metaphor, a concrete cube encased in glass curtain walls split in half by a roof-height gash.” The interior boasts undulating, organic walls faced in sprayed concrete and lit from above in order to evoke Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. Of the building’s 138,000 square feet of useable space, one third will be occupied by the cutting-edge core exhibit when it finally opens to the public on October 28, 2014.

A team of over 130 scholars, led by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, spent eight years and $36 million designing the exhibit, which flows organically from the bottom of the building to the top, and includes architectural flourishes of its own, including a reconstruction of an 18th century wooden synagogue, collectively built by workshops held across Poland and with the pre-modern techniques, including the breathtaking hand painted ceiling.

For those who can’t wait until the fall, the Museum recently posted a 15-minute virtual journey through its core exhibit, guaranteed to be one of the most comprehensive of its kind in the world.

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