What is the power of a single person, driven by a powerful vision, to change the course of history? Once achieved, how is this vision maintained under trying circumstances? How might those historical actions continue to resonate today? These key questions motivated the exhibition design of the Józef Piłsudski Museum's signature permanent exhibition.
Like the man whose life it represents, the Józef Piłsudski Museum is a place of ideas, of debate and action. It tells the dramatic story of the life of one of Poland's heroes and also of Poland's rebirth as an independent nation. At its core are Piłsudski’s values and visionary ideas, but stories of personal agency, vision, justice, human rights—and controversy, also serve as a framework for the participatory engagement of young visitors in the topics of today. Piłsudski is not portrayed as a monolithic hero, rather as a man of his times, with a complex identity sometimes in contradiction: he was a Lithuanian, a Pole, a rebel, Siberian, socialist, conspirator, revolutionist, terrorist, traveler, writer, propagandist, convict, insurgent, man of action, thinker, military leader, statesman and father.
The entire exhibition is organized symbolically between a lower level and upper mezzanine. The two levels are connected by a ramp ascending within a dramatic, visually open panoramic space defined by floor to ceiling video projections on a transparent scrim. This Central Space serves to transition the story and offer a moment of gathering and reflection before immersing in the second half. It also marks the point in the story in 1918 after 123 years of colonial rule when Poland finally achieved independence from the occupying Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The panorama, as a technique, is inspired by grand panoramas of historical events which served as attractions in the late 19th Century. In the Józef Piłsudski Museum, it has been reinterpreted and modernized as a canvas for the visualization of ideas, symbols and metaphors. Twenty-four scenes of the story can be seen through this translucent landscape of imagery. The visitor is thus invited on a journey that compresses the time of past events with the space of imagination and vision.
The exhibition incorporates emotional moments into a didactic narrative, and reserves spaces for reflection and discussion along the way. By breaking the experience into different modes of engagement, the exhibition seeks to approach the topic of history in a more encompassing manner where the visitor learns that history is essentially an aggregate of personal decisions that have unknown outcomes, and is made an active participant in creating the interpretation and meaning of the past to help shape the future we want to live in.
There are many monuments to history and many museums dedicated to great men. How do we bring history to life and help people understand the relevance of history to our contemporary experience? How do we demonstrate that history is the result of decisions made by people, with then unknown outcomes?
The Józef Piłsudski Museum aimed to be a history museum like no other. It originated as a vision of the Józef Piłsudski Family Foundation, spearheaded by Piłsudski’s grandson. In Poland, Piłsudski is a widely recognized and celebrated hero of the nation, who after many battles finally achieved the dream of independence and the foundation of a modern and progressive sovereign state. Thus, the story to be told was, at once, a very intimate portrait of a boy maturing to adulthood, and also the dramatic story of modern Poland’s rebirth as a Second Polish Republic.
Being situated on the historical property of the Piłsudski family in Sulejowek, the new Museum building offers visitors an experience grounded in authenticity, but at the same time, allows for an immersion into a carefully crafted immersive storytelling space. Our challenge was to invent a new kind of experience where the visitor follows a biographical journey and takes moments to pause and reflect about the meaning of events, decisions and actions along the way. Thus, the visitor should feel themselves to be a part of the experience.
At the onset, it was clear that the Museum had important and authentic artifacts related to Piłsudski’s entire life story and would continue to collect throughout the design process and after the opening. This necessitated flexibility in our process, since change was inevitable, as well as creative means and resources for storytelling, including large-scale graphics and multimedia. In researching history, interpretation is dynamic and new perspectives emerge. The museum aimed to reveal this process of interpretation and make it core to the visitor experience.
Based on Piłsudski’s biography, our design solution was to create a journey structured like the dramaturgy of a grand opera. The experience was broken into Scenes each using different modes of engagement - narrative storytelling, informative facts, emotionally dramatic turning points and spaces for reflection and participation. Within this structure, we created an iconic break in the story— a grand Central Space to celebrate Polish Independence.
Visitors enter the exhibition at the moment Józef Piłsudski was born, during the break in the triumvirate of Austro-Hungarian, Prussian and Russian Empires which occupied Poland for 123 years.
The first half of the exhibition brings the visitor from Piłsudski’s birth through his education, his years demonstrating against colonial oppression, his fight for civil rights, his recurring imprisonment, his subversive acts, and his creation of a secret army. It shows how a single man can act as the motivating protagonist in a dramatic quest to achieve freedom for his people. The spaces are dark and tight. The visitor cannot see where the journey leads.
The second stage of the exhibition continues in the upper mezzanine galleries and reflects on Piłsudski’s years of public service as Poland’s first Chief of State. This stage of the story concerns how after achieving independence, one man dealt with the challenging issues of building and maintaining a successful modern European nation as a liberal republic with an eye to a technological future.
At the entrances to each of the five galleries are Thresholds-- bronze-clad portals that visitors step through. As they do so, they instantly know that they are passing into the next stage of Piłsudski’s life, and they can quickly absorb basic facts, the time period and his title or nickname at that point in his life.
Each of the galleries contain several Scenes, twenty-four in all, which tell the detailed stories of Pilsudski’s actions and decisions. Scenes contain artifacts, graphics, media, and hands-on interactives. Among these Scenes are Immersive Spaces, which represent dramatic emotional turning points in the story. At the end of each gallery, visitors are invited to step out of the storytelling Scenes into Symbol Spaces which exhibit contemporary artifacts and interpretations with seating to allow for discussions.
These two halves of the story are interrupted by a dramatic two-story Central Space with a spiraling ramp and 360-degree, floor to ceiling multimedia panorama. The “Vision of Piłsudski” is represented through a collage of images of places, events, objects and documents. The imagery is slow moving and subtle. It mysteriously appears and disappears, juxtaposing elements that seemingly do not belong together, like in a dream. As the projected images can be seen on both sides periodically the projections dim and reveal the Scenes beyond.
After opening in August 2020, the Józef Piłsudski Museum has been designated as a National Museum of Poland and will certainly become one of Poland’s premier historical-educational destinations.
Dedicated to long term preservation and education of Józef Piłsudski’s legacy the Museum serves as a resource for scholars of history as well as educators. Generations of tourists, Polish families and school children will certainly visit this historic site. It will give essential context to reflect on their own history and identity.
But more broadly, the museum and the story it tells is a reminder for all of the great efforts that went into the creation of democratic republics of the late 19th and early 20th Century. The fragility of democracy and sovereignty, the human right to self-determination in general, and the modern forms of governance that we may take for granted serve as undercurrents of the story. It is a lesson in how history is not written in stone, or predetermined by abstract ‘others’, but determined by individual and collective agency.
As the exhibition provides spaces for discourse and participation it reframes the classic authoritarian narrative of history as one that is open to discussion. Historical research, and understanding of meaning is thus understood as a process. The visitor is invited into this process. Emotion and discussion is allowed and encouraged. Time will tell how this experimental new approach will support a different kind of visitor engagement. Much relies on a steady flow of visitors, which until recently was not possible due to the pandemic. But it will undoubtedly contribute to an appreciation of the importance of history to contemporary life, and therefore increased activism and engagement in civic discourse.