Archive for September, 2009

Museum or Attraction?

I was extremely excited to go to the Warsaw Uprising Museum on my recent trip to Poland’s capital, but sorely disappointed by the tourist trap I found.  I mean no disrespect to the heroic resistance group that stood up to Nazi Germany in 1944; rather, I wish to discuss the organization of the museum itself.  As a former art history student who has worked in museums, galleries, and curated a couple of dozen art shows, perhaps I am a bit harsh on museums in general.  However, I found the Warsaw Uprising Museum to be poorly organized, failing to communicate much information, and downright tacky.



(above) Warsaw Uprising Museum: Crowds waiting to go upstairs, and tunnels in the basement.

Perhaps my biggest mistake was to visit the museum on a Sunday when admission is free, but I was with my school and had no choice.  I should also add right from the beginning that everyone else in my group seemed to be impressed and to really enjoy the museum.  In my opinion, the biggest problem with the museum was its failure to communicate information about the Uprising, and I left feeling like I had learned nothing.  It was truly a museum for people who do not like museums, as seen in their many different gimmicks to portray the events of the Uprising, and thus the information was lost.  I love when museums use innovative and interactive ways to educate the public.  For example, I thought Budapest’s House of Terror Museum was surprisingly worth seeing in a city with dozens of great museums.  No photographs were allowed, and there was an easy-to-follow chronological path.  Visitors could watch news clips, pick up phones to hear different audio recordings, and see memorabilia from different events throughout the 20th century history of Hungary.  In addition to the informative handouts in each room that visitors could take home, the best part of this museum was that it was an easy to understand walk through history.

IMG_2710 Facade of House of Terror, Budapest Hungary (no photography allowed inside museum)

Despite the obvious fact that the museum in Warsaw modeled itself after the museum in Budapest, right down to the same font on the information papers in each room, it was as if the Warsaw Uprising Museum exploded into chaos.  The expansive rooms make it easy to take a wrong turn and quickly get confused about the information portrayed.  The booming sound of bombs dropping rang in my ears the whole time I tried to explore the museum, and the pushing of little kids to look into every peephole or screen quickly got annoying.  It was as if the museum thought they needed to portray the information quickly, rather than effectively, so they rapidly flashed images of historic events at every turn.  I quickly grew tired of waiting behind lines of children to look at the images through binoculars for no apparent reason.  The claustrophobic tunnels in the basement felt like a playground.  Unlike in its Hungarian counterpart, the Warsaw Uprising Museum had very little “traditional” exhibitions to ground its overuse of multimedia.

Obviously, the city of Warsaw spent a lot of money on this museum.  As my first visit, I am unable to compare Sundays to other days of the week, and perhaps I am unfair in my assessment.  However, “In Your Pocket: Warsaw” seems to agree with me about the jostling by the crowds and the ease of making a wrong turn and thus finding yourself lost in history.  I couldn’t help but longing for my experience in Sarajevo when I visited the Bosnian History Museum.  I will forever be moved by experience looking at the exhibition on the Siege of Sarajevo.  The exhibition was one large room, showing historical documents and memorabilia from the years of hardship.  Visitors easily moved around the room through the display in chronological order, pausing over the artwork made by children or the re-creation of the living conditions at the time.  This museum shows that there is no need for technology to educate visitors.sarajevosarajevo2

(above) Bosnian History Museum: Sarajevo, Bosnia

All in all, I go to museums to learn.  I left the Warsaw Uprising Museum with the sound of bombs dropping still ringing in my ears, feeling like I had learned nothing.  My classmates, however, enjoyed their time and the multimedia-filled exhibitions.  It remains popular with tourists visiting Warsaw, so other people must feel differently.  At the end of it all, I couldn’t help but wondering… is this meant to be a museum or an attraction?


Polish Political Party(ing)

As my classes continue, I am slowly learning about the government of Poland.  Also, last weekend I took a tour of the Sejm (House of Parliament) in Warsaw, but the guide left out a very interesting fact that I learned today at school.  Apart from the “normal” sounding major political parties- Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska), Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), Polish People’s Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe)… there is an interesting minor player in the mix: the Polish Beer Lovers’ Party.  I kid you not, this actually exists.

I can’t find much about the party on the internet, but according to wiki, the Polish Beer Lover’s Party (PPPP- Polska Partia Przyjaciół Piwa) was satirically founded in 1990 to promote beer over vodka consumption in an effort to prevent alcoholism.  Because of the funny name and the general feeling of post-communist discontent and apathy, some people voted for the party.  Although starting as a prank, the party actually developed a political platform and won 16 seats in the Sejm in the 1991 parliamentary elections.  Today the PPPP no longer exists, but I think this fact adds to the quirkiness I am finding here in Poland….as well as a small insight into the country’s post-communist transition.  Zywiec-piwo

Polish Food- Not Recommended for Those on a Diet

Polish food, typical of the East and Central European cultures I have encountered so far, is heavy but delicious.  The most typical ingredients used in Polish cuisine are sauerkraut, beetroot, cucumbers, sour cream, kohlrabi, mushrooms, sausages and smoked sausage.  Meals in a restaurant come in courses starting with homemade soup and contain large portions.  Although I did notice two vegetarian restaurants in Krakow, salads in Poland are not the same as the lettuce-based American salads.  Basically, avoid Poland if you are on a diet but you will definitely miss out.

Here are pictures of a few mainstream Polish dishes… just to make sure my Babcia in America cooked authentically.


First, Gołąbki.  These cabbage “parcels” are originally from Lithuania but are popular  in Poland.  The cabbage is stuffed with they are usually stuffed with meat and rice and either topped with a mushroom cream sauce or a tomato sauce.  Many East/Central European countries have their own version.  In Serbia, these are called sarma.  In Polish, golabki literally means “little pigeons.”


Next we have the shaslik… which is pretty basic and common on the menus here.  It’s really just a shish kebab and often contain either pork or chicken.  Here it came with frytki and a salad.  The salad is primarily cabbage.


Lastly, the pierogi.  This is probably the most well-known Polish dish.  Every Wigielia (Christmas Eve) my family eats pierogi that my Babcia makes from scratch, expertly preparing the dough with years of experience. Pierogi were traditionally peasant food but eventually grew in popularity for all social classes. They are very traditional small white dumplings, larger than ravioli, filled with sauerkraut, mushrooms, meat, cheese and potatoes or even with fruit. My favorite kind are ruski (pictured) which are filled with potato and cheese and served with fried onions.


Tacky Tours and Exasperated English

rynekPoles seem to be accustomed to the hordes of tourists visiting Krakow, and I feel nostalgic for my days of being the only tourist in town.  When I lived in Novi Sad, I drew attention as a foreigner and was constantly asked by taxi drivers or street venders where I come from-  “What is an American doing in Serbia?” they would ask me, and I would respond enthusiastically “Učim srpski jezik!”  My answer was followed by stares of disbelief and sometime bursts of laughter.  No Serb could believe that a young American woman moved to the country to study their culture.

Serbia is an isolated place.  Not many people think to visit even though it is a lovely country, and unfortunately Serbs are very limited in their ability to travel.  Sure, some foreigners live in Beograd working in the capital city for embassies or NGOs, but very few seem to venture north to Vojvodina.  Aside from the infamous EXIT festival in Novi Sad each July, the city is homogenous.  Even though I arrived months before EXIT, people asked if I were there for the concert because they couldn’t imagine any other reason.

Krakow is different.  No longer does my English spark a look of interest, but rather a look of annoyance.  I hear many languages spoken in the center by photo-snapping tourists.  Golf carts advertising Schindler’s List or Kazimierz tours circle around the square, ready to carry lazy visitors to nearby sections of the city.  Cities do prosper economically because of tourism, but I definitely long for the days when I had a more authentic experience.

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