Poland’s recent judicial reforms are the most prominent example of the government’s shift towards illiberal democracy. However, by examining PiS’s treatment of a national museum in contrast with one of Germany’s, it is possible to inspect more closely the health of the national civic and liberal democratic sphere.
Poland’s recent shift towards illiberalism has caused alarm across Europe, and poses a significant challenge to the legitimacy of EU institutions and their authority. Tampering with the constitution and judiciary are just one aspect, however, of the changes which the nationalist, illiberal Law and Justice (PiS) government have been imposing on the domestic sphere. Legal ‘reforms’ have been buttressed by attempts to take control of the national narrative and historical understanding. In response to the passing of the controversial Holocaust law earlier this year, Dariusz Stola, the director of the Polin Museum for Polish Jews, succinctly captured its broader implications for civic life:
“Those who condemn Poles en masse are the best friends and allies of Polish antisemites – they feed each other…It is a sign of a deterioration in the capacity to talk, and the ability to talk is the essence of democracy. If you cannot talk, you cannot reach an agreement; you can only force a solution. The erosion of language is the erosion of democracy and the path to violence.”1
Without dialogue, there can be no liberal democracy. Without tolerance and an acknowledgement of difference, there can be no constructive argument, cooperation, or compromise. It is significant that it was a museum curator who made such a statement, for the treatment of museums, as places of plurality and difference — or “heterotopia”, as Michel Foucault put it — can be valuable indicators of a nation’s democratic ambitions and the health of its civic life. As spaces where heterogeneity is the norm — where artefacts from disparate locations, epochs, and cultures come into interaction with one another — heterotopic museums pose a threat to the monolithic narratives and ideas which authoritarian and radical right politics engender and seek to propagate. They educate citizens in how to conceive of ‘otherness’, and facilitate a broad, nuanced, and pluralistic examination of social realities and ambitions. By enabling ‘other’ forms of discourse and representation, the value of heterotopic museums reaches beyond the aesthetic, in its enrichment of the civic as well as the cultural sphere.
Almost since the PiS came into power in 2015, they have meddled with the new WWII museum in Gdansk. This museum seeks to situate Poland’s history in an international context, thereby offering a cosmopolitan perspective on Poland’s historical experience and its place in the world. Writing for the New York Times, Marci Shore maintains that the message of the exhibition’s concluding video (which has now been censored) is “peculiarly devastating because it forces us to question what is particular and what is universal, which horrors we have left behind, and which remain with us”2 — to think from an-‘other’ perspective, and to question ourselves, our histories, our aspirations. The museum itself remains open, but, as the implementation of a series of measures and reforms seeking to restrict pluralism and liberal laws in Poland — dubbed by the government, a “good change”3 — has been ongoing, it has been increasingly an official target. This has not been a discreet process — indeed, the museum’s advertising in the run-up to its opening in 2017 read “See it before it closes”4.
The support of the German government for the reconstruction of the Berliner Schloss project, when contrasted with the hostility the Gdansk project has received, is indicative of the fundamentally differing democratic attitudes of Germany and Poland’s national administrations. The Berliner Schloss project shares much in common with the Gdansk WWII Museum in terms of its self-consciously cosmopolitan outlook, and has been synopsised by the phrase “the World in the Middle of Berlin”5. The stated aim of the project is to build, at the centre of the nation’s capital city, a space which is “dedicated to the future, based on a knowledge of the past” and “founded on understanding among all peoples through art, culture and knowledge”. Behind the reconstructed facade of the historic Stadtschloss — the palace of the Prussian Kings — will reside an ethnological museum of non-European art (in acknowledgement of Germany’s colonial past), a science museum, and an exhibition entitled “World. City. Berlin.”5. This exhibition will address current challenges of globalisation, while bearing in mind, and drawing parallels with, Germany’s historic role in international affairs. The emphasis of this exhibition will be on Germany’s future as a multicultural, outward-looking nation. It is at the heart of this new construction, however, that the strongest statement, with regard to liberal democratic ambitions of the museum and of Germany, will reside. The central atrium will be an open-plan, aptly-named ‘agora’, and will fill twenty percent of the internal space. This conference centre will mirror the role of the agora in ancient Greece by serving as a non-exclusive, multi-purpose public space for gatherings and events, from across academic disciplines and cultural spectra. The agora and the “World. City. Berlin.” exhibition are to occupy the entire ground floor — thus making the most accessible part of the building a host for “communication and international, cultural interaction”6.
Museums, in their facilitation of an appreciation of difference, have the potential to exemplify the best of what liberal democracy has to offer, while also providing the conceptual frameworks necessary to support it. It is in this regard that the treatment of a country’s museums can tell us much about that country’s democratic health and ambitions. It is fitting, therefore, that the aspirational motto of the European Union, In Varietate Concordia (United in Diversity), epitomises not only of the heterogeneity of the heterotopic museum, but also the sort of society it can help envisage and sustain — a society which protects, acknowledges, and contemplates plurality, and is all the richer for it.
Grace McLoughlin is head of Torc Think Tank in Dublin. She is also currently a student of English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin.