Museum/Exhibit Reviews

REVIEW: Curating Polish Folk (by Dr. Erica Lehrer)
November 18, 2016

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(photo credit: Erica Lehrer)

(photo credit: Erica Lehrer)

Voice and silence, structure and agency

The pretext for this short set of observations is a visit to the newly opened exhibit Poland: Land of Folklore? at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw. The compelling, beautifully installed exhibit showcases the Communist-era “branding” of Poland. It presents the country as a modern yet deep-rooted land, with a colorful vision of a united, tradition-inspired, forward-looking Polish peoplehood. The image was at once ideologically appropriate, nationally celebratory, and globally exportable. From the performance of Poland at international youth gatherings through song and dance, to the patronage, mentoring, and marketing of its handicrafts and design via the institution of a state-run network of Cepelia stores at home and abroad, the exhibit takes a critical look at the whole-cloth invention of a new national imaginary in the early years of the Poland’s People’s Republic (PRL).


All exhibits – even critical ones like those typical for an avant-garde institution like Zachęta – are of course arguments, and as such they betray the preoccupations of their social contexts and historical moments. Despite being a progressive institution, the show partakes in something of the general post-1989 backlash against all things tainted by association with the socialist era. Indeed, as the curator herself points out, the discredited socialist state, the “Polska Republika Ludowa,” had the notion of the “Folk” (“Lud”) at the core of its identity. Thus this colourful array of “folk” products and performances is today a sign of all that was wrong with the previous regime: It reduced culture to propaganda. It undertook a superficial celebration of the peasantry by urban elites while simultaneously destroying their way of life. And it replicated longstanding relations of patronizing inequality, while making the social conflict inherent in these relations invisible.


REVIEW: Thinking through the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (by Dr. Erica Lehrer)

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CMHR "Garden of Contemplation"

The CMHR’s “Garden of Contemplation.” “The First Nations sacred relationship to water is honored, as a place of healing and solace amidst reflections of earth and sky” ( Photograph: Erica Lehrer.

“This ice you’re standing on, this is what you’ll be drinking down in Winnipeg next spring. For you, this is life. For people here, it can be death.” I am shivering along with a dozen Winnipeg-based academics and students listening to Cuyler Cotton, a policy analyst and media relations specialist, in the community of Shoal Lake No. 40 on a mid-January day, looking out across the frozen lake that separates the local band of Ojibway First Nations, inhabitants of Shoal Lake, from access to the nearest highway. One hundred years ago the Canadian government sold this portion of First Nation terrain to the city of Winnipeg to build an aqueduct to supply the urban residents with clean water. As collateral damage, the Shoal Lake No. 40 peninsula was sliced into an island. This intrusion into the landscape left the local people to drink boiled or bottled water and traverse the lake by boat or winter road—treacherous in late fall and early spring with the insufficiently frozen surface—and living amid their own trash and sewage, which leaches into their water supply.


The people of Shoal Lake No. 40 have struggled to draw attention to their community’s plight for years. They were elated—in savvy political terms—when they heard that Antoine Predock, the star architect of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), would feature the theme of “healing waters” in the museum’s eye-catching, $351 million building, to invoke Indigenous values. Nowhere in the museum, however, is there a reference to the dark side of these “healing” waters—the life-threatening burden placed on the Shoal Lake No. 40 community so that clean water is at the fingertips of Winnipeg residents. Shoal Lake’s activists used the occasion of the CMHR’s opening weekend to highlight what they saw as rank hypocrisy. They transformed their community into a “living museum”—billed as the Museum for Canadian Human RightsViolations—welcoming visitors to see the island and its vulnerabilities firsthand, complete with a brochure, website, and Facebook page.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the first national museum built outside Canada’s capital, opened to the public on September 20, 2014, despite having completed only four of eleven galleries. If by three months later the permanent exhibition was complete, the museum’s best-known feature remains the controversy it has managed to generate. Shoal Lake No. 40 is not the only group to capitalize on the media coverage surrounding the museum’s fraught birthing; protesting groups have dotted the grassy grounds around the museum before and since its opening. Some of these have criticized the CMHR directly, such as the other Indigenous parties who sat by pitched tipis and tents on opening weekend, the community groups who signed an open boycott letter protesting the museum’s lack of attention to World War I internment camps, or the creators of a petition to revoke a Canadian mining company’s “friend of the museum” title because of accusations of violence perpetrated against Indigenous Mayan people. Others have used the museum as a staging ground to leverage visibility for their own causes, like a pro-Palestinian contingent whose July 2014 protest march began, symbolically, at the CMHR’s entrance, or anti-abortion activists who tried to engage the captive audience in the visitors’ waiting line on the museum’s opening day with signs demanding rights for the unborn.