“Walking Through The Jewish Street: A Digital Co-Creation Of history (ies)” – Laura Jimenez Rojas
Nowadays museums are exploring new ways of communication. Digital technologies are opening new paths of experiences within museum spaces. Interactivity and multidirectional participation are being enhanced by the incorporation of digital technologies.
As technologies change, so should the practices around them. Sarah Bay-Cheng invited us to see a new perspective on the relationship amongst museums, history, and digital technologies. Particularly, to think about Digital History as Performance.
Museum spaces, according to Bay-Cheng, are shifting the position of the observers. Visitors are no longer fixed viewers, but rather their position has changed to be co-creators of that history. Here it is where the relation of digital history as performance reveals. She pointed out “we are now, through digital technologies and museums, encourage to become our own historiographers.”
This significant change of perspective brings into mind the complex, and yet simple, way in which Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (BKG) once referred: “performances can be a source of theory and not only a site for the use of theory.” (BKG, 2001). In this sense, the performance sources that Bay-Cheng brings up are the case studies of museums that empower visitors to co-create, through different practices, the history (ies) within this spaces.
The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews was presented as one case. Bay-Cheng highlighted the presence of the scholar performance studies BKG in the process of curation of the museum. BKG exposes in A Theater of History: 12 Principles a series of decisions oriented to avoid a master narrative within the space of the POLIN museum. Bay-Cheng focuses on how:
“Instead of articulating a single historical perspective or sequential list of causal events, the POLIN makes full use of the opportunities of digital interactivity to create histories and historiography as a collaborative, dynamic, and perhaps always unfinished project among collections, scholars, and visitors.”(Bay-Cheng 2016, 517).
One of the POLIN exhibits is The Jewish Street. It is a representation of a Jewish street in Warsaw, what is interesting about it? It is entirely produced by digital projections on a physical white wall. This kind of video mapping entails some struggles – like high costs and calibrating processes – that one might think could be overcome by doing a painted representation of the street. Thus, it races an intriguing question:
Why is this digitally projected and not painted?
One of the seminar participants said: “I would think about it like a statement that this is not a reconstruction of something, but rather that it is a projection.”
The conversation went around the Jewish Street, and Bay-Cheng referred to three ideas I found inspiring to think of Digital History as Performance:
- The projection opens the possibility that history is itself contested.
- It creates a sense of instability and over-construction. Interestingly, because in former times it could have been understood as a kind of “theatrical”, this idea of something foregrounding performative construction, but here is the foregrounding of the digital construction. Thus, opening up to a sense of ephemerality, a possibility of change.
- Critical negotiation of how to foreground absence and loss while still building exhibits. Trying to display the impermanence of what it represents, even as it gives you objects and interactive actions and devices.
All in all, Bay-Cheng approach to Digital History as Performance in the context of museums can lead to thinking of museums not only as places for knowledge but also for experience. These performative movements may result in both cultural and historical possibilities to be experienced and studied.
 In A Theater of History: 12 Principles BKG also focus on this aspect, “we created an academic team of scholars from Poland, Israel, and the United States — their fields included history, sociology, social psychology, literature, anthropology, and performance studies.” (BKG 2015, 52). It can be said that this international, intercultural, and interdisciplinary group allowed new ways of imagining what could be a museum.
- Bay-Cheng, Sarah. 2016. “Digital Historiography and Performance” Theatre Journal Vol. 68, No. 4, pp. 507-527.
- Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara (BKG). 2015. “A Theater of History: 12 Principles” TDR: The Drama Review, Vol. 59, No. 3, pp. 49-59.
- Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara (BKG) “Interview with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett”. What is Performance Studies? 2001. Accessed December, 2018. http://scalar.usc.edu/nehvectors/wips/barbara-kirshenblatt-gimblett-what-is-performance-studies-2001-
*Photo: Courtesy of Uliczka, published on https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/polands-new-jewish-museum-changes-the-narrative-from-holocaust-to-life/