EXPERIENCING CHOPIN
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From the 6th of April the new, unique Chopin Museum is opened for the visitors.

The music, smell and light – these are only some of the special effects, which are waiting to stimulate the visitors’ senses. Innovative approach to the subject of Chopin’s life and output wins recognition of both music lovers, historians and artists.  The idea of the Museum is mainly the individual touring and experiencing Chopin. The Museum is specially designed to meet preferences of the visitors. Individual visiting root can be defined with the use of a special ticket using the RFID technology. The settings will be saved on  a plastic card. It will allow, according to the chosen visiting profile, to explore the audiovisual level of the exhibition. Every profile will at the end be accessible in 8 languages.

The exposition has been located on the 4 floors of the Ostrogski Palace, including the basement. On each of the floors the visitors will find various information about Chopin’s life, works, shown from the point of view of for example: Chopin’s Warszaw years or the Paris times. Because of the  possibility to choose the level of narration, the Museum will meet the expectations of various types of visitors, no matter what age or knowledge of the subject they’ve already possessed. The elements of the audiovisual exposition have been designed in such a way, so that each and every visitor finds something exactly for oneself, including the school trips, artists, students looking for a source to broaden their knowledge, and also all the people interested in the culture and history of Chopin’s times. That is why, not to disturb the individual character of the experience of Chopin and his music, the Museum can host at the same time only about 70 visitors. It will allow to fully exploit the potential of the Museum, it will enable the comfortable exploration of the museum collection and unimpeded usage of the multimedia. All these features of this new Museum will help to change the stereotypical picture of the “museum” as a not interested and life less exposition.

The new Chopin Museum has already become a kind of cultural centre. There are numerous artistic and educational events organized in the Ostrogski Palace, such as: concerts of well known pianists and lectures given by the experts in Chopin’s life and output.

 

 

A sensual museum

 

Chopin endures. His music is the universal language of human communication. When I play Chopin I know I speak directly to the hearts of people![1]

Artur Rubinstein

 

Two centuries after the birth of Fryderyk Chopin, the museum bearing his name in the Ostrogski Castle/Gniński Palace in Warsaw presented its new look to the public. As well as a comprehensive renovation of the building that houses the Museum (carried out by the Grzegorzy & Partnerzy Architekci architectural studio), which nearly doubled its usable space while retaining the style of the original Tylman van Gameren design, and the remodelling of its surroundings with the modern Chopin Centre opposite the Museum, the most important innovation is the concert-like exhibition. It was designed by Ico Migliore and Mara Servetto (Migliore + Servetto Architetti Associati, Milan) in accordance with guidelines set out by a team of experts appointed by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute. As the Curator of the Museum, Alicja Knast, says, the aim of the exhibition programme is to facilitate the concept ‘Experiencing Chopin’. In an illuminating and stimulating manner, the Museum presents Chopin’s life, works, and personality, while setting them within their biographical and historical contexts. Visitors can learn more about them by using the many multimedia devices to access further information.

The Museum’s mission statement sets out its ambition to be an institution that combines knowledge with art. Furthermore, it sets out to do more than simply cultivate Chopin’s memory and does so by presenting the composer in such a way that learning is interwoven with feeling, a difficult goal to achieve considering that many museums, and especially biographical ones, often resemble mausoleums. The Chopin Museum, however, manages to avoid such associations and it is possible to experience a range of emotions, with the subtle mix of colour with light and shade playing a significant role in helping us to engage with the subject matter. There is also a wealth of historical information on display covering subjects as diverse as: The Duchy of Warsaw, the Polish Kingdom, Warsaw, the November Uprising, Paris, Nohant, Chopin’s Europe, Emigration, the Spring of Nations, and Chopin’s death in 1849. We enter artist’s world and the worlds behind his works. We can experience them according to our needs, aptitudes and aspirations. We feel the virtuosity, its performance and subtle drawing of the landscape of the composer’s personality, at an artistic level. We roam the ‘musical landscapes’, or soundscapes as they are referred to by Ico Migliore and Mara Servetto, the daring authors of the permanent exhibition in the historic Castle/Palace interiors. The two interlinked spheres – of learning and feeling – remain in symbiosis while retaining their individual character, in a way that is rarely achieved in such a successful or sensitive way as experienced at the Chopin Museum. An elaborate historic, artistic and spatial show has been created in which the visitor is exposed to a unified and sensual exhibition programme. When we reach the room devoted to the period of Chopin’s relationship with George Sand, we can select the music to be heard while looking at a copy of its manuscript. Through the combination of the display and the music, together with the sound of birds singing and leaves rustling, we are transported to Nohant. One of the defining characteristics of the exhibition is its melodiousness, as is the absolute passion of the exhibition’s creators – Ico Migliore and Mara Servetto together with Alicja Knast – for its subject.

When visiting the new exhibition at the Chopin Museum we realise that it does not rely on visual displays alone to convey knowledge but in fact uses a range of sensory means with which to create experiences. We can sense the endeavour involved in creating an exhibition that attempts, and I will say straight away that I believe it has been achieved, to show the unique sensitivities of Chopin who, in 1848 (12 months before his death), wrote in a letter to Wojciech Grzymała: “I feel alone, alone, alone, although I am surrounded by people.”[2] The story built up in the Chopin Museum is of an artist isolated in his uniqueness, but this story is told within the context of events chosen from the fates of people from his milieu, from Polish and European history of his times, from sounds, even fragrances, from Chopin’s omnipresent music and from our choices among the wealth of information. We can view paintings, texts, everyday objects and mementos, where it is important for the visitor to know whether he is looking at an original or a copy, especially in the case of manuscripts. We delve into them, we study them closely, and we listen to them intently. We move around, we react to relationships between the exhibits and the characters, and we establish our own relationships. We activate the interactive instruments installed among the exhibits so that we can listen, see, and learn more, at our leisure. Many visitors show their fascination and enchantment quite spontaneously, exhibiting a mixture of curiosity, enlightenment, and pleasure. Our wanderings in the exhibition spaces continue to cut across the roads and landscapes – both scenic and spiritual – that Chopin faced. The result is that our thoughts and hearts are lifted. As the former director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, Gérard Régnier, popularly known as Jean Clair, writes: “A work of art is neither common nor universal. Culture, let’s repeat it again, relies on cultivation, and then on setting aside a cultural space, which will be called a ‘temple’, that is templum, from which the word ‘contemplate’ derives.”[3] The Chopin Museum is a place of contemplation. But it is also a place for playing, where instruments of the period and the omnipresent electronic equipment work together so that they remain in symbiosis and exist in harmony.

The aleatoric nature of information transmission and its forms of reception are an intrinsic part of the Chopin Museum experience. No more than 70 visitors are allowed at any one time which, with the Chopin story being told over four levels of the Ostrogski Castle/Gniński Palace, creates a comfortable environment in which to enjoy the exhibition. The easy absorption of the multidirectional and multilayered content, which uses various exhibition aids to convey its message, is programmed thoroughly. However, there is also freedom of choice within the possible trajectories between the displays, as might be found in the composer’s directions on the interpretation of one of his compositions: rubato or ad libitum – freely and without limits. This allows the visitor to be spontaneous and the presentation adds an aleatoric element to the exhibition. The classic Werner Meyer-Eppler definition says that “we call those events aleatoric whose course is roughly determined, but whose detail is dependent on chance.”[4] I stand by the description of the exhibition’s character as aleatoric rather than open. The ‘openness’ of museums is not always understood, frequently to their detriment, neither by museum staff or their guests. Jean Clair points to this dilemma when he writes: “Museum – forum, open museum. So much has been written about these equally nebulous and generous formulas. Open like a wound, which is threatened by infection? Like a city occupied by an army?”[5] The Chopin Museum exhibition, designed by Migliore + Servetto, has devised a precise exhibition programme but the freedom to experience it is left to the audience – the participants in the events. Indeed, the Museum is open to contemporary forms of response to Chopin’s heritage: in the evolving multimedia “Visitors’ Book” in the basement of Ostrogski Castle or in the interactive exhibition programme. Open, because its method of presentation encourages – virtually forces – one to return to it, to recreate and to change ones feelings: to look for harmony, and for deeper knowledge.

The exhibition has varying levels of intensity in its multi-layered message about Chopin, which provoke varying levels of response in the visitor. The objective is to get that message across to everyone. This is a reflection of the character of Chopin’s music, which can be heard throughout the different rooms of the exhibition (fortunately without mutual interference through the provision of headphones). Witold Lutosławski said of Chopin’s music: “… he has retained the balance between difficulty and goal. When the music becomes more intense, difficulties intensify there, but never vice versa.”[6] The level of information in the Chopin Museum is cumulative and the visitor can choose his own level.

The Chopin Museum is part of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute. It is also part of an interesting urban layout around Okólnik and Tamka Streets. The importance of the entrance itself ought to be emphasised here, as its vestibule – containing the ticket office, information desk, café and museum shop – is located at the foot of the impressive stairs leading to Tamka Street. We climb up those stairs to the Palace, where in the hallway we register and activate an electronic ticket to begin our journey around the exhibition. We can also reach the Palace using the stairs from the upper level, from the park adjoining the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music. We find ourselves here in the centre of a unique ‘Chopin estate’ located in the very heart of the city. The busy Tamka Street closes off the heritage site from one side, and the park and the more peaceful Okólnik Street from the opposite side, creating an oasis of calm and a suspension of city life. The location of the Chopin Museum in such an urban landscape plays its part in leading us into the historic, biographical and above al. artistic museum. Thus the music of Chopin, which Robert Schumann described as “cannons hidden under blossoms,”[7] is ideally presented. When we reach the Ostrogski Castle/Gniński Palace, we enter a fantastic new world, in which we discover spaces laid out precisely so as to correspond with the narrations. A glass lift, designed so as to blend in with the historic interiors, allows us to move freely between the four levels of the Museum. The rooms are like an improvisation, like a fantasy, like a model we can assemble ourselves. Walking through the rooms is a real joy – something rarely felt in museums. It is worth remembering the oxymorons by which Chopin’s music was characterised variously as “painful pleasure” by Heinrich Heine, “bitter happiness” by Ferenc Liszt, and “bitter joy” by Albert Einstein.[8] That bitterness becomes visible when we delve into the fate, the feelings, and the histories of his works. It resounds in his music and in our memory. The Museum does not shy away from the learning of wisdom and seeks to expose the contradictions that make up the nature and the essence of art, showing that an art museum can also be seen as an oxymoron when its displays resemble nature morte or still life.

When wandering through the exhibition rooms of the Chopin Museum it is worth pondering on a sentence written by Roger Scruton: “Although music is not a representational art, it shares an important feature with human life, namely it is an organised movement.”[9] He goes on to add that Western culture: “is our highest moral resource, in a world that has come through to modernity. It contains the knowledge what to feel, in a world where feeling is in constant danger of losing its way.”[10] Fortunately the designers of the exhibition at the Chopin Museum (Ico Migliore and Mara Servetto) and its curator (Alicja Knast) placed emotions here too. While appealing to the minds and intellect of visitors they also reach directly into their hearts, as illustrated in the quote from Rubinstein with which I began my comments.

 

Autumn, 2010

Jaromir Jedliński                                                       

 


[1] Quote from: Artur Rubinstein, The Chopin Collection, The Concertos, brochure as part of CD album, RCA 1986.

1 Fryderyk Chopin’s letter to Wojciech Grzymała, Johnston Castle, 4-9 September 1848, ed. Arthur Hedley, Selected Correspondence of Fryderyk Chopin, trans. Arthur Hedley, Da Capo Press, New York 1979, p. 341.

[3] Trans. after: Jean Clair, Kryzys muzeów. Globalizacja kultury [Crisis in Museums. Globalisation of culture], trans. Jan Maria Kłoczowski, słowo/obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2009, p. 43.

[4] Werner Meyer-Eppler, Statistische und psychologische Klangprobleme, ‘Die Reihe’ 1955, Band 1, trans. after: Witold Lutosławski, Postscriptum, Fundacja Zeszytów Literackich, Warszawa 1999, p. 81.

[5] J. Clair, op.cit., p. 31.

[6] W. Lutosławski, op.cit., p. 43.

[7] Robert Schumann’s words from Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (1836), trans. after: Mieczysław Tomaszewski, Chopin, PWN, Kraków 2010, p. 291.

[8] Trans. after: M. Tomaszewski, op.cit., p. 278

[9] Roger Scruton, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged,Encounter Books, New York 2007, p. 61.

[10] Ibid., p. 85.