‘A museum isn’t just for tourists. It a place for interaction with history’
Having shaped, enriched and advanced Poland’s contemporary cultural landscape in a way like no other, it is now Ukraine’s turn to benefit from the skillset of architect and designer Mirosław Nizio.
Cited as Ukraine’s largest and most important museum to date, that honouring the victims of the communist-engineered famine that wiped out millions in the 1930s, work on the Memorial to Holodomor Victims in Ukraine has now hit a key stage as construction inches towards its target deadline – developed alongside the Ukrainian studio Project Systems LTD, co-authorship of Phase II of the architectural design of the building has been placed in the hands of Polish studio Nizio Design International.
Blending into the slopes of the Dnieper Valley, the project has been specifically designed to conjure a metaphoric image “of bringing a deliberately hidden truth to light”, something subtly referenced by the museum’s tectonic layers and landscaped tiers.
But as stunning and powerful as it promises to be, those familiar with Nizio’s portfolio have come to expect nothing less from a man that has reinvented the museum experience as we know it.
Though widely admired for his commercial output (among others, projects include the interiors of the Goldman Sachs offices in New York), it is his work in the public sphere that will be more instantly recognizable to the layman. Revitalization projects figure highly in this – for instance Wałbrzych’s Stara Kopalnia or the sprawling Rother’s Mill in Bydgoszcz – but it is for his contribution to museum life that many know him best.
Opening the eponymous Nizio Design Studio in Warsaw’s gritty Praga district in 2002, success came swiftly. Winning the competitive process to design the permanent exhibition of the Warsaw Rising Museum, what came next was a masterstroke of ingenuity that most of the public were thoroughly unprepared for.
Raised on a diet of dusty museums patrolled by hawkish stewards, the Warsaw Rising Museum was like nothing the Polish public had seen before – at least on that scale: dynamic, slick and engaging yet also faithful to its purpose, it broke fresh ground not just for its in-depth reconstruction of history, but also for the manner in which it balanced multimedia innovations with more traditional means. More than a museum, it became an experience.
Since then, Nizio and his studio have proved prolific with accomplishments including the core exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the building and exhibition of the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in Markowa, and the much-written about Polish Vodka Museum in the former Koneser Vodka Factory in Warsaw.
Yet other projects await: ten years in the making, 2021 should see the debut of the Mausoleum of Martyrdom of Polish Villages in Michniów; in the capital, meanwhile, work on the Ancient Art Gallery in the National Museum of Warsaw has recently finished and will open once the pandemic allows.
“Each museum presents different challenges,” Mirosław Nizio tells TFN. “Some museums are relatively straight-forward in that they are already well-defined in their topic and just demand working with the materials and curators to essentially present a written book in three dimensional form.
“However,” he adds, “there are others where the history has to actually be found. In this regard, POLIN took an immense amount of work – nothing was done fast. Just the research took several years with around one hundred historians across the world working on the content.
“When you consider the huge history, the layers of stories and the number of witnesses, designers and historians involved, you can get an idea of how difficult that was to put together inside a space of 3,500 sq/m.”
The complexities associated with designing such museums and exhibitions become apparent talking to the Biłgoraj-raised Nizio.
“There’s so many different layers to think of,” he says. “Straight off, you have to ask, why is the museum being built? Who will be visiting? Who is going to pay for it? And who will support it later? This isn’t like a commercial project where the primary aim concerns function. With museums, you must also bridge function with narrative and that’s done by working side-by-side with curators.”
A jigsaw of sorts, geographical context also plays a part in the puzzle.
“A museum isn’t just for tourists,” says Nizio. “A museum can build and grow infrastructure. Further, it should be built in a space or context that is the best for it. It needs to give the audience a place for interaction with history.”
Moreover comes an emotional burden. With so many of his projects linked to sensitive or traumatic subjects of national martyrdom and persecution, the responsibility to deliver something that can be understood and appreciated by all generations can weigh heavy.
“These are challenges we take very seriously,” he says. “But coming face-to-face with people with memories of such events can act as a motivation. Of course, at times you need to maintain a professional emotional distance, but simultaneously you need to think of what emotions people will experience when visiting and how you want to influence those.”
A resident of New York for thirteen years, early inspirations came from NYC’s vast spread of museums, and he talks enthusiastically at the memory of repeatedly visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I’d spend hours there,” he recalls, “visiting each part and just drawing out every section of the exhibitions.”
This attention to detail has held him in good stead.
“In the same way a poet uses words, I work with forms to create a narrative,” he says. “In many ways, designing a museum is similar to creating a sculpture… Simplicity, aesthetics, form, shape, architecture, structure, texture and context – these are what are important for me.”
And whilst many of his projects can be noted for their technological solutions and innovations, Nizio is adamant that these are not there for dressing.
“Many times, a traditional form of media such as a picture, poster or artefact is enough,” he says. “But sometimes if you add a layer it can enrich it even further to add something special. But never would I use multimedia if there wasn’t a need.”
With this in mind, it perhaps makes sense that he names the Gross-Rosen ‘Stone Hell’ project as one that is particularly close to his heart.
“It was unusual for me in many way,” he says. “It was unusual in context and unusual in its site.”
Laced with symbolic meaning, the concept is striking in its simplicity – based on modern architecture, it’s a route that takes visitors in the footsteps of the former concentration camp prisoners while riffing on themes of light and dark, life and death.
“I like to work directly with the structure of a narrative,” he says, “moving my thoughts like an actor to explore and explain history.”