The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews has been without a permanent director for nearly a year. Showcasing the 1,000-year Jewish presence in Polish lands, it is one of Poland's most-visited museums and among the world's leading Jewish museums.
The Culture Ministry said in a statement that it agreed to approve a three-year term for Zygmunt Stepinski, formerly the deputy director and since last February, the acting director. The decision ends a standoff with the two other co-founders of the museum, the city of Warsaw and a private Jewish historical association, who had both fought to keep its previous director, Dariusz Stola. The government, however, opposed Stola because they believed he had been too openly critical of its policies.
The city of Warsaw, led by a liberal mayor, and the Jewish association proposed Stepinski as a compromise after realizing the government would not back down. Stepinski "has many years of experience in the field of management, including in the field of cultural institutions, he enjoys the trust of the team and the museum's donors and Jewish communities in Poland and abroad,” said Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski and Piotr Wislicki, the head of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute, which represents private donors.
Stola guided the museum from the opening of its permanent exhibition in 2014 until February 2019, a time when it won multiple international awards. He was highly valued by private museum donors. Though Stola won a competition last May for a second term, Culture Minister Piotr Glinski refused to re-appoint him. That left the museum under the management of Stepinski since then, but his interim tenure by law must expire on Feb. 22, adding urgency to finding a resolution.
With that deadline approaching, Stola agreed earlier this week to step aside. He said he was acting to prevent any damage to the institution, though he insisted it was his legal right to be director and said the government had used “false pretexts” against him.
The museum has a gallery on the Holocaust, but its main story is the development of a community that found refuge in Poland after fleeing persecution in Germany and elsewhere and grew into the center of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
The institution's creation was long hailed as a sign of how Poland, after throwing off communism, sought to embrace its former multicultural past and celebrate its centuries-old Jewish civilization. It has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, including many Poles who discovered forgotten chapters in their own nation's past, and Jews from around the world learning more about their own roots.
The recent conflict over its leadership reflected how much has changed under a populist government willing to flout democratic norms — in this case its obligation to abide by the results of the competition that Stola won — and snub international partners.
The greatest concern had been whether the museum would be able to independently decide on its programming under a conservative and nationalist government that has been placing loyalists at the helm of museums and other cultural institutes.
Tad Taube, a Polish-born American who is one of the museum's top donors, called the solution “a bittersweet pill” but said it was much better than having Glinski appoint the director without the consensus of his partners. Praising Stepinski as an “able administrator,” he said the most important thing is that “we now have a leader for a great museum that was heretofore in a state of flux for almost a year.”
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor emeritus of Jewish studies at New York University who oversaw the development of the museum’s core exhibition, said Stepinski has served the museum well and will continue to do so.
She said he had been responsible for many of the museum’s successes, including a yearlong program that commemorated the 50th anniversary of an anti-Semitic campaign sponsored by the country’s communist regime in 1968.
“He has a very deep connection to the history of Polish Jews. He is loyal, capable and dedicated, and he has been with the museum since it opened,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said.