Encountering the past in the present: An exploratory study of educational heritage tourism


This article presents an educational programme designed to explore the multicultural history of Poland. Targeting Jewish and non-Jewish students of Polish heritage, the Polonia Programme (PP) was conceptualised with the aim of applying the tools of experiential education to initiate a new approach to examining one of the world’s most challenging and fraught historical narratives. The programme, piloted in the summer of 2014, takes two groups of young people from the United States to Poland each year. It features a combination of formal lectures and interactive tours, complemented by structured and semi-structured discussions. The destination of this particular tour, with these particular participants, both challenges and reinforces accepted notions of “heritage tourism” within an experiential educational framework. This framework enables a sense of group connectivity which allows students to be, perhaps, more open to alternative narratives about the past. The authors of this article, who were involved in evaluating the pilot launch of the Polonia Programme, found that the programme’s experiential approach succeeded in encouraging participants in the pilot cohort to challenge ideas about their definitions of and preconceptions about “who and what counts as Polish”. For many, the experience shifted their understanding of Poland towards one which took its multi-ethnic and multicultural history into account. Several discovered new perspectives on their own identity and heritage, while others reached a new understanding of the shared histories of Poles and Jews. The experiential nature of this programme also allowed students to encounter difficult histories: experience, then, became a vehicle for more challenging conversations and deeper learning.


Rencontrer le passé dans le présent: étude exploratoire du tourisme patrimonial éducatif – Cet article présente un programme pédagogique consistant à explorer le passé multiculturel de la Pologne. Destiné aux jeunes juifs et non juifs d’origine polonaise, le Polonia Programme (PP) a été conceptualisé de sorte à appliquer les outils de l’apprentissage expérientiel afin d’amorcer une nouvelle approche pour examiner l’un des faits historiques les plus complexes et sensibles qui existe. Testé au cours de l’été 2014, ce programme accueille chaque année deux groupes de jeunes résidant aux États-Unis et en Pologne. Il consiste en une association de cours magistraux et de visites interactives, complétés par des débats structurés et semi-structurés. Le lieu de destination de cette visite spécifique accomplie par ces participants spécifiques interroge et renforce à la fois dans un cadre d’apprentissage expérientiel les idées reçues sur le « tourisme patrimonial » . Ce cadre favorise un sentiment de lien avec le groupe, qui aide les élèves à être éventuellement plus ouverts aux versions différentes du passé. Les auteurs de l’article ont participé à l’évaluation du projet pilote du Polonia Programme et constaté que l’approche expérientielle de ce programme a réussi à inciter les participants du groupe d’essai à remettre en question leurs définitions et préjugés quant à « qui et quoi est considéré comme polonais » . Pour la majorité d’entre eux, l’expérience a modifié leur vision de la Pologne pour tenir davantage compte de son passé multiethnique et multiculturel. Certains ont découvert de nouvelles perspectives de leur propre identité et patrimoine, tandis que d’autres ont développé une nouvelle appréhension du passé commun entre Juifs et Polonais. La nature expérientielle de ce programme a en outre permis aux élèves de se confronter à des passés difficiles: l’expérience devient alors un vecteur pour des échanges plus exigeants et un apprentissage approfondi.

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  1. 1.

    Names of people, most places, as well as the name of the programme have been changed for reasons of protecting their identities.

  2. 2.

    The Solidarity movement grew out of the foundation of the Solidarność trade union at the Gdańsk shipyards in 1980. The movement clamoured for workers’ rights and social change, and the Soviet-run government tried to crush it by introducing martial law in 1981, which was not lifted until 1983.

  3. 3.

    For more information on the MOTL programme, see https://motl.org/ [accessed 17 November 2016].

  4. 4.

    For a critique of the survey, please see http://www.tabletmag.com/author/magdalena-gross [accessed 17 November 2016].

  5. 5.

    The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is located on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. For more information, see http://www.polin.pl/en [accessed 17 November 2016].

  6. 6.

    The Jewish Community Centre of Kraków was set up in 2008. For more information, see http://www.jcckrakow.org/en/ [accessed 17 November 2016].

  7. 7.

    The annual Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków is held in late June or early July and lasts 10 days. For more information, see http://www.jewishfestival.pl/en/jewish-culture-festival/ [accessed 17 November 2016].

  8. 8.

    For a discussion of Polish American attitudes towards Jews before 1950, please see Blejwas (1998). For literature on intergroup relations and peace education, please see Daniel Bar-Tal’s work, in particular Bar-Tal and Rosen (2009).

  9. 9.

    An intervention which is less history-based, but related to the noted framework was enacted 20 years ago. Samuel Gaertner, John Dovidio and Betty Bachmann (1996) discussed how in-group identities in multi-ethnic settings could combat some stereotyping and racism, while James Liu and Denis Hilton (2005) discuss how events are “selected” into in-group identities.

  10. 10.

    Students were recruited through individual professors in contact with the parent organisation. Most were recruited by professors in related fields (such as Polish history). Most students were from the mid-west region of the United States where a large portion of Polish-Americans reside. The majority of the participants were female (65%). One of us, Ari Y. Kelman, conducted in-depth interviews during the final two days of the trip with all 35 students. These open-ended interviews lasted between 10–30 min. Of nearly 50 applications, 35 students were invited to participate and 30 attended. Selection was based on age of applicant, letter of application, and applicant's connection to their Polish heritage.

  11. 11.

    The Lemko are an ethnic minority in the Carpathian mountains. Their language is a Ukranian dialect. After the Second World War, there were forcible deportations of Ukrainians and Lemko by the Soviet government, displacing Lemko form this region.

  12. 12.

    The 1968 student-led freedom movement was shut down by Polish government and police. The 1989 freedom movement, which was called the Solidarity movement, was a coalition between students and workers led by Lech Walesa; other notable leaders included Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron.

  13. 13.

    To protect participants’ identities, their names in this paper are pseudonyms.


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Correspondence to Magdalena H. Gross.

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Gross, M.H., Kelman, A.Y. Encountering the past in the present: An exploratory study of educational heritage tourism. Int Rev Educ 63, 51–70 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11159-017-9622-9

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  • Heritage tourism
  • Experiential education
  • Poland
  • Identity
  • Holocaust
  • Difficult histories
  • Holocaust education
  • Teaching the difficult past