How to Tell Scholarly Stories in Digital Environment Using Real Spaces? The Case Study of Postmodern Sienkiewicz Digital Collection at New Panorama of Polish Literature Platform and the Oblęgorek Palace

by Bartłomiej Szleszyński

1. Introduction – on the Assumptions of the New Panorama of Polish Literature Platform (NPLP.PL) and What they Imply for the Structure of Digital Collections

We define NPLP.PL as a platform that serves to publish scholarly digital collections in the field of literary research. Two basic assumptions that guided us when we started working on its creation determined that we are sticking to academic conventions, but we do not intend to create (or replicate, given the example of Wikipedia) an encyclopedic structure and style of content creation. We will create a collection of digital collections (monographs), hosted on a single platform and using the same set of tools but each having a very specificity, a way of telling the story of a given topic.

From the beginning, the concept of immersion was important in our idea of building a digital narrative. This term is more commonly used in video game analysis, but also proves well suited to describe our initial approach to the subject and relevant to the case of Postmodern Sienkiewicz collection, in which we use narrative techniques sometimes similar to those of video games

To better explain the structure of NPLP.PL, we can place it somewhere in the middle between encyclopedic structure of Wikipedia and approach taken by our hosts (both of this publication and of the earlier DH congress) – the Digital Humanities Institute in Sheffield. Like it can be seen on their site listing projects, each of the past or ongoing projects has its own, independent page and domain.  For NPLP we have chosen an approach that can be described as more centralized (perhaps also “infrastructural”?) – its cost being, of course, less diversity and originality gaining instead greater visual consistency, and the ability to update the software for all content posted on the platform.

It should also be noted that this approach has also forced the specialization of platforms – a separate TEI PANORAMA site is used to create and publish scholarly digital editions. Again, all the various editions use a single platform and toolkit, which provides similar constraints and benefits (to which, in the case of editions, the standardization of TEI use across all editions on the platform can be added).

We create collections in Polish, but if there is opportunity we try to translate them into English – in case of Postmodern Sienkiewicz we translated the collection during the same project we created the collection. 

2. Henryk Sienkiewicz in New Panorama before and after Postmodern Sienkiewicz

Henryk Sienkiewicz was a Polish nineteenth-century writer, author of the (at one time famous and very widely read in Europe) novel Quo Vadis, which was one of the important reasons he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1905. He was also extremely popular and respected in Poland. As a writer he was famous especially for his historical novels – his Trilogy (With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, Fire in the Steppe) about 17th century Sarmatic period in Poland was an unprecedented success with regards to its popularity, the admiration of critics and its alleged patriotic impact on readers. But there also have been other reasons for his popularity.  As at that time, for many decades, there was no independent Polish state and no official state bodies, Poles looked for moral guides among writers – and so Henryk Sienkiewicz was at one point regarded as one of the greatest authorities for them.

Creating a Postmodern Sienkiewicz collection was neither the first nor the last time we dealt with this writer.  In 2016 we created collection Przestrzenie Henryka Sienkiewicza [Spaces of Henryk Sienkiewicz], consisting of two modules. The first one – Sienkiewicz międzynarodowy [International Sienkiewicz] was a multilingual digital anthology of articles, created especially for this collection, on the writer’s presence in different countries and cultures. The second module, Dekady Henryka Sienkiewicza  [Decades of Henryk Sienkiewicz] was a digital adaptation of a calendar of the life and works of Henryk Sienkiewicz previously published as a book. We broke all the information into decades of writer’s life, creating an interactive  map of the most important places in every decade. In every decade we created a digital table of contents, to enable user to go into information on specific year of calendar.

Lately we published Recepcja ‘Quo Vadis’ we Włoszech [Reception of ‘Quo Vadis’ in Italy] collection about the fascinating history of the Italian reception of Quo vadis novel. It consists of three modules: on general history of reception, on publishing houses that published novel in Italy and stylometric analysis of different Italian translations.

What both of those collections have in common is that they were enhanced digital versions of previously published printed books. Postmodern Sienkiewicz was to be totally different case.

3. Postmodern Sienkiewicz – digital laboratory

Digital scholarly collection Postmodern Sienkiewicz was created in 2019 as main outcome of a 3-year project “Postmodern Sienkiewicz – digital laboratory” (another was a traditional book, although mainly in an e-book form, we may call this collection “digital born”, but not entirely “digital exclusive”). On the one hand, it was another collection on our platform, and on the other hand, it was a groundbreaking project that, according to its title, involved testing a laboratory approach to expand the methods of working on humanities content online and use them to create a collection that was scholarly and narratively unique. 

The content of this collection consists of twelve scholarly essays on his life and works. What all the texts in this collection have in common is a methodology that can be attributed to the tools of literary studies associated with postmodernity (geopoetics, political theology, gender studies and various reception studies). They were intended to refresh the language of the academic narrative about this writer.

4. A new approach to structure of scholarly narrative.

In a traditional, multi-authored book, the structure of content would be obvious with a text after text in linear order (maybe divided into thematic parts). Here we wanted to make use of digital environment and upgrade the structure, make it more “dense”. That was why we asked authors to write their articles in a “modular” way, enabling parts of their articles to function as autonomous meaning particles. As we created a list of categories [Like “Places” or “Body and Carnality”] and subcategories [Like “California” and “Europe” or “Violence” and “Erotica” ] and we have assigned each of the fragments to their corresponding categories, an alternative way of reading the contents of the collection was created – not as a whole articles, fragment after fragment, but by categories connecting different fragments in different basic articles. It enables different ways of reading the text, more individual and leaning towards user needs and interests. User chooses his or her own way he/she wants to use the collection on the main site (choosing between “Articles” and “Categories”), and he/she can switch the way of reading any time feels immersed into article or category. 

We also wanted to make the narrative of this collection as immersive, as it could be, and to make visual part of the collection very rich and even more meaningful than in previous collections – its visual and functional form should best match the content, complement it and generate additional meanings.

5. On the source of visuals

The partner for the project – and the first source for the visual materials in the Postmodern Sienkiewicz collection was the Museum of Henryk Sienkiewicz located in the Palace in Oblęgorek, part of the National Museum in Kielce. The first floor of the palace is an reconstruction of rooms from the time of Sienkiewicz. We assumed, that we could possibly use both pictures of whole rooms of the palace and specific objects and paintings or graphics from the museum and pictures of the exterior.

Figure 1: – Palace of Oblęgorek (front)

As we established cooperation with the National Museum in Kielce, we also thoroughly familiarized ourselves with the museum’s collection at their headquarters: the Bishop’s Palace in Kielce. We quickly came to the conclusion that as part of our collaboration we should also make use of  the museum’s extensive and excellent collections, especially 19th century paintings and applied art. These materials became the second important source of visual materials.

Figure 2: A Painting from National Museum in Kielce (Portrait of a girl in a red dress by Józef Pankiewicz)

The third source included materials created or acquired directly by the team – we can highlight the interactive maps developed during the project (we made maps of travels to America, to Africa, but also a map of commemorations of Henryk Sienkiewicz in different periods) as well as photos of objects taken by team members (especially some monuments).

In our scholarly digital storytelling in this collection, after several visits in the museum and numerous discussions, we decided to use

  1. The exterior of the building (captured from both the front and back);

Figure 3: Dining room in Palace of Oblęgorek 

  1. Rooms on the first floor of the building (the lobby and three directly connected rooms: the dining room, living room and the writer’s office) and the objects in them, which are vehicles that take the user directly to the corresponding articles. For practical reasons, in the spatial narrative we have omitted the smoking room and bedrooms located in the background although we sometimes use the exhibits in them as illustrations.

The story behind front page and using the exterior of Oblęgorek palace

The Oblęgorek Palace was  a gift the writer received from the Polish Nation in 1902 – a special committee was formed to call on Poles to contribute money for an anniversary gift to the author. When the appropriate amount was collected, a suitable building was selected and, after some alterations,  it was gifted to Sienkiewicz. Henryk Sienkiewicz used this residence for short periods of time, he did not like it very much, it was contrary to his habits and customs, almost impossible to heat, in addition, he had to patiently endure numerous visits and delegations.

What is the most important for our narrative – the external appearance of the Palace was not the writer’s idea, but corresponded to the way the committee imagined his perfect residence.

Figure 4: Palace of Oblęgorek (back)

Its eclectic, quirky architectural shape is a conglomeration of elements associated with various novels and, at the same time, with patriotic motifs from Polish history. There is a Sarmatian element above the door (a hussar, a member of the famous heavy Polish cavalry of the 17th century), there are medieval turrets (associated with  anti-German in its message novel Knights of the Cross, centered around the battle of Grunwald/Zalgiris/Tannenberg in 1410), there is a veranda in the Zakopane style (the Polish mountain style, developed by art critic and friend of Sienkiewicz — Stanislaw Witkiewicz – referring to the writer’s highland works; it is worth adding that this style was promoted as originally Slavic or even Polish).

In other words, everything that the gift-givers believe the residence of an arch-patriotic writer should have at that time.

As such, it is a reflection and testimony of the reception of the writer’s character and works and, as an important part of the texts is also devoted to different areas of reception, we decided to use this architectural nightmare on the main screen.

In doing so, we recognized that it speaks for itself. We do not further emphasize this metaphorical meaning in the collection. We simply use optimally framed shots of the front and back of the residence.

The front and back are transitions to view the material in different orders: by article, or by the categories given to the fragments.

6. Interior – a  scholarly walk and space of scholarly narrative

Although the writer was not responsible for the architectural shape of the exterior, he was responsible for the interior design. Some of the rooms on the first floor remain in a similar state to the times when he occasionally lived in the Palace. 

The first floor was decorated as per the writer’s instructions, so they reflect his taste and therefore can begin a dialogue with the content of the essays.

We wanted to invite the user to take a scholarly walk through the three rooms on the first floor. Upon entering, we find ourselves in the lobby and can choose one of three rooms: the Dining Room, the Study, or the Living Room. In each of them we can enter specific articles by clicking on given objects placed in that room.

This is a kind of walk through the museum, but it is actually a walk through the space of the scholarly narrative we have constructed – as the space has been modified by us in various ways and subordinated to the narrative. 

Currently, the rooms on the first floor are museum rooms, an exhibition space, combining what they looked like in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s time with the requirements of the museum. The museum rooms, or the transformed space of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s residence, were used as a starting point

The first stage of modification involved physical modification, i.e. physically setting up the frames (the museum management not only allowed us to rearrange the exhibits quite freely, but even delegated their employees to help us with this).

There were three types of such modification:

1) Eliminating incongruous objects (like a couch in the hallway or museum’s railings);

2) Creating an optimal layout from exhibits that are transitions to the dissertations (but we also set up the furniture and arranged the exhibits to get the optimal composition for our purposes);

3) Adding probable elements needed in the narrative (a similar practice to museum exhibits).

The first example would be placing an issue of “Tygodnik Ilustrowany” magazine dedicated to Bolesław Prus on the table in dining room.

This issue of the magazine, devoted entirely to another great writer of the time, Boleslaw Prus after his death and funeral, comes from our private collection. We are not 100% sure that Sienkiewicz read this issue of the magazine in Oblęgorek – but it is highly likely. For the narrative of the collection, we needed a transition to an article juxtaposing the two writers’ techniques for creating newspaper columns, hence the decision to add the newspaper in this room.

The second example concerned placing Self-help by Samuel Smiles near Sienkiewicz’s desk – it was a much-needed vehicle leading up to the article Self-Made Man: Henryk Sienkiewicz’s American Experiment. Again – it is highly likely that Sienkiewicz owned this extremely popular book but we cannot be one hundred percent certain.

Figure 5: Picture of the lobby before removal of technical elements

The second stage of modification involved photo retouching (made by photographer), including the removal of technical elements (like sensors or radiators) from pictures.

Figure 6: Picture of the lobby after removal of technical elements

The third stage of modification focused on the work of graphic designer. It included for example “Digital” overhanging of the painting of Stanislaw Witkiewicz depicting Henryk Sienkiewicz during his trip to America or replacement of low quality elements 

Figure 7: Painting depicting Henryk Sienkiewicz in America by Stanisław Witkiewicz

For the purposes of the digital collection, the space has been transformed in multiple ways to ensure optimal narrative. As a result, we obtained a space of scholarly digital collection that has no direct counterpart in the real world – creating its own separate structure, subordinated to the order of the narrative.

7. Interior – a dialogue of text and objects/ visuals

Each dissertation is assigned to a visual object, corresponding to its content, sometimes entering into a dialogue with it. 

Figure 8: Princess of Darjabar in the power of the buccaneer by Joseph Daskur

One of examples is an important part of the dining room design – prints from the series One Thousand and One Nights by Joseph Daskur that were given to the writer who decided to hang them in the his dining room. A print called Princess of Darjabar in the power of the buccaneer is especially distinctive. It is clearly kept in the style of 19th-century Orientalism and directly combines eroticism with violence. This combination is characteristic not only of the writer’s taste but also of his work, where sexual excitement and cruelty are disturbingly close to each other. This issue is analyzed in one of the dissertations in the collection named Sienkiewicz’s Theatre of Cruelty.

Figure 9: Empty sugar box

The second interesting exhibit used as a vehicle for specific content was an empty sugar box from the living room. A crate filled with sugar was offered to the writer by a delegation of the sugar industry. Now it doesn’t carry any sugar, it remains an interesting evidence of the popular reception of the writer’s books and persona. We decided to use it to illustrate an article on the film reception of Sienkiewicz during the People’s Republic of Poland, which hooks into issues of mass imagination (as with the nationwide debates over who should play the main characters)

Figure 10: Unfinished portrait of Henryk Sienkiewicz by Kazimierz Pochwalski

The third interesting example is an unfinished painting – a portrait of Henryk Sienkiewicz painted by Kazimierz Pochwalski. It’s an unusual portrait – not completed due to the writer’s death in 1916. This not-quite-finished image of the writer serves as a vehicle to take the user to an article about the various ways of depicting Sienkiewicz.

8. Conclusion

The scholarly digital collection Postmodern Sienkiewicz has subsumed a certain stage of the NPLP team’s activities and is a demonstration of what can be visually, functionally and structurally achieved in a digital environment by creating the equivalent of a multi-author monograph (book). Of course, this does not exhaust the possible forms that digital collections on our platform can take – the best example being the Atlas of Holocaust Literature, described in another article in this publication. But that’s a topic for another scholarly narrative.

About the Author

Bartłomiej Szleszyński is a professor at the Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences, Head of the New Panorama of Polish Literature team, responsible for creating and operating NPLP.PL, a platform publishing digital scholarly collections, and TEI.NPLP.PL, a platform for scholarly digital editions, and deputy director of the Digital Humanities Centre. His main research interests are literature of the second half of the nineteenth century, colonial discourse in nineteenth-century Polish culture, literary Sarmatism, digital literary studies and scholarly digital editions.