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Karolina Zaczek

Institutionalizing Cultural Identity: Looking at the Chicago Polish Community

          Chicago is a city that is rich in ethnic diversity. One of the largest and longest established populations in Chicago is the Polish minority. This large community has been an integral part of the city and has maintained a presence within it for over a hundred years. It continues to grow, to gain greater recognition, and to integrate itself into Chicago’s demographic landscape.

This research investigates the ways in which cultural identity is portrayed, represented, and constructed in cultural organizations built by members of the Polish community. Particular attention is given to the Polish Museum of America, the oldest ethnic museum in the United States.  The challenges that face this museum are significant. The following issues are closely examined:

  • How is cultural identity institutionalized?
  • How is cultural identity constructed and represented in an increasingly global and pluralistic context?
  • What are the issues that administrators and curators must be aware of as leaders of these types of institutions in order to effectively run them?

            Representing cultural identity is problematic and especially evident in the ethnic-minority context. Often ethnic-specific cultural representations are characterized by nostalgia and the familiar and are presented as coherent wholes, disregarding the fact that identity is complex and dynamic. Administrators and curators of culture must balance the celebration of historical moments on the one hand, and recognize the potential and vitality of the present context on the other. This balance is necessary in order to make the institution relevant, sustainable, and credible.

This research participates in the dialogue surrounding nationalism, hybridism, symbolism, and the construction of meanings, identity politics, pluralism, and ethics of representation. It focuses on responsible and conscientious administrative and curatorial practices in the arena of representing cultural identity.


         Karolina Zaczek received her BFA with a concentration in Painting, Sculpture, and Installation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, in 2002. While at SAIC, Karolina has acted as a cultural liaison for The Friends of Krakow Society, as well as the Program Coordinator for The Chicago Artists’ Coalition.


Thesis Advisor: Michael Dorf, Adjunct Professor, Arts Administration

Thesis Reader: Lidia Rozmus







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