Gdansk trip part 1: Re-imagining the Civic Museum

This blog is the first in a series of four posts about my recent trip to Gdansk where I spent some time at the European Solidarity Centre, thanks to funding provided by the University of Manchester’s Investing in Success staff development scheme. 

As Learning Manager, my role has focused on the ‘formal’ programmes and resources that we develop and deliver to support school and college groups. We are, however, increasingly aware that the distinction between ‘formal’ learning and ‘informal’ engagement is not always helpful and, therefore, are looking to develop a more joined-up and collaborative approach to our programming. The division is particularly apparent when it comes to young people who are, on one hand, supported as pupils through our ‘formal’ learning programme, but on the other hand, may also engage with the Museum through our ‘informal’ programmes as members of communities, families and groups. It was with this challenge in mind, and in search of inspiration for working more collaboratively to support, entertain and inspire young people, that I visited the European Solidarity Centre.

Based on the recommendation of our director and in line with our vision for hello future, the European Solidarity Centre (ECS) is an ideal place to visit; as well as its successful work as an active, civic institution, I was also keen to find out more about their work with young people, particularly through the ‘Solidarity Academy’. Thanks to the generosity of ECS staff, I had the opportunity to attend and observe their 2018 programme, which will be the topic of my third post. Here, by way of an introduction, I hope to provide some context for the Solidarity Academy by describing some of the work that is carried out by the ECS more generally. Their award winning exhibition will be the topic of my second post, after which I will turn to the Solidarity Academy in my third and fourth posts.

To familiarise myself with the ECS, I spent a morning exploring the venue as a visitor. The clear, crisp, sunny day of my visit gave me a spectacular first impression; approaching the site, the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970 towers above you as you walk through the entrance to the Gdansk Shipyards, towards the vast, angular structure, five-storeys high with rust-coloured cladding, that is home to the ECS.

While many of the historical buildings in Gdansk were rebuilt after the destruction of World War 2, it is the more recent industrial history of the city that forms the backdrop to the ECS. As well as the gigantic cranes that dominate the skyline, the amount of rust-coloured cladding and features on newer buildings is a continual reminder of the city’s industrial work and workers.

The ECS building itself is immense and stunning. Purpose-built from scratch, it is a celebration of the spirit of solidarity that has played such a central role in the recent past for both the city and the country. The building opened in August 2013 on the 34th anniversary of the signing of the August Accords, although the ECS has been operating since 2007.

1ECS bld
European Solidarity Centre building

The building is very open and spacious, and while the entrance includes the standard range of information kiosks and desks where you can leave your coat, ask for information, buy a ticket for the exhibition, or hire an audio tour, there is nothing to stop you from walking straight past them to wonder around the building on your own terms.

Entrance ECS
View of part of the large public space from the ECS entrance

In the middle of the building, I was surprised to find myself walking past trees and various plants (which are all real!): the whole building is arranged around a large central space that has been carefully planted with trees and bedding plants, with climbing plants winding their way up the interior walls. This ‘Winter Garden’ is fully accessible for anyone – visitor or passer by – to enjoy as a year-round public green space. In a city that (like Manchester) suffers from unfavourable weather, the ‘Winter Garden’ provides an indoor urban garden: rain or shine, anyone can come in and make use of the space for thinking and talking.

This feature is just one of many ways in which the ECS is ‘more than just a museum’ – it was never intended to simply commemorate the past, and in many ways, the work that takes place there is firmly positioned in the present with a view towards the future. That said, the ECS does have an educational remit, from the Fun Department that focuses on engaging its youngest visitors and the variety of formal and informal programmes for young people, to the Civic Culture Department’s adult programmes. In addition to tours, workshops, debates and conferences, the ECS also runs film and arts festivals, and on site, is also home to a library and archive.

As well as offices for the ECS staff, the Centre also functions as an open office space. At one end of the scale, the centre’s second floor ‘Solidarity Everyday’ area functions as a social hub for local NGOs and groups, providing offices for those who would otherwise struggle to find a venue to work, as well as space for less formal groups and activists to use for meetings and shorter term activities. At the other end of the scale, and somewhat unexpectedly, the second floor also hosts the independent office for the Nobel Peace Prize winning former president, and ‘father of Solidarity’, Lech Walesa. In this way, the ECS not only actively supports such organisations and groups, but brings them together to facilitate relationships and networks that may otherwise be impossible.

The European Solidarity Centre is a place to “discover history and decide about the future” and its mission is three-fold:

  • To commemorate, maintain and popularise the heritage and message of the Solidarity movement and the anti-communist democratic opposition in Poland and throughout the world
  • To inspire new cultural, civic, trade union, local government, national and European initiatives with a universal dimension
  • To share the achievements of the peaceful struggle for freedom, justice, democracy and human rights with those who are deprived of them To actively take part in the building of the European identity and new international order

Through its various programmes and spaces along with the permanent exhibition (the subject of my next post), the ECS is a great example of a mission-driven institution that successfully and genuinely places its civic role at the heart of its work.


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