Gdansk trip part 2: Exhibiting Solidarity

This blog is the second 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 described in my previous post, the European Solidarity Centre (ECS) is more than just a museum. Nonetheless, it does indeed contain a large permanent exhibition that presents the story of solidarity, from its origins to the present day. The permanent exhibition is highly praised: a “must see” according to the various tourist guides to Gdansk that I came across, where the mission of the ECS is used to invite visitors to “discover history and decide about the future”.

This exhibition is packed with history and, short of writing a book, it would be impossible to do it justice. Indeed, following my initial visit, I returned to the exhibit as part of a workshop led by the Solidarity Academy and had an entirely different experience, discovering things that had passed me by first time around. In what follows, all I can do is describe my own experience of the exhibition, and should therefore acknowledge that this is written from the perspective of someone who had little prior knowledge of either the themes or the content before visiting the exhibition.

The permanent exhibition occupies numerous rooms across two floors of the building, combining objects and archival documents with film footage, photographs, manuscripts and an impressive array of technology. It caters for the English and Polish speaker alike and also provides a suggested route around the exhibition using floor signs to help you find your way through the winding and sometimes labyrinthine layout, thus ensuring that the content is encountered in sensible order.

On entering the exhibition, the first room attends to ‘The Birth of Solidarnosc’, focusing on the strikes of August 1980 that were crucial to the formation of the Solidarność Trade Union. Maps illustrate how the Shipyard workers’ protest spread in time and space, and photographs along with film footage successfully convey the significance of this crucial moment in history. This information, combined with iconic objects – the wooden boards containing the 21 demands set out by the striking workers of the Gdansk Lenin Shipyard – and various authentic items salvaged from the shipyard – a canteen table, a crane cab and electronic vehicle as well as hundreds of workers’ helmets which cover the ceiling of the room – bring the story to life.

The second room – ‘Power of the Powerless’ – steps back in time to capture some of the events and developments that preceded the 1980 strikes. The route through the exhibit winds past photographs, reconstructed rooms, archival material and film footage to present some of the failed attempts at opposition. The violence with which these protesters were met is shown by displaying the bullet-ridden jacket of a protesting worker, shot during the Massacre of December 1970. The poor living conditions and economic decline that made everyday life such a struggle are revealed in a display the presents a salvaged shop counter alongside photographs showing the long queues that became part of everyday life and the text of Ernest Bryll’s ‘Queuers’ Psalm’. Again, there is a large amount of information presented in this section, but the inclusion of key objects to support the narrative is what really makes it work so well to convey the complex interplay of events and conditions that led up to the strikes of 1980.

Leaving the second room, the tour route takes you back through the first room where you pass a screen showing film footage of the drawn-out process of negotiation that preceded the signing of the August Accords. Leaving this dimly lit space, the intentional contrast created by bright lighting and mirrored ceiling of the third room – ‘Solidarnosc and Hope’ – signifies the new sense of freedom that was felt across Poland for the 16 months that followed. Prize medals belonging to artists whose work won global recognition for their portrayal of the struggle for independence, are presented alongside documents and film footage to celebrate this “golden period” for both the nation and the Solidarity movement.

As you leave the brightly-lit space and walk up the stairs to the second level, your journey conveys the sense of hope and freedom that came to an abrupt end on December 13th 1981 when Poland was placed under Martial Law. The ‘War with Society’ exhibit captures the fear and terror that became part of daily life, and on entering the room, a military vehicle surrounded by police shields sets the scene. Film footage, photographs and newspaper cuttings are presented alongside buckled iron fences and prison cells, capturing the darkness and loss of power that became the norm as the Solidarity Movement became outlawed and the rights and freedom that had been briefly experienced were taken away.

Moving on to the fourth room – the ‘Road to Democracy’ – a combination of film footage, documents and paraphernalia are used to present the stories and struggles of various groups and individuals. Through their continued efforts to fight the regime, and combined with a declining economy, the conditions finally came to a head in 1988.  The next part of the exhibit takes you into a room containing a round table, where film footage and digitized documents are used to ‘painstakingly reconstruct’ the process and outcomes of the Round Table Talks of 1989. Through this reconstruction, the complexity of these talks becomes all too clear; the renewed legal status of Solidarity and the (partly free) elections that were negotiated through these talks were no mean feat.  Past the round table, the exhibit culminates with images and election posters that saw a sweeping victory for the Solidarity party and the election of Lech Walesa as president of Poland in 1990.

As the first Communist Bloc country to win freedom, the ripple effect of the events in Poland is the focus of the final exhibit, titled ‘The Triumph of Freedom’. A large map illustrates how, one by one, dictatorships across Central and Eastern Europe gradually collapsed. Interactives are also used, on one hand, presenting the personal experiences and opinions of those who have lived through these recent changes, and on the other hand, showing how they were reported in the media. The room is dominated by a vast wall containing messages of hope and gratitude from previous visitors. This breath-taking installation seems to bring the whole exhibition together by capturing the importance of history and looking back to learn from the past as we think about the future, but also reminding us that freedom has been hard-won and remains a source of struggle for many.

Both the story that is told and the methods used to tell it took me on a historically rich, informative and emotional journey that lasted well over 2 hours. That said, time flew by: the mixture of content included in the exhibition, the innovative methods and attention to design successfully convey a considerable amount of detail and insight without feeling either gimmicky or overwhelming. On one hand, archival material and interactive components are both vital for constructing the narrative that runs through the exhibition. However, what stood out for me was the central role of objects in telling these stories. While the objects are at times presented as a set dressing, their authenticity means that, through the stories they tell, they are always more than just props. This leads me to the conclusion that the success of this exhibition is (for me at least) all about the balance that has been achieved between information and objects. All in all, this is a really impressive exhibition: the way that the narrative unfolds throughout the exhibition as you move through the different rooms made the content directly and personally relevant, constantly prompting me to think about how this relates to the present and the future.

Winner of the Council of Europe’s Museum Prize in 2016, the ECS has been recognised as a genuine forum for contemporary Europe, and the exhibition has a large part to play in this. From my personal experience, the exhibition stands out as unique and contributes to the success of the ECS in achieving its mission – I certainly discovered the past and decided about the future – and, as such, this ups the game for the museum sector.


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