Dispute over ‘patriotism’ delays opening of Gdańsk’s new war museum

Poland’s conservative government has decided that the port city’s new landmark exhibiting the horrors of the second world war isn’t sufficiently nationalist

Dispute over ‘patriotism’ delays opening of Gdańsk’s new war museum
A visitor at the main exhibition of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk.
Photograph: Adam Warzawa/EPA

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Dispute over ‘patriotism’ delays opening of Gdańsk’s new war museum” was written by Julia Szyndzielorz, for The Guardian on Saturday 28th January 2017 12.00 UTC

Last Monday was a bittersweet day for professor Paweł Machcewicz, founding director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk. After eight years of planning, the building and the exhibition were almost ready and the historian was finally able to let the first visitors in: a crowd of 400 experts, donors, veterans, designers and journalists went through rooms that exposed the horrors of the second world war.

The museum’s striking design has made it a landmark in Gdańsk. Its design can be seen in this aerial, wideangle view.
The museum’s striking design is in contrast to much of the city skyline. Photograph: Dominik Werner

It should have been a day of triumph for Machcewicz but the historian was also aware that it might be one of his last at the spectacular glass-and-brick-red building. His museum, which cost £80m and was called into existence by former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk (now president of the European council), is one of Poland’s last cultural institutions not yet controlled by the ultra-conservative government of the Law and Justice party. For the past year, Poland’s ministry of culture has been trying to change that by claiming the exhibition isn’t patriotic enough.

“The ministry is accusing us of failing to portray the Polish wartime experience, but, in fact, many of the rooms are devoted to Poland’s particular fate of being the victim of two superpowers – Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia,” said Machcewicz.

A woman walks around a display at Gdansk's second world war museum, the wall in front of her has been destroyed to look like a bombshell has hit it, and there is a view to what would be the outside.

Both the museum and its director are protected by the institution’s charter, so the ministry decided to merge it with another museum created solely on paper and that is yet to be built. This manoeuvre would allow it to appoint a new director and alter the museum’s narrative. Machcewicz, however, took the ministry to court. The initial ruling was in his favour, but a day after the first visitors viewed the exhibition, the supreme administrative court revoked that decision and allowed the ministry to proceed.

In the centre of Gdańsk, near where the German invasion started on 1 September 1939, the museum has already become a landmark. Its building, with numerous sharp angles, stands in a neighbourhood destroyed during the war, and dives deep into the ground – resembling a bomb crashing into the earth – as if trying to bring to light the past buried in the soil.

The interior of the museum in Gdansk.
The interior of the museum. Photograph: Roman Jocher
Visitors go three storeys below ground to see the main exhibition, which shows the countless atrocities the war inflicted on people around the globe. A grim grey corridor forms the spine of the exhibition, off which are separate rooms devoted to particular aspects of the war: the events that led to it, the birth of totalitarianism, the particularly dramatic, rust-coloured area devoted to terror and deportations, and the grey area explaining resistance.

The exhibition is focused on the impact the war had on civilians. The curators decided to display objects that serve as testimonies to people’s fates: a concentration camp uniform, melted porcelain from Hiroshima, buttons and cufflinks of Polish officers murdered by the Soviet secret police in Katyń forest in 1940, a handkerchief on which a soldier bid farewell to his loved ones before he was executed.

Veteran Henryk Bajduszewski in front of a Russian tank.
Veteran Henryk Bajduszewski in front of a Russian tank. Photograph: Julia Szyndzielorz
The Polish ministry of culture hasn’t revealed any details about the planned changes, stating they would be “up to the director of the new institution.” One can, however, expect a delay in the opening, which was initially planned for March. This comes as a blow to many, including second world war veterans: “It’s high time for it to open – we must show how awful a war really is, so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over again,” said 93-year-old Henry Bajduszewski, a recipient of the British War Medal, while watching footage in the exhibition’s final room of the current conflicts in Syria and eastern Ukraine.

Julia Szyndzielorz

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