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.
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.
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 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.
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