European Solidarity Centre, Gdańsk

Situated to the North of the city centre, the European Solidarity Centre is an imposing building in rust-coloured metal, with a huge statue to memorialise the shipyard workers killed in anti-communist riots.

Tall statue, with three concrete legs with crosses at the top, supporting large anchors in memorial to the steel workers killed in 1970. Rusty-looking Solidarity museum is behind; it is a multi-storey building, but nowhere near as high as the statue.
Solidarity centre and statue outside

The inside of the centre felt entirely at odds with the more brutalist outside, giving a great contrast. It is a vast atrium of calm, free to visit without paying to visit the museum. Plants everywhere help contribute to that atmosphere. When I came out of the museum, a small visiting orchestra was giving a performance of classical music, which fit the place perfectly, though the quiet that followed was also wonderful. It’s a great space, into which a lot of care has clearly been put.

The hall inside the centre, before you get to the museum. A vast atrium of calm with plants everywhere creating a chilled atmosphere
Inside the Solidarity Centre.

I booked ahead for my visit, having been (sort of) turned away the day before. There are timed entry slots, so if you arrive at 3pm, you may be told to push off till 4pm. I didn’t hang around and just booked for the next day, then showed my email at the audioguide station and scanned in to the museum upstairs.

This museum commemorates a hugely important time in Poland’s history, as it fought to be rid of Communism. It’s also salutary for a free Brit, as a reminder and a warning – simply reading the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a rejoinder to recent laws passed by people who I can’t politely describe. Even knowing that there is a group of people who will turn their nose up at any mention of that declaration, sure they are supporting a nebulous idea of freedom and making up their own minds even as they are led down the path of radicalisation, just as the British press did by lying about the EU for years, with otherwise politically-unengaged people knowing they should say “up yours Delors”. To give a funny (but not) example – on Question Time, one responder said she voted to leave the EU because she was fed up of the straight bananas ‘we’ get now. Not only swallowing the lies, but shaping her own reality to believe they had affected her world.

Hard hat are stuck to the ceiling in a room which has recreated the look of the Gdansk shipyards, with exhibits about the protests there
Shipyard exhibit

The museum starts in the shipyard, taking visitors into that time by recreating some of the look of the place. This was mostly not a bloody revolution, so some of the history is a little dry; there are lots of meetings and conversations. But there’s plenty to see, and the individual stories that start in the next room bring the narrative to life. It’s not a story I feel able to sum up, and in any case my reaction was much of the time one of anger at more contemporary events (and yes, for the reactionary right, I did also feel lucky to be able to express that anger, but that isn’t good enough on its own), but the pictures tell some of the story of the museum. For better information, you might start with a page about Lech Wałęsa.

Landrover-style Popemobile used by Pope John Paul
The Popemobile that John Paul II used
A large video wall shows protests. There is a tablet to browse other information, and photographs of people involved in protests in a glass exhibition cabinet.
Interactive exhibits
An exhibit stands in a room with a mirror-roof. That mirror allows you to see that the curved panels of the exhibition are that shape so they spell out the word "solidarnosc"
Exhibition space in the shape of the word solidarnosc.
Photo of union leader and Nobel Prize winner, Lech Walesa, made up of other documents, artfully arranged
Lech Wałęsa
A broken gate with police riot shields and a vehicle arranged behind, to give a feel of protestors facing the authorities
A protestor’s eye-view of conflict at the shipyard, where authorities broke down a gate with a tank
The road to democracy
A round table recreates the feel of union organisers debating with authorities
The history of the debates shown on video screens
A display of posters of different Solidarnosc candidates standing for election, every one of them photographed individually with Lech Wałęsa
Solidarnosc candidates in the Polish elections, individual posters for each, photographed with Lech Wałęsa – a hugely successful initiative.

There are fascinating exhibits on the size of the Communist bloc in Europe, and its dispersal over time.

A coloured animated map of Europe colours Communist colours in red, then shows them changing to grey as Communism is defeated over time
Decomposition of the Eastern bloc
Large walls in a room carry the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in several different languages
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Part of the Declaration of Human Rights, "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association"
“Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association” (and because it apparently needs pointing out, ‘peaceful’ means non-violent, not kept quiet because noise is a bit annoying)
"No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile"
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” (And perhaps don’t send asylum seekers, perfectly entitled to travel, at vast cost to other countries. Particularly don’t do that and then listen quietly while useful idiots bang on about people not having enough babies)

I found the museum very interesting, if very dry in places – though we should be grateful that for the dullness of people debating in rooms, rather than fighting for supremacy. The audio guide is excellent and guides you through the place expertly. At times I switched off a little and let the feel of it roll over me, and that works, too. It’s close to being a must-visit in Gdańsk, though you might also choose not to go, and appreciate that freedom instead.

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