Gdańsk. A city where one of the greatest peaceful revolutions started. In August 1980 workers from the Gdańsk Shipyard – the largest shipyard in Poland at that time – refused to work and demanded more civil liberties. Hundreds of factories across the country joined the strike in solidarity. As a result in August 1980 the Shipyard hosted ground-breaking negotiations between the workers and the communist government. For the first time behind the iron curtain a compromise between strikers and authorities was reached. Solidarność/Solidarity, the first independent self-governing trade union in the Eastern Bloc, came into existence. It was the beginning of a peaceful revolution that led to the fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe nearly a decade later. As children of this revolution we are now facing the biggest challenge to European solidarity amidst the war in Ukraine.
Solidarity Square, Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers 1970 and the European Solidarity Centre, May 2017
The European Solidarity Centre
Commemorating, preserving and popularising the heritage and idea of Solidarity and anti-communist democratic opposition in Poland and other countries; inspiring new initiatives based on universal cultural, civil, union, local government, national and European ideals – those goals defined the mission of the European Solidarity Centre, a cultural institution established in Gdańsk in 2007. A new-formula institution, focused both on Solidarity as part of modern history and solidarity as a concept shaping the future. The founders of the institution were the City of Gdańsk, the Pomorskie Voivodeship, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, Solidarity Trade Union and Solidarity Centre Foundation.
The ECS building has been located within premises of the historic Gdańsk Shipyard near Gate No. 2, where Lech Wałęsa announced creating Poland’s first trade union independent from the communist party; right opposite the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers 1970 – the first memorial commemorating victims of the communist regime behind the iron curtain. The historic BHP (Health Safety) Hall, where the Gdańsk Agreement was signed, is also located nearby.
The industrial landscape of the shipyard and the distinctive features of the shipyard and maritime architecture were transferred into the shape which the ECS building has taken. The design – by Gdańsk-based architectural firm FORT, the winner of the international competition – refers directly to the heritage of the historic Gdańsk Shipyard and the idea of Solidarity.
The ECS Permanent Exhibition
The creation of a permanent exhibition became a key task for the institution and the basis to achieve its aims. The exhibition was a joint effort of historians, social scientists, museum experts, designers and engineers. Two competitions were held in 2008: the first for the exhibition scenario and the second for its design concept. In the same year, the ECS Archives Section began its operations, collecting archives and memorabilia connected with the history of Solidarity movement in Poland and abroad. In 2012, the Permanent Exhibition Section was created, which was responsible for finding, acquiring and developing materials. Not only does the permanent exhibition focus on the history of Poland, but also emphasises the European context of Solidarity. In order to obtain materials concerning the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe the Permanent Exhibition Section team visited nearly 60 most important museums and archival institutions in Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and Hungary, and conducted meetings with historians and former oppositionists. Those contacts enriched the ECS exhibition with numerous materials, broader knowledge about anti-communist movements in those countries as well as about their reaction to the establishment of Solidarity. The exhibition itself was financed by a grant from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage to the amount of 6.8 million EUR. Ultimately, on 30–31 August 2014 the permanent exhibition, called “the heart of the ECS building”, was opened to the public.
This state-of-the-art exhibition is narrative in character. The visitor is immersed in a historical context via archival exhibits, documents, manuscripts, photographs, video presentations and interactive installations. Nearly 1800 exhibits tell the story of the victory of Solidarity and human rights. They include the icon of the August 1980 strike – the Boards with 21 Demands, which today are inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List; the original shipyard equipment – the overhead crane operated by legendary trade union activist Anna Walentynowicz; the sacred gift from Mother – the bullet-pierced jacket of 20-year-old shipyard worker Ludwik Piernicki, shot in December 1970; and the symbol of the commitment of intellectuals – the original desk of Jacek Kuroń, one of the opposition leaders. The archives and memorabilia combined with multimedia and installations transform a history that started in the Gdańsk Shipyard into the history of a universal idea, showing multiple dimensions of the European significance of the Solidarity movement. Visitors discover how the revolution that took place in Poland made a society pushed to the margins by the Yalta Agreements an actor of universal history.
Since the opening, the ECS exhibition has been visited by 1.3 million guests from Europe and the whole world. The exhibition encourages questions that still need answering: about the place of solidarity in today’s world, public life, political philosophy, community and civic society and, finally, about freedom. Due to its universal and continuously valid message of solidarity and the heritage of the Polish culture of dialogue, this unique place is an important point of visit for official guests, with many presidents, prime ministers and heads of state coming to the Centre.
ECS Winter Garden, Freedom and Solidarity Days, 30th Anniversary of 1989, June 2019
The exhibition highlights the importance of labour and how this built the Europe that we know today. It highlights the value of activism for human rights, labour rights and political rights, and shows the importance of civic engagement in the advancement of these causes. The use of the project’s up-to-date exhibition techniques and participatory museological approach is of great value and exemplifies how to preserve stories and make them relevant to the contemporary world – with that verdict of the Jury the wonderful news that the ECS permanent exhibition was a winner of the European Heritage / Europa Nostra 2021 Award was announced in May 2021.
For us it is a great experience, an experience of being part of a big family. Someone beautifully said that heritage, especially material heritage, is the property of a village, a town, a country, but its beauty, its soul, is the property of us all. Culture knows no borders, no ethnic identities, sows no hatred, celebrates human creativity and is a source of defence for those values which underpin Europe. Today we felt that there is such a thing as the European spirit – commented Basil Kerski, director of the ECS. It is a great honour not only for the ECS, but also for Gdańsk. – stated Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, Mayor of Gdańsk. The values that gave life to the peaceful revolution of Solidarity must remain alive. This is also our duty, because Europe is us.
This duty became more vivid in February 2022 as the story of a peaceful revolution and new democratic order in Europe took a sharp turn upon Putin’s invasion of independent Ukraine.
The exhibition with an open ending – with these prophetic words Günter Grass, a Nobel Prize laureate commented on the ECS permanent exhibition during his visit in 2014. He left his note in the room called THE TRIUMPH OF FREEDOM, dedicated to changes in Eastern and Central Europe in the late 20th century, that finalises a historical narrative at the exhibition. It depicts how the bloodless revolution in Poland led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and to the collapse of dictatorships in Central and Eastern Europe. While presenting the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the display introduces visitors to the process of building Europe’s new political and economic order.
The war in Ukraine shows that the process of dissolution of the USSR is still ongoing. It is a further chapter of post-Soviet transformation, this time bloody and not peaceful. The construction of the ECS exhibition enables the team to develop the narrative and enrich it with the history of the last 30 years in Ukraine, and critically analyse post-Soviet Russia. As the exhibition is the heart of the institution, this transformation resonates with the programme and activities, being its strength and the source of vitality.
The permanent exhibition is a highly effective tool, operating on many levels: it spreads the knowledge and popularises the story of Solidarity, but is also a sign of contemporary solidarity, a direct reaction against crime and war. At the time of war it also raises questions about the responsibilities of modern European cultural institutions.
As the ECS team is revitalising the final part of the exhibition, it becomes obvious that the transformation process that started in 1989 is constantly affecting and changing our continent. The revolution of 1989 is still going on. It is just that now the West is beginning to understand that it is also its own transformation, not just a part of Eastern Europe history. In this transformation, the entire economic and political system of the democratic world needs to be renewed and adapted to the changes, to the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, says director Basil Kerski. I am also convinced that from a long-term, historical perspective, this is the beginning of the end of Putin's regime. Ukraine will be to Putin what Afghanistan was to the Soviet Union.
How to find strength and inspiration in the story of a peaceful revolution in a time of war? Only the most powerful projects can rise to the occasion. And therein lies the uniqueness and excellence of the ECS permanent exhibition. We are ready to meet this challenge.
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