On a cold bright morning I wander through the handsome city streets of Gdansk towards the former shipyard now home to the European Solidarity Centre. This has been top of my must-visit museums since hearing about it at the European Museum of the Year awards last year. At that event (my own museum, the Whitworth, was specially commended) we met with and heard from 49 other European museums who shared their extraordinary collections, buildings and work. Two of the winners stood out for their commitment to social justice and impact. The first, POLIN (Museum of the History of the Jews, Warsaw) won the overall prize. I have yet to visit but look forward to going. The second, the European Solidarity Centre, won the Council of Europe prize;
It’s a fascinating example of a cultural institution working to promote freedom and solidarity. The events it recounts and its programme make it a forum for modern Europe. It succeeds in making the history of the trade union Solidarnösc a powerful and moving source of inspiration for civic engagement and action.
One of the judges Jette Sandahl, suggested that with my interest in museums, civic purpose and the growing trend for activism in the sector, I really should visit Gdansk. So, here I am (a day after Teresa May announced her intention to hold a general election in expectation of securing her Conservative vision for Brexit) at the heart of an institution created for and devoted to solidarity across Europe. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.
Its not like any other cultural institution I know. A mix of museum, archive, library and Trade Union HQ (Lech Walesa still has an office on one of the floors). The Centre was established in 2007 and its new building opened in 2014 on the anniversary of the August Accords signed in Gdansk between the workers union “Solidarnosc” and communist authorities in 1980. The Centre promotes itself as an agora – a space for people and ideas that build and develop a civic society, a meeting place for people who hold the world’s future dear.
Its mission is to commemorate, maintain and popularise the heritage and message of the Solidarity movement and the anti-democratic opposition in Poland and throughout the world. It seeks to inspire new cultural, civic, trade union, local government, national and European initiatives with a universal dimension.
The exhibitions, archives, media library, research and national heritage department (social historians) focus on telling the story of this site and the solidarity movement. Its a compelling story that unfolds across a series of seven distinct spaces or exhibitions. Design and artist-led installations are carefully and sparingly integrated, not least the first room your enter with its ceiling full of shipyard worker’s helmets, a visual reminder of the people power behind this story.
It’s all about the narrative, which is both fascinating and complex. Visual propaganda is at the heart of the story and, throughout, photography and film is used to powerful effect.
Space is also made for more intimate encounters with objects and one of the real successes of the displays is in striking this balance between the personal and universal. This approach also underpins one of the most effective and moving “feedback mechanisms” I’ve ever seen in a museum, with thousands of small comments cards completed by visitors, together spelling out ‘solidarnosc’. As Adam, one of the archivists reminds me, the majority of Gdansk citizens participated in this movement, this is their common and recent heritage (at the height of its powers, Solidarnosc had over 9 million members).
Alongside the permanent displays, there are spaces for “the adventure of ideas” aka temporary exhibitions and events. A Play Department works with young children, exploring solidarity in play; developing co-operation, building confidence and small communities. I love this and I’d suggest a Play Department with these aspirations is relevant to more than just the very young.
Another space on one of the floors is dedicated to ‘everyday solidarity’, a free space for local NGOs to work on developing this idea with the Centre. This openness to new ideas and organisations shapes how the Centre work with others (offering rent-free space, profiling their activities and seed-funding their projects) over the longer term. Unlike some accelerator or incubator models, this seems a more collaborative approach supporting the development of grassroots activity and activism as part of their wider work to build civic society.
It prompts me to think about how, in spite of strong and long-term partnerships, we rarely witness this level of civic integration in UK museums. Is it always lack of space, capacity or funding that stops us from doing this more often; inviting others to join us, be based within our walls (and for more than a few days or weeks)? Can and should we be more than a platform for others ideas and work? If museums were to open up more and we dedicated time and space to working with other organisations which share our vision and mission, how might it change and shape our work and impact? What might we learn? Would we be more relevant? What would we have to stop doing to enable this and would it be worth it?
I meet up with Magdalena Fryze-Seroka and Anna Fedas, both from the Civic Department (a team that combines the energy and grassroots activity of solidarity with cultural programmes) to find out more about their other work. They tell me about the Solidarity Academy (now in its 12th Edition), a programme for young journalists across Europe. 16 participants attend a week-long intensive training and leadership camp with professional development and support over the following months. Last year, one group combined forces to organise a campaign #Make facts great again.
They aimed to tackle fact-free public debates, fake news and media illiteracy. Supported by the European Solidarity Centre, they have produced take-away coffee cups and sleeves throughout the Baltic States, displaying absurd “facts”. It’s intended as a wake up call to critical thinking. The accompanying Facebook page sharing articles and tips that help people evaluate the contents of their social media feeds is well worth a look. Older journalists participate in a parallel Europe with a View to the Future programme, the Ambassador for New Europe book prize and contribute to the bi-monthly publication New Eastern Europe (a collaboration between The City of Gdansk, ECS and the College of Eastern Europe). The Civic Department also run several exchange programmes across the Baltic States for volunteers and cultural practitioners.
Locally, the team coordinate the All about Freedom Film Festival (now in its 10th year), a wide range of ‘immigrant support and civic practice programmes’ for all ages, which include language skills, fundraising and volunteering for newly arrived people. Every year, they lead Understanding August, a distributed co-production programme across the city, working with community and civic leaders to remember and celebrate the creation of Solidarnosc, a key historic moment. Picnics, games, oral histories, exhibitions and events will take place across districts. This year they will culminate in an ambitious Arts Festival (developed in partnership with other arts organisation in the city), headlined by the Expat Philharmonic Orchestra.
One of the things that strikes me is how, across their programmes, they seed-fund and financially support the good ideas and activities which emerge from participants. They tell me this isn’t a huge financial commitment but makes a real difference and for the longer term. It forms part of their funding agreement. In the UK, as arts organisations’ are increasingly committed to and actively involved in building capacity (not just delivering a service), will funders support and develop this way of working more?
The complex governance of the European Solidarity Centre (central government, local government, trade union and NGO) might save them from the fate of the newly opened nearby Museum of the Second World War. Whereas many state-run institutions in Poland have had to change their programmes, activities and displays to align with and meet the demands of the populist government, the range of stakeholders involved in decision-making processes make any shifts of political direction and programme difficult and time-consuming. This, staff hope, will help them maintain their current position and approach.
We talk about the other challenges they face. I ask them what’s not working. They laugh. “We’re very open so we have many failures”. They tell me about how they engage an intellectual elite but still have much work to do to be relevant to the lives of a wider range of Gdansk citizens. (I experience this myself at an evening event exploring art, action and rural communities, attended only by a small number of committed researchers, artists and activitists). We talk about an increasingly divisive future (not least the rise of populism) and what “European solidarity” means today. They and colleagues from the National Heritage Department tell me of their desire to work more collaboratively internally; “People don’t know how to work together. Even in this building, of all places, there could be more cooperation between different departments”. Many of these challenges are familiar and shared by other forward-facing cultural institutions. But I believe there is much to learn from the European Solidarity Centre, not least their clarity of vision and purpose.
I’ve highlighted just some of the work that most inspires me. I think Jette Sandahl and the European Museum of the Year judges were right – if you’re interested in museums, activism and social change, you should really visit Gdansk.