Its construction took four-and-a-half years and cost over EUR 100 million (PLN 426 million). The Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk boasts some 2,500 exhibits as well as 250 multimedia stations, which allows visitors to browse through archival photos, films, and maps. The Advisory Board consists of many excellent historians, among them prof. Norman Davies, British Academy who has been serving as its chairman since June 2009.
The first Polish World War II museum, located near the place of the first clash between Polish and German forces during the Invasion of Poland
The Museum of the Second World War is located in the proximity of Westerplatte, famous for the Battle of Westerplatte, which was the first clash between Polish and German forces during the Invasion of Poland and thus the first battle of the European theatre of WWII. Westerplatte is believed to be the place where the war began but the Germans first attacked a city of Weluń located over 400 km from Gdańsk.
On September 1st, 1939, only minutes after the German Luftwaffe (Airforce) had begun the invasion of Poland by dropping bombs in a series of raids on the city of Wieluń by Junkers Ju 87 Stukas, at 04:40 local time, the battleship Schleswig-Holstein, then on a “courtesy visit” to the Free City of Danzig, without warning opened fire on the Polish garrison. This was followed by an attack by Oblt. Wilhelm Henningsen’s storm unit from the Schleswig-Holstein and the “Marinestosstruppkompanie.” However, soon after crossing the artillery-breached brick wall, the attackers were ambushed by the Polish defenders, with small arms, mortar and machine gun fire from concealed and well-positioned firing points that caught them in a crossfire. Another two assaults that day were repelled as well, with the Germans suffering unexpectedly high losses.
However Westerplatte is well known as the most important place of the second world war`s history, it was earlier the resort which had been established on the Westerplatte peninsula around 1830. It had a beach, a forested park, an ocean-side bath complex and health spa facilities.
We can find there now the outdoor exhibition “Westerplatte: A spa – a bastion – a symbol”. It is a part of the Museum and divided into four areas, which correspond to the chronological phases of its story. The first one presents the processes by which the peninsula was created, and then shows the growth and the golden age of the spa, which lasted until the end of the WWI. The second segment is about the Polish Military Transit Depot, which was located here in the interwar period. The third part focuses on its defence in September 1939. The fourth section recounts Westerplatte’s place in Polish collective memory and in the politics of the Communist governments of 1945-89.
The most ambitious museum ever devoted to WWII
The Museum of the Second World War is probably the most ambitious museum devoted to WWII in any country and it has been unveiled in Poland last March. A striking tower of glass and red cement is now rising above the completed subterranean chamber that will hold the museum’s 37,000 objects. The largest of these – an American tank, a Soviet tank, and a German railway car – must have been installed with the help of cranes during construction. In its exhibitions, the Museum of the Second World War is going to tell you the story of the 1930s and 1940s in an entirely new way. Unlike the other museums devoted to world’s most devastating war, which tend to begin and end with national history, the Gdańsk museum has set out to show the perspectives of societies around the world, through a sprawling collection gathered over the last eight years, and through themes that bring seemingly disparate experiences together. It is hard to think of a more fitting place for such a museum than Poland, whose citizens experienced a hell of the war.
Until now no institution has attempted to present WWII as global public history
The intent of Museum of Second World War is to show the wartime experiences of Poland and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. These were often different from what the people of Western Europe and of countries outside Europe lived through, and tend to be little known there.
WWII remains the crucial conflict of the modern era, but until now no institution has attempted to present it as global public history. Unlike most comparable museums, the Gdańsk one does not accept a conventional national history of the war, or follow a patriotic chronology of battle that is convenient for the elaboration of this or that official national memory. It commences well before the German-Soviet attack on Poland in 1939 and even before the Japanese attack on Manchuria in 1931 – events that are usually taken as the starting points of the European and Asian conflicts, respectively. Instead, the museum begins with the crisis of world order after WWI: militarism in Japan, Stalinism in the Soviet Union, authoritarianism in Europe, fascism in Italy, and National Socialism in Germany. It devotes serious attention to the diplomatic crises of the late 1930s: the struggle for China, the Anschluss of Austria, the partition of Czechoslovakia, the Spanish Civil War, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – the 1939 alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that gave Hitler the green light to attack Poland.
The uniqueness of the WWII
This unique museum does focus on the stories of individuals, societies and nations; military events serve as mere background to the narrative about the everyday lives of civilians and soldiers, the terror of the occupation and genocide, resistance to the occupying forces, diplomacy and great-power politics. This approach does convey the uniqueness of the WWII, in which it was the civilian populations that suffered the most.
An “umbrella” and “parasol” to the unique public space
Visitors descend into the exhibition space from a new public forum in a controlled way and in preparation for the experiences ahead. The main exhibition is a black box, where artificial lighting and sound effects play a significant part in the visitors’ experience.
A single connected rest zone allows access directly from the exhibition rooms, and visitors using this space can also re-orientate themselves by looking up through the glass ceiling to the oversailing roof above. The west end of the rest zone includes large steps, allowing people to sit, relax and contemplate, but these are also a direct reference to the Westerplatte bunker steps.
The roof dominates the site, acting as an ‘umbrella’ and ‘parasol’ to the unique public space, harnessing energy via photovoltaic cladding. This space is completely open and free to be used by any resident or visitor to Gdańsk. The space is deliberately uplifting and in total contrast to the exhibition rooms housed below your feet. The roof design is interpreted from the lost streets and buildings on this site.
The remains have been mapped and, through a series of 3D manipulations, leave their impression on the underside of the canopy. Thus, this huge soffit offers the Museum a memory of the people lost from the area and the ground it is built upon.
A lesson in history, which we should never forget
The heart of the Museum is the permanent exhibition of 5,000 m2, which makes it one of the largest historical museum exhibitions in the world. Located 14 meters under the ground, it is a story of the tragic experience of the WWII, its roots and consequences, on perpetrators and victims, on heroes and ordinary people. It is meant to look like a lesson in history, which we should never forget.
The Polish experience of the war in a broader European and international context
The main exhibition comprises three main narrative blocks: “The Road to War”, “The Terror of War” and “The Long Shadow of War”. The exhibition presents the Polish experience of the war and places it in a broader European and international context.
The first narrative bloc, entitled “The road to War” is devoted to the origins of the conflict. It does focus on depicting the powers that sought to destroy the order established by the Treaty of Versailles, i.e., Nazism, Italian Fascism, Communism, and Japanese imperialism. They brutalized politics and shaped mentalities, paving the way for war.
The dominant theme of the narrative bloc “The Terror of War” are the daily lives of ordinary people. War viewed through the prism of the fates of soldiers, prisoners of war, camp inmates and forced labourers, and of civilians, men, women, children, sends the most universal and comprehensible message to visitors, irrespective of nationality.
The third bloc of the exhibition is called “The Long Shadow of War”. It links the story of the end of the war – the fall of the Third Reich, the liberation of Europe and the simultaneous subordination of a large area of it to the Soviet Union, as well as the dropping of the A-bombs on Japan – with the narrative about the war’s outcomes.
While the exhibition respects 1945 as the end of the war, it also sketches out its principal long-term effects: the vast human and material losses, the frontier changes in Central and Eastern Europe, the division of the continent and the Sovietisation of the lands to the east of the Elbe River (near Torgau in Germany), as well as the post-war migrations, the resettlement of Poles from the areas incorporated into the Soviet Union, the expulsions of Germans and the emigration of Jews to Palestine. This bloc also covers the settling of accounts, ranging from tribunals for German and Japanese war criminals to individual acts of revenge in Europe against collaborators and people believed to have assisted the enemy.
The greatest museums on the WWII
Interactivity and interpretation proposal for the exhibition content at the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, included developing a range of graphic elements, 8 animated battle maps and bumpers for documentary pieces and exclusive short films to recreate key historical moments. The ‘Muzeum 1939’ in Gdańsk is considered to be one of the greatest museums on the WWII.
“Time Travel” at the Museum of the Second World War
The “Time Travel” is a part of the Museum’s permanent exhibition addressed at children below the age of 12. It is a reconstruction of a flat of a Warsaw family during three periods: on September 5th, 1939 – several days after the outbreak of the WWII, March 15th, 1943 – during the German occupation, and May 8th, 1945 – immediately after its end. These interiors reconstruct the living conditions of the Polish intelligentsia family in Warsaw. The changing elements of the interior design reflect the changing political, social, and economic situation in the occupied and fighting country.
They show the gradually worsening living conditions, such as, the shortages of necessities and the restrictions imposed by the occupier, and the ways of dealing with those difficulties. The exposition focuses on presenting the stances of the family members, describing their engagement in the anti-German underground and civil forms of resistance, including clandestine education. Another important thread in the narration is the fate of the Jewish population, presented with the example of the fate of the family’s pre-war neighbours.
The multimedia presentations in the windows and in a hole in the wall of the third flat show the most characteristic elements of street life and supplement the story about the changing reality of Poland and Poles during the WWII and after the end of the German occupation.
Apart from the permanent exhibition, 1,000 square metres has been dedicated to temporary exhibitions. Focusing not only on its collections, the Museum does also function as an educational, cultural, and research centre.
Do you know why the Museum of the Second World War is worth visiting? I may say that you should go there for many reasons. One of them is the fact that the Gdańsk museum has set out to show the perspectives of societies around the world but also very few people in the West know that two crucial elements of the British war story, the Battle of Britain and Bletchley Park, depended on Polish help. Without the Gdańsk museum, which has an Enigma machine to display, these Polish contributions are likely to remain in obscurity.
I hope I will meet you at the Museum of Second World War one day.
See you there!
Text: Agata Szostkowska