There’s something great about visiting a nation’s capital. Just by walking around and looking at the monuments that they’ve chosen to put up, you can see what kind of image of itself that nation has decided to put forth, and that’s always a fascinating jaunt. In that respect, Poland’s capital is no different than any other.
Warsaw, or Warszawa in Polish (var-shah-vah), paints itself as a revolutionary society. The city is just riddled with statues of and monuments to revolutionary figures. Józef Piłsudski (peew-sood-skee), military hero during both of the World Wars and a political advocate for a free, independent Poland accepting of all ethnicities and religions (wild and crazy!), has an entire square named after him. Mordecai Anielewicz (ahn-yell-eh-vich), the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, is immortalized in a massive monument dedicated to the Bohaterów Getta (boh-hah-ter-oov ghet-tah), or the Heroes of the Ghetto. Fighters of the Warsaw Rising, a rather impressive military/civilian cooperative revolt against Nazi control, charge at visitors, guns in hand, ready to defend their homeland against invaders and oppressors.
It seems to me that Poland, and specifically Warsaw, should honor these people and this attitude for one simple reason: Warsaw exists because of them. Warsaw was almost completely razed during World War II. I read on a plaque in a museum I visited that, before the war, there were almost one thousand historical buildings in Warsaw; after the war, about sixty-five were left standing. Between the Nazi invasion, air raids, the Warsaw Rising, the Nazi retaliation for the Warsaw Rising, and the Soviets’ lack of inclination to protect or rebuild, Warsaw was, literally, in shambles. The effects of that are still felt today: the entire ‘historical’ district of Warsaw is a reconstruction, based on photographs and street maps from before the Second World War. Varsovians had to rebuild everything, and rebuild they did. It was just that refusal to let go of a lifestyle and a heritage that earned the Historical Center of Warsaw a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Obviously, after World War II, Poland was communist. One of the prevailing theories of Communist Poland was this: All people are equal, so all buildings should be equal (read: exactly the same). Thus began the era of ugly, gray, block buildings that still haunt many Polish streets. During this time period, the only way to differentiate your building from another building, or your business from another business, was the sign you put on it. So, if the communists started one of the worst architectural fads the world has ever seen, they also, albeit unintentionally, instigated one of the coolest artistic movements of the late twentieth century: neon signage.
Neon signs became more than glowing things to hang in your window to tell the people on the street that you were open. They became one of the few accepted modes of artistic and individualistic expression under communism. Architects and artists came to be in demand based on their ability to design neon signs. Businesses started trying to outdo each other with the signs they hung over the door. Even public buildings like libraries got in on the action by commissioning signs with interesting colors and designs. That’s why, when you look at a postcard of a city in communist-era Poland, it looks like a mini Vegas Strip; it was literally individualism hidden in plain sight, right under the nose of an administration that could only function if the individual was set aside in favor of the larger society. This is human greatness. This is people choosing the method in which they thumb their noses at a society that tells them that they aren’t allowed to thumb their noses.
Poland, no longer being communist, is starting to redecorate. Some of the old communist-era blocks are coming down in favor of modern architectural designs, and along with them, the neon signs. Enter the Neon Muzeum.
The Neon Muzeum (moo-zeh-um; the Polish word for ‘museum’) is exactly what it sounds like: a museum of neon lights. In researching things to do in Warsaw, I happened across a review for this place, and I decided it was just so quirky that I had to go there. I’m telling you, it was very cool. The museum is in the Praga district of Warsaw, which is the artsy district of the city, on the east bank of the Wisła River (vees-wah; Vistula in English). It’s in a building that used to be a part of a factory complex, which is well off the main track and about the size of a pole barn. Read: it’s well hidden and very small, but still a totally cool place to visit.
The owners of the museum collect neon signs from construction companies engaged in demolition or remodeling work, as well as from private collectors (there is such a person as a neon sign enthusiast; now you know). They then clean, repair, and display the signs in the museum in the Praga district. The overhead lights in the museum are turned down low, so that the main source of light comes from the signs themselves. Every sign has a plaque next to it, stating what is was for, where it came from, and why it ended up in the museum. Some even explain the restoration process involved in making the sign display-ready after years of infrequent maintenance. The buzzing from all the signs adds a bit of ambiance to the whole scene. After all, is it really a neon sign if it doesn’t make that sound?
The signs aside, what makes this whole thing great is that it’s essentially an art project. The idea came about during the photographing of a documentary piece on Polish neon signs almost ten years ago. Even today, the collection is treated more like an art show than a museum. The entrance fee is a suggested donation of 10 złoty, which you can make either before or after wandering through the museum. The receptionist made a point of telling me that if I didn’t like the exhibit, I didn’t have to pay anything (I did leave the donation, though – such a cool project needs funding!). There’s no time limit or designated route through the collection. You can even take personal photos of the signs on display.
I only spent about forty-five minutes at the Neon Muzeum, simply because the collection was so small. I’m sure that people who are less dorky than I could spend even less time in that museum, but I was fascinated by the concept. It’s a collection of a medium of art that you wouldn’t expect, in a part of Warsaw you probably wouldn’t go to if you were just an average tourist, about an aspect of Polish life and history that you probably wouldn’t ever think about. And I, for one, love that kind of stuff.
The nuts and bolts of getting there: Get to Mińska 25. I would consult Google maps and the public transit schedule for this one. Depending on what part of town you’re coming from, it can be quite the hike. Once you’re at Mińska 25, you’ll see that it’s actually a factory complex that’s been refitted as art studios, cafes, and, of course, a neon lights museum. Follow the driveway all the way to the end of the building complex. When you hit the train tracks, turn right (don’t worry, no trains are coming). All the way at the end of the lot is the Neon Muzeum, conveniently labeled with a big red sign. The entrance is the big red metal door facing the parking lot.