Photo: Stuart Kenny

The Neon Museum | How a Glowing Room in Warsaw Tells the Story of Poland Under Communism

This collection of Cold War-era signage is a rare glimpse into Poland's past

by Stuart Kenny
Oct 28 2019, 12:14pm

Photo: Stuart Kenny

It is 1953. Stalin is dead. He is succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, who denounces the crimes of his predecessor and begins the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union, leading to “the Khrushchev Thaw”, a period of relative creative freedom in the Eastern Bloc.

Authorities in Poland are faced with increasing demand for consumerism from their people as the decade goes on. Poles want their homeland to be seen as a modern, leading western country again, as it was in the inter-war period after the nation gained independence in 1918.

"By the time the Polish people finally threw off the yoke of communism in 1991 the neons were seen as an emblem of a hated regime - and a propaganda tool of the Soviet Union"

Conferences are held in Czechoslovakia and in an attempt to quell growing unrest while keeping the iron curtain shut, leaders discuss the idea of “state controlled consumerism” and decide on a programme of ‘neonisation’. The idea is that by deploying neon signs across the streets of the country, and indeed the Eastern Bloc, the regime will remove the endless grey of Stalin’s USSR and usher in hope of a cultural and economic revival by transforming colourless cities into buzzing metropolises inspired by the glitz and glamour of Paris, London, Hamburg, and even pre-war Warsaw.

One of the more distinctive neon signs on show. Photo: Stuart Kenny

The ‘neonisation’ becomes an emblem of Poland’s ambitions on the global stage; and the rise and fall of the signs over the following three decades serves to map out the political post-war progression of the country - from their rise in the 50s to their fall and demolition at the end of communism decades later.

But while the Soviet-era signs have disappeared from the streets, there is one place where their story is still told.

The Neon Museum in Warsaw is the world’s only museum dedicated “to the documentation and preservation” of Cold War neon signs.

A handful of signs without the power and vibrancy that made them iconic. Photo via Unsplash

Situated in Warsaw’s Soho Factory area, the museum was opened in 2005 by co-directors David S. Hill and Ilona Karwinska. Karwinska’s astounding photography book “Neon Revolution” is the bible on the topic of Cold War neons.

The Neon Museum is a simple, stylish building. Huge neon signs lay outside, propped up against the walls less in advertisement for the museum than for a lack of storage space.

The small, dark museum radiates colour, and the signs range from those hung above hotels to those taken from florists, toy shops, bookshops, state-owned lottery points and more. One of the most unique attractions depicts Syrenka, the Mermaid of Warsaw, defender of the city, sitting on top of a book - a sign from a library which came to the museum in 2011.

Puss in Boots, holding an 'open' sign. Photo: Stuart Kenny

The “Cinema Siren” neon represents a more typical story of how signs find their way to the museum. It was hoisted above an early-20th Century cinema in Warsaw in 1962 in a bid to modernise the building for the new era. In winter the poorly-built cinema was too cold though, and in summer it was too hot. It closed in 2008, and the sign was donated to the museum.

In her introduction to “Neon Revolution” Karwinska writes how the neons, while photogenic and evocative “must also serve as a painful reminder of the unfulfilled hopes and aspirations of a people trapped in one of Europe's most brutal and oppressive systems.”

She describes the producers of the neons as “brilliant avant garde artists and designers” but also notes the argument that the neon’s main significance is their representation of an attempt by the authorities to “propagandise, subdue or placate the resentment and suffering of the people of the Eastern Bloc”.

"In 1971, prominent streets like Warsaw's Pulawska Street saw as many as 84 new neon designs hung in a short period" Photo: Stuart Kenny

Indeed, not far from the Neon Museum is the Museum of Life Under Communism, where you can learn about the struggles to attain everyday items like fruit and toilet paper in the era, and watch the intensive, almost farcical propaganda films that ran in cinemas at the time.

The neonisation, in a way, was a bid to distract from all that.

As unrest spread to Poland after the Hungarian Revolution in the late 50s, the best architects and artists were hired to produce eye-catching, exciting neon graphics which, free of the capitalist advertising slogans of the West, became a new form of Polish Applied Arts.

The industrial exterior of the Neon Museum. Photo via Unsplash

Neonisation boomed in the 60s and 70s, but after the Prague Spring, which saw huge political protests shake neighbouring Czechoslovakia in 1968, a wave of brutal suppression ensued, and the economic situation of Poland deteriorated. As the 60s went on, neon production halted, and there was no money left to repair existing neon graphics or create or commission new signs.

Bureaucracy also played a huge part in the problem. The process of implementing a new design and getting approval from authorities became so extensive it could take up to three years. But in the 70s, as the authorities needed to reinstate their control over the Eastern Bloc, funds for state-sponsored advertising increased and a new development program for neons was approved by the highest authority of the time - the Secretary of the Polish Communist Party (PZPR).

The luminous, eye-catching designs for Polish bars and libraries. Photo: Stuart Kenny

In 1971, the process of neonisation for all districts was centralised and prominent streets like Warsaw's Pulawska Street saw as many as 84 new neon designs hung in a matter of a few years. But fate was to deal these iconic signs another blow. As the 70s gave way to the 80s, the neons fell out of favour - alongside the communist regime that had commissioned them.

An economic crisis which had begun in the late 70s in Poland was followed by the rise of Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the Eastern Bloc, led by the iconic figure of Lech Walesa. At one stage its membership peaked at 10 million members, a third of all working Poles.

A knowing take on Western cowboy signage. Photo: Stuart Kenny

In a bid to crush this increasingly powerful opposition, the authorities declared martial law was in Poland on December 12, 1981. The economy slowly collapsed, there are power cuts and shortages and the country’s neons flickered out, returning Warsaw to Stalin-era gloom.

In the Eastern Bloc, where everything was produced by state-owned firms, eye-catching advertising served no financial purpose. After the economic collapse of the late 70s and early 80s the government decided there are more important needs than the colour of the streets. And so few neon signs were made after 1981.

"In the Eastern Bloc, where everything was produced by state-owned firms, eye-catching advertising served no financial purpose" Photo: Stuart Kenny

By the time the Polish people finally threw off the yoke of communism in 1991 the neons were seen as an emblem of a hated regime - and a propaganda tool of the Soviet Union. All over the country, the signs were destroyed en masse.

But thankfully for historians, not all of them were switched off for good. Those that survived, and their fascinating story, live on still in a dark, buzzing museum in Warsaw.

Stuart Kenny is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. His trip to Warsaw was supported by the Polish Tourism Organisation.