The past is a foreign country: the new Warsaw museum exploring the everyday reality of Poland’s communist heritage

The way life was: the living room exhibit is one of the museum’s most popular attractions. Kalbar/TFN

When Warsaw’s MDM district was opened in 1952 it was to fanfare and acclaim. Under the proud, paternal eye of Poland’s post-war leadership, trumpets tooted as phalanxes of workers, children and militiamen filed past with banners held aloft. In a city still visibly scarred – physically and psychologically – by both the war and what had followed, the completion of this flagship residential district was presented as proof of a resurgent country recharged by a fair and just new order. It was a triumph.

At least, that was the party line. The reality was different. Blasted by its critics (“a wedding cake covered with balconies built of boulders,” was how author Leopold Tyrmand described it), MDM came to represent much that was rotten with communism: the apartments were reserved for apparatchiks as opposed to the workers celebrated on the reliefs that covered the buildings, whilst the architecture itself was deemed overwhelming and dehumanizing by its outsized proportions and heavy sense of gloom. A mirror of the system, it became a reflection of the hypocrisy, contradictions, latent menace and empty bluster of an ideology fated to fail. Yet whilst MDM was ultimately mismatched to serve its intended purpose as a propaganda showpiece, it has ironically proved to be the ideal location for a museum that does much to highlight the deficiencies of the former system.

“Short of being in the Palace of Culture,” says Rafał Patla, “I couldn’t have dreamed of finding a better place.”Kalbar/TFN

“Short of being in the Palace of Culture,” says Rafał Patla, “I couldn’t have dreamed of finding a better place.” Rafał, the founder of the Museum of Life in the Polish People’s Republic, is in ebullient mood. Months of hard work have borne fruit with the opening of an attraction that could yet become one of the more important in the city.

“With this place,” he says, “I want to break myths and create a space where Polish people can stop arguing for once and look at the past in a way that’s productive. History isn’t a black and white subject and as such people shouldn’t just think solely in good or bad terms.” This museum, he hopes, will realign this balance by nurturing both dialogue and memories. And to do so, this museum isn’t so much concerned with the wider, complex questions as it is with documenting the everyday truths of life under communism.

The museum’s staff have spared no effort in re-creating the everyday detail of communist life.Kalbar/TFN

If the idea sounds familiar, then that’s because it is. First set out in the capital’s Praga suburb, Rafał’s original concept started life in a leaky, unheated garage. It was here, often over warming shots of vodka, that Rafał’s tours of “unknown Warsaw” would conclude with visitors left to pore over battered photo albums and attic finds to complete their intimate immersion into PRL Poland. The popularity was such that four years on, in 2013, the Muzeum Czar PRL was launched inside a draughty factory down an oily, potholed alley.

An old exercise bike with 7,875 kilometres on clock; visitors are encouraged to hop on.Kalbar/TFN

Quickly, it assumed cult status, but growing disillusionment with the motives of the circling real estate developers forced Rafał’s hand. Shortly before Christmas, the Muzeum Czar PRL locked its doors for one final time. This, however, simply marked a new chapter.

Having won a competitive process to take the lease on a space overlooking MDM’s heart, Pl. Konstytucji, Rafał found himself plunged headfirst into an intense battle to get his new project running. “Some people plan museums for two or three years,” he says, “but here the moment we won the procedure, that was it, we had to come up with something pretty much straight off-the-bat. There was no time to think.”

Old money. There was a time when banknotes ruled the financial roost.Kalbar/TFN

The work has been arduous, with Rafał confessing to 12-hour days often of backbreaking graft: “One of our exhibits,” he grimaces, “a phone box, took six of us over four hours to shift up the stairs – for ages we just couldn’t get it to budge!”

Equally challenging has been dealing with the public’s expectations. “In Praga,” says Rafał, “the museum started as a crazy adventure, and in that manner it felt quite spontaneous. People weren’t really expecting much. Here though, in the city centre, people demand something of a higher standard which is why this place feels more thought out, more of a genuine museum.” In line with that, a bona fide team has been assembled with their number including a graphic designer and curator. “This might be a small museum,” he adds, “but it’s a real one.”  

“I want to break myths and create a space where Polish people can stop arguing for once and look at the past in a way that’s productive,” says Rafał.Kalbar/TFN

It most certainly is. Feeling more structured than its forbearer, additions to the new museum include a chronological timeline charting the highs and lows of the People’s Republic, a cinema spooling government films (one warning of the dastardly, American-imported potato beetle), and well-defined sections showcasing proudly Polish products: stapled to the display boards, there are toiletries that conjure exotic destinations (Bahama shower gel and Parys soap), funky cosmetics (Bolero perfume and Tenis cologne), and exercise contraptions that include groovy roller skates, pre-hipster scooters and a crude but functioning gym bike with 7,875 kilometres on the clock (“Go on,” urges Rafał, “take a spin”).

Paper diet: an old ration card.Kalbar/TFN

The private nature of these items serves to create an experience that feels intensely personal, voyeuristic even, a sensation heightened by a sub-section dealing with foreign travel. Here, family holiday snaps of seaside holidays in Bulgaria share space alongside disbelieving postcards since yellowed with age: “You’ll never guess,” shrieks one, “we’ve got a TV here!” Nowhere, though, does the “through the keyhole” thrill of looking into peoples’ lives manifest itself better than in the recreation of a typical PRL apartment.

Expanding on an idea formulated during the museum’s previous incarnation, it’s a treasure trove of odds-and-ends with visitors actively encouraged to rifle through draws and cupboards to make their own discoveries in this Aladdin’s Cave of trinkets, tat and unlikely treasure: gaudy ties produced in the Ortal factory in Łódź; frayed LPs from Poland’s rock’n’roll era, and rudimentary bathroom gadgets of unverified purpose.

The museum is a treasure trove of odds-and-ends with visitors actively encouraged to rifle through draws and cupboards.Kalbar/TFN

And this is just the beginning. Having raced against time to first open the museum, more lies in the pipeline: a Fiat car is due to be added in the coming days (“No idea how we’ll get that inside,” admits Rafał, “we’ll probably have to prise it apart then glue it back together”); a PRL-themed playroom (complete with a chair once defaced by Rafał’s brother to proclaim his sibling to be a głupi grubas); and a 50’s café inspired by the legendary Antyczna once found on Plac Trzech Krzyży.

Inside the latter, the headline act promises to be a vintage coffee machine donated a few years back by a mystery benefactor. “For years we just left it lying out in the corridor of the previous place,” laughs Rafał, “so you can imagine our surprise when we were told by the people restoring it that to buy something like that in mint condition would cost around PLN 30,000! Looking back, I’m amazed now it wasn’t stolen.”

Visitor numbers are up fivefold, and feedback has been firmly positiveKalbar/TFN

Getting to this stage has not been easy for Rafał and his crew, but already the signs are encouraging. Visitor numbers are up fivefold, and feedback has been firmly positive. Why? On this point Rafał is decisive. “Exhibits define a museum,” he states. “The museums you get nowadays, they’re not so much museums as they are educational facilities in which you learn about the past by touching computers. They don’t have things on display, and if they do, then you can’t reach out and grab them.” By enabling visitors to do this, the Museum of Life in the Polish People’s Republic doesn’t just offer guests a nostalgic journey through the mists of Poland’s past, but also a nostalgic journey into the museum experience itself.

Museum of Life in the Polish People’s Republic, ul. Piękna 28/34 (Warsaw),