At first glance, a museum dedicated to neon lighting in the Eastern Bloc may seem like a bit of a tedious niche. But when you consider the attitudes of the 1960’s and 1970’s communist regimes and their hostility to private enterprise and advertising, you start to appreciate the self-contradictory Idiosyncrasy that was Eastern Bloc neon advertising.
It seems absurd but the Polish United Workers' Party actually lent their support to the propagation of neon signage and advertising in Poland. They did so because they saw the Eastern Bloc as being in competition with the Western Bloc, and they wanted. Neon lights symbolised openness and economic vitality. Lit up with Neon, Warsaw would be as every much as bright and vibrant as the capital cities of the capitalist west. Communism would be vindicated.
However, the neon lighting couldn’t be crass and laissez faire like it was in the West. It had to be designed around, and sympathetic to, the values of communism. It was, therefore, the famous artists, designers and architects close to the Polish regime that saw about the design of the neon lights. Each was crafted to express modernity, but do so without including any of the perceived vulgarities of western neon. It’s this peculiar nuance that makes the neon of the Eastern Bloc so fascinating and historically significant.
It was the London based photographer Ilona Karwińska, and graphic designer David Hill, that first saw the historical merit of the communist neon. It is much to their credit that they did so. Their foresight and dedication have given us the Neon Muzeum, a museum now home to hundreds of examples of Eastern bloc neon. Karwińska and Hill spent the period following the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc collecting the neon signs from skips and rubbish dumps. The Polish People's Republic had collapsed and all that was associated with it was being destroyed. Without Karwińska and Hill, the neon signs of the Eastern Bloc would have been destroyed and lost to history.
The Neon Muzeum is Located in the SOHO factory in Kamionek, a neighbourhood in the borough of Praga-Południe. On the east bank of the river Vistula, Praga is an area of former textile factories and working class apartment blocks, today known for its creativity and startup industries. All around a new Poland is emerging. To get a glimpse of the old Poland, you have to visit the Neon Muzeum.
For more information, please visit the Neon Muzeum website here.