The Museum of Life Under Communism in Warsaw is a truly remarkable museum.
There is so much to see in this museum. It shows what everyday life was like in communist Poland and does that in a way that’s both visually pleasing and makes you think.
The People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) was the name of the country from 1947 to 1989. It was ruled by one party, under a soviet influence.
The Museum was founded by Rafał and Marta Patla, who collected everyday objects from that era, donated by the public and created an extraordinary collection.
The story of life in PRL is told using those seemingly mundane items.
The museum is designed in a way that invites you to explore different realms of life. Each section has a theme, such as sports, food and culture.
The model rooms
There are several rooms in the museum which are essentially models of interiors from the communist era: A cinema, a children’s room, a cafe and a small apartment.
The most impressive one is the apartment, which comes with furniture, dishes, clothes and everything else. It’s an immersive experience at its best.
The museum’s cafe is modelled after an old cafe and the kindergarten room has typical children’s books and toys.
A huge part of the display is essentially vintage objects: everyday products, packaging, household appliances and other items from the communist era.
The old items were donated by the public and they turn this museum into a retro heaven 🙂 It reminded me a bit of the Beamish open-air museum in England.
There are streamline style hair dryers, fans, hoovers and heaters, old record players and radios, all very colourful and of the kind you may be lucky enough to find at flea markets these days.
Other products include soap and cosmetics, chocolate boxes, tea boxes, sugar and school supplies.
There’s a striking contrast that’s hard to overlook between the playful, colourful design of the vintage objects and the sad reality of how they were distributed and consumed.
You’ll learn about that reality from the elaborate texts in each section of the exhibition.
Learning about life under communism
The museum does a great job at putting its impressive collection of items in historical context.
Even if you know very little about communism when you enter the museum, you’ll discover you know a lot by the time you leave.
The explanations are clear and make the historical stories accessible, even though the subject matter is quite complex.
The culture section is particularly interesting. It covers cinema, theatre, television, music and literature. The arts were heavily censored in communist times, but also generously subsidised, so artists’ creativity could flourish. There were also some underground culture initiatives evading regulation.
Fashion in communist Poland was limited and uniform, clothes manufacturing was regulated in a way that gives the expression “fashion police” a new meaning.
However, there were sparks of creativity and even some designers who managed to follow world fashion trends.
The sports and tourism sections are also very interesting to explore. Tourism was mostly domestic, going abroad was a luxury saved for a chosen few.
Some of those lucky enough to go abroad were athletes. Sports were a source of national pride, so athletes were able to obtain a passport and go abroad for competitions.
They would sometimes use the opportunity to bring back goods that were unavailable in Poland and sell them.
Shortage of consumer goods and food products was the sad reality of communist Poland. It was due to the inefficient Polish economy at the time. People had to stand in line, sometimes for hours, just to buy some bread.
The museum ticket is designed like a ration card. That was the special coupon used to buy basic products, such as coffee, shoes or cigarettes.
The museum also covers the political system, explained clearly with a visual timeline. The brainwashing and propaganda, the terror used by the authorities, the security service and harsh punishments are all described. It will make you think about how absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The exhibition does not go any further with the political analysis though; I think it would have been interesting to also consider how some communist ideas could benefit people, if they weren’t implemented under an oppressive and corrupt regime.
Towards the end of the visit to the museum, you’ll see photos from protests and read the story of the opposition to the regime and how it led the way to democracy.
Retro car tours in Warsaw
The company that runs the museum also has a cool series of city tours in retro cars and vans.
These tours are available for small groups:
- 3-Hour Communism Tour in an Original Socialist Van
- Private Vintage Car Jewish Tour
- Warsaw Off the Beaten Path 4-Hour Tour
Learn more about the history of Poland
Other places to visit in Poland
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