In a converted factory in a trendy corner of Praga lies Warsaw’s Neon Museum. The building houses a vast collection of neon signs that once adorned the buildings of Warsaw, but fell out of fashion with the fall of communism and the rise of consumerism. The Museum is a final resting place for many of these landmarks which lit up Warsaw when it was the neon capital of Europe.
Warsaw was home to neon signs as early as 1926, with around seventy being in place before the onset of World War Two. Understandably, not many made it through the war unscathed, and in the immediate post-war years new neons were few and far between.
After Stalin’s death in 1953 there was a thaw in the cultural and social repression of the communist regime. Neon signs were seen as a way of showing that life under communism could also involve some glitz and glamour. A state company, Reklama, was set up to produce neon signs for shops and cultural venues such as cinemas, dancing halls and theatres.
Industry was under state control, so instead of advertising brands, the signs would instead advertise the type of product – jewellery, sewing machines – that was for sale. Ironically, the items advertised were not always available in the shops as Poland’s communist economy floundered.
The 1950 and 60s saw an explosion in the number of neon signs illuminating Warsaw, and for many this is considered the ‘Golden Age’ of neon in the city. With the economic problems continuing and strikes increasing, Martial Law was introduced in 1981 and all neon signs were shut off. When it was lifted in 1983 many of the neons no longer worked.
The fall of communism in 1989 and the move to a capitalist economy saw an explosion in advertising across Warsaw. As adverts went up, the out-dated neons came down.
Today work is occurring to preserve remaining neons in-situ, and a handful of businesses are putting up new ones outside their buildings as a retro nod to the past. There are still enough neons around Warsaw to give a taste of how the city used to look. However, many have been lost, consigned to the scrap heap or left to rot as the buildings use changed from that depicted by the neon.
The Neon Museum has managed to preserve many of the most notable signs from Warsaw’s neon heyday and they also work to re-instate and refurbish neons where ever possible. The Museum is a neon dream, an Alladin’s cave of state-sanctioned advertising from a bygone era.
However, the preservation is not without its controversy. For all their visual appeal, the neons were also a symbol of the communist regime. For the signs to hold their value as artistic objects without maintaining their political context is perhaps the biggest challenge facing Warsaw’s historic neons.
10 PLN Entry (8 PLN Concessions)
25, Soho Factory, Building 55, 03-808 Warsaw
Wednesday – Sunday 12-5pm
Seen any great neons around Warsaw? What do you think about their preservation given their history? Share your thoughts in the comments below.