On the east bank of the Vistula River sits a private museum that’s become a big draw for visitors to Warsaw. Remarkably, there’s a Bermudian at its helm.
David Hill’s plan was to go travelling when he left the island in 2004 but, two weeks after he arrived in London, England, he met Ilona Karwinska.
“She was originally from Poland, but moved to the UK when she was a teenager and said I should [visit],” he said. “I thought it sounded interesting and the following year, I flew there and just started to see these fantastic neon signs everywhere. They were enormous, fantastic, just beautiful — and in a terrible state of disrepair.
“I am a typographer/graphic designer and just nuts about typography; urban letter forms, public information systems really get me going.
“Being in Warsaw blew my mind. I said to Ilona, who’s a photographer, ‘I want to come back and do a project. I want to photograph the signs from the Cold War era’.”
A decade ago, the couple opened the Neon Muzeum as a way of celebrating the fluorescent signs that appeared all over Poland after the Second World War. The museum found a permanent home in 2012 in Praga-Poludnie, an eastern suburb of Warsaw.
Filled with “hundreds of dazzling neon signs and other electrographic artefacts”, it draws more than 100,000 people a year.
TripAdvisor gives the collection a four out of five and ranks it number 49 of 444 things to do in the European capital.
Reviews on the travel site have described Neon Muzeum as “unusual”, “illuminating” and “a fascinating slice of history”.
Mr Hill, a senior designer at Trimingham’s before he opened his agency Storm Design, wasn’t expecting any of that when he left home in 2004.
“I really just wanted to go travelling,” the 49-year-old said. “The idea was to go all over — to Morocco, Jordan, I wanted to see deserts. I was coming from Bermuda, which is warm, wet and humid, and I wanted dry, arid.
“After that first trip to Poland, Ilona and I came back and photographed everything we could find. There were quite a few hundred signs in Warsaw at the time. Many thousands were taken down back in the Nineties as they were seen as regressive by the new government, who threw them away. But there were quite a few left.”
He and Ms Karwinska stored the first signs they salvaged in a loft in London.
“We had a storage crisis and after six or seven neons we saved we came up with the idea that we needed a museum.
“My background, my philosophy in life is to try and inspire and to educate. I was raised [understanding that] if I want to collect or document, I had to do it properly, in such a way that I can pass on that teaching to people so they know why I’m doing it. I didn’t want it to be just a junk shop.
“To show off what we collected was such an important thing rather than to keep it in a private collection and we threw everything at it.”
Their efforts got the attention of Polish media and the pair were invited to publish a book and hold “a major exhibit”.
“I started researching and studying, learning more about the time period and everything changed,” Mr Hill said. “I realised that I had got to save them, to prevent their disappearance. They’re very sympathetic objects. They do tell a story and are a testament to the huge upheaval in the former Eastern Bloc.
“I later learnt they were designed by some of the best graphic designers of the age and light bulbs started going off in my head. I’ve been obsessed with the project ever since, and probably will be for rest of my life.”
A director of the museum with Ms Karwinska, the goal is to find a bigger space to house the collection.
“We’re now in talks with the city to move to larger premises,” Mr Hill said. “We need a bigger space because we have over 100,000 visitors every year. We have 80 to 100 signs on display, but over 250 in the collection.”
The signs — part of the pretence by the Communist Party that “everything was fantastic” — were introduced by Nikita Khrushchev “under the so-called Khrushchev Thaw” after Joseph Stalin’s death.
“Stalin ushered in an era of freedom. He knew he couldn’t keep the satellite states happy; people hated Communism.
“He wanted them to feel that the good times were back, so he created urban nocturnal wonderlands with jazz bars, cocktail bars.
“It was an impression, really designed to kind of trick the people although they genuinely believed it was part of the revival after the war.
“Neon was chosen as [it] is associated with a free market, with capitalism. They called in the best graphic designers of the day and they did a really great job of it.
“So all over Hungary, all over the Eastern Bloc, all over Poland, in every town, factory, city, you name it, they had neon signs.
“And once the new government came in they thought, ‘We’ve got to get rid of all this stuff’. They started a recycling campaign and everything was destroyed.”
Theirs is the only neon museum in Europe, Mr Hill said, although there is one in Las Vegas.
“The older generation comes for sentimental reasons. The younger generation is totally into the aesthetic, the visual colour, how good they look under a neon sign.
“We just tapped into, sort of, the Instagram generation — that’s a large chunk of our visitors. But if we can get them interested in history and design, we’re halfway there. I would love to inspire people to get a degree and become designers.”
To his amazement, Mr Hill has learnt Polish along the way.
“I speak it quite proficiently, but it is such a hard language. It’s funny, I thought one day I’d speak French, Polish took me by surprise.”
Another change he’s hoping for is the frequency of his visits home.
“I try to get out to Bermuda as often as I can. My sister, Erin Jackson, recently returned home and is now a CedarTree vet so I will have to visit Bermuda more.”
• For more on the Neon Muzeum visit www.neonmuzeum.org</i>
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