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Katowice Aims to Replicate “Bilbao effect” With New Museum

November 22, 2012 - Tom Riley - Bez kategorii



In October 1997 the Guggenheim Museum was opened in Bilbao, turning a once struggling postindustrial city into a thriving global tourist magnet. Designed by Frank Gehry and costing around 100 million dollars to build, the museum was an instant success, with almost 4 million visitors in its first three years.

Katowice's Muzeum Śląskie (www.muzeumslaskie.pl/en/) will not get the same media attention and will not be as popular as the Guggenheim, although there are reasons to suggest that it could have a similar effect in terms of the city's ongoing regeneration.

The main draw for Muzeum Śląskie is not its architecture, although the building's understated design (on the site of a former coal mine) is impressive. Like Bilbao, Katowice is no ordinary provincial industrial city and prides itself on a unique local history and identity.

Identity politics

Just as Spain (population 47 million) is made up of a diverse mix of regions with distinct local and regional identities, Poland (population 38 million) is too big a nation to be completely homogeneous, despite large population transfers after the Second World War.

Silesians form the country's biggest minority, with 817,000 declaring Silesian nationality in the 2011 census (over half of whom declared Silesian as their first ethnonationality). There are 229,000 Kashubians, the next biggest minority (although less than 10 per cent of these declared Kashubian their first nationality).

Many Poles see the recent growth of Silesian “nationalism” as problematic, potentially undermining a strong nationalist narrative which has seen Poland survive partition, German occupation and Soviet Russian domination in the past 200 years.

Jarosław Kaczyński's Law and Justice (PiS) party went as far as to suggest that anyone who declared Silesian nationality on the 2011 census was doing so as a way of cutting ties with Polishness, possibly as a “camouflaged German option”.

Kaczyński's well-documented anti-German position is reminiscent of the Paris negotiator Roman Dmowski, who felt that German and Jewish business interests would actively seek to destabilise the Second Polish Republic. Like Dmowski, Kaczyński wants complete assimilation of all minorities in Poland.

There are many Polish nationalists who see the European Union as an instrument of German domination and who are opposed to German investments in Poland. Kaczyński himself has warned that people could one day wake up to a smaller Poland.

Donald Tusk's governing Civic Platform (PO) party, stronger in the former German parts of Poland (a western arc stretching from Gdańsk in the north, through Poznań and Wrocław to Katowice in the south) have sought to take a far more pragmatic line, with foreign minister Radek Sikorski even urging Germany to take more of a leading role in Europe (perhaps echoing Józef Piłsudski's support for the Central Powers in the First World War).

Katowice cannot afford to alienate potential investors in the region, regardless of where they are from. In fact, the more links they can foster with German business the better it will be for the local economy. Formerly Kattowitz, it used to represent the south-eastern frontier of the German Empire. Neighbouring Sosnowiec was part of Congress Poland (which itself was a puppet state of the Russian Empire).


It was in this borderland region between East and West that Silesian language and culture developed, along with the industrial revolution and the construction of the railways. Silesian is a dialect of Polish, but much of its most basic vocabulary is Germanic.

This cultural hybridity is the region's main selling point, especially as far as the museum is concerned. Just as Catalonia and the Basque region survived suppression during the Franco era in Spain, so Upper Silesia emerged from the communist period (when Katowice was briefly renamed Stalinogród) with its local traditions relatively intact.

After the First World War, Upper Silesia was the subject of a plebiscite to decide whether it would remain part of Germany or join with the new Polish Republic. Following the Silesian Uprisings of 1919, 1920 and 1921, the League of Nations decided to partition the region between East and West.

In the inter-war years Katowice was the centre of Poland's only autonomous voivodship (Eastern Upper Silesia), a status reflected in its grand Silesian Parliament Building (1925-29) and the modernist architecture of the 1930s which led to it being labelled the “Polish Chicago”.

Nazi German occupation followed, after which all of Upper (and Lower) Silesia were fully incorporated into the People's Republic of Poland (PRL). The coal mines provided a base for Solidarność in the 1980s, with nine striking miners killed by riot police at Katowice's Wujek colliery on December 16th 1981, shortly after the introduction of martial law.

Since the collapse of communism there has been a revival of Silesian identity, which culminated in the census results of 2011. The museum's curators face a difficult task in trying to negotiate the politics of this unique and complex historical narrative. They certainly have a location and building that will do it justice, and the aim seems to be to create a modern interactive display similar to that of the Warsaw Rising Museum.

Urban Renewal

Muzeum Śląskie is just one part of the city's ambitious regeneration project. Katowice's train station and main square are both undergoing large-scale reconstruction. The museum itself is part of a “cultural zone” which will also include a new home for the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Nearby Mariacka Street has become a focal point for the city's nightlife following its pedestrianisation in 2008.

One of Katowice's biggest problems is that as a city of just over 300,000 (the tenth biggest in Poland), it struggles to command the attention it deserves as the centre of one of the largest urban areas in Europe. The formation of GZM (the Upper Silesian Metropolitan Union) in 2007 may help give the agglomeration a greater sense of collective identity going forward. The success of Katowice's regeneration will be measured partly on how much impetus it provides for similar schemes in neighbouring Chorzow and Bytom.

Katowice city centre is 36 miles west of Krakow Balice and 14 miles south of Katowice Pyrzowice, the second and third busiest airports in Poland respectively, with combined passenger numbers of around 5.5 million in 2011.

Many of these passengers will of course be tourists destined straight for Krakow's Main Square. However, there are signs that this could be about to change. Katowice In Your Pocket city guide describes Katowice as “a great place for renegade tourists eager to get off the beaten track and explore something a bit more modern, edgy, unpredictable and, at times, unexplainable and absurd.”

The flight comparison website Skyscanner recently recommended “cool Katowice” as an alternative to Krakow (which, it said, had been overrun by stag weekends), although the best it could suggest (beyond bars and restaurants) was a trip to the huge but uninspiring Chorzow Park.

When completed, the new Muzeum Śląskie will at least offer a good reason to make the trip to downtown Katowice. Bilbao has shown that it's possible to reinvent a postindustrial city, providing inspiration for similar regeneration schemes in Manchester's Salford Quays and Newcastle's Quayside.

From Henryk Gorecki to Paktofonika, Katowice has a lot to offer culturally. So it came as a surprise when Wrocław was chosen as European Capital of Culture 2016, having already been chosen as a host city for Euro 2012. Katowice could have done for industrial Upper Silesia what Essen did for the Ruhr when they were European Capital of Culture in 2010. The Polish judges decided to go with a city that had an existing reputation as a cultural centre, rather than make the braver decision to focus on postindustrial urban renewal (like Germany and Britain had done previously).

European Capital of Culture status for 2016 would have been a huge boost for Katowice (arguably much bigger than it would have been for Wrocław). However, as is always the way with such competitions, Katowice was able to use its candidate status to generate local enthusiasm for the city's potential (just as Manchester had with its failed bid for the 2000 Olympics). Expectations are now high that Muzeum Śląskie will be able to fulfil that potential and, like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, put the city back on the map.

Tom Riley graduated from University of Central Lancashire in 2007, and is an English language teacher based in Katowice.

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