Karolina GOLINOWSKA [a] (ORCID iD :

Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice / Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series

Vol. XXIII, Issue 2, pp.245-269 | Download PDF

[a] Institute of Cultural Studies, Kazimierz Wielki University, Bydgoszcz, Poland


This article explores the clash of various narratives around the Gdańsk shipyard, one of the famous examples of a post-industrial heritage site with a significant political past, located in Poland. The analysis is placed within the larger context of contemporary debates on heritage and the specificity of post-industrial sites, showing how vulnerable and fragile foundations such sites may have, as well as how they are susceptible to various manipulations. This study explores the process of construction of heritage sites and their contradictory narratives by referring to one particular aspect of the Polish past and its institutional representation in the form of post-industrial heritage. First, it refers to the contemporary idea of heritage and briefly explains the relation between heritage and memory. It also describes the role of heritage in the tourism industry emphasizing various expectations and demands that are made for memory sites. Then it analyses the idea and specificity of post-industrial heritage as well as the paradox of its universality. Finally, it refers to the Gdańsk shipyard as an example of post-industrial heritage space which serves various demands and visions that reflect a multiplicity of narratives.

Keywords: heritage sites, post-industrial, narrative, Poland, Gdańsk shipyard


Contemporary collective memory is shaped by various kinds of institutions, historical re-enactments and reconstructions, which aim to serve particular political purposes. According to Assmann (2006), memorial signs such as ceremonies, places and monuments are the key elements responsible for shaping political memory. As narratives of political memory are non-fragmentary, they help to establish national myths and beliefs that may be regarded as explanatory tools for fundamental questions concerning the issue of identity. At the same time, the inherent selectiveness of memory, implied by the dynamics of remembering and forgetting, may be used as an instrument for political manipulation (Connerton 2008). Heritage perceived as a material representation of the memory narratives is thus a matter of social consensus, orchestrated also by the state. As it plays a vital role in the construction of identity, it sometimes may find itself in contradiction with history as an independent research field (Ricoeur 2006, 182-184). In terms of post-industrial sites, the role of memory becomes even more significant as there are no aesthetic criteria that would serve as an explanatory tool of its value. This article aims to analyse the process of construction of heritage sites and their contradictory narratives by referring to one particular aspect of the Polish past and its institutional representation in the form of post-industrial heritage. First, it refers to the contemporary idea of heritage and briefly explains the relation between heritage and memory. It also describes the role of heritage in the tourism industry emphasizing various expectations and demands that are made for memory sites. Then it analyses the idea and specificity of post-industrial heritage as well as the paradox of its universality. Finally, it refers to the Gdańsk shipyard as an example of post-industrial heritage space which serves various demands and visions that reflect a multiplicity of narratives.

The contemporary idea of heritage and its industries

Heritage is a phenomenon exploited by a multitude of institutions, communities, or individuals. Widely described and analysed, it still fails in terms of precise definition as a cultural representation of the past in general. Therefore, its elusive and vague character seems to be a natural response to contemporaneity and its social expectations. Its processual and discursive character makes it capable of mingling various narratives, needs, and ideas in such a way that they create the most desirable and socially useful image of the past (Harrison 2013, 14-18). As an undefined and elusive category, heritage is susceptible to political and cultural transitions. Sometimes, it is also contested as an unwanted burden of the past (Silverman 2011) or abandoned as if its heirs were non-existent (Sandri 2013; Kocój 2015). In other words, heritage is a reproduction of culturally defined desires and expectations about the past that accompany contemporary societies and communities (Smith 2006, 29-32). Its discursive adversity, which is a monument, refers to objective criteria of evaluation and demands the methodology taken from historical research.

For Polish scholars, the distinction between heritage, monument, and cultural properties is significant. For instance, historian and conservationist Andrzej Tomaszewski considers the monument to be an objectified idea characteristic for historical research, and cultural property an apolitical category which includes everything with historical and artistic value. Then again, cultural heritage is a matter of decision and acceptance. It is a so-called world heritage with methods of aesthetic evaluation that would change in time. Its resources are just part of an inheritance from past generations that contemporary society wants to regard as its own and take responsibility for (Tomaszewski 2012, 58). The view is shared also by Kobyliński (2011, 22-23) that portrays cultural property as remnants of human creation – both intangible (texts, melodies, stories, rituals, gestures, customs) or tangible (objects). Heritage is thus part of cultural property viewed as valuable for future generations. A monument is a movable or immovable property, the survival of which is a matter of social interest because of its historical, artistic, or scientific value. Such definitions and distinction also reflect the provisions of the 2003 Polish law on the protection of monuments.

Contemporary heritage has changed its meaning and developed in such a way as to assimilate architecture of the last two centuries, as well as intangible heritage or categories connected with everyday life (Nora 1989). These transitions are so far-reaching that the contemporary vision of what establishes heritage becomes the negation of what constituted heritage in the past. For contemporary generations, heritage has changed: it is now just an ordinary trace of the past, and no longer an outstanding trace of the past (Nora 2010, XIII). The evolution of these ideas can be easily monitored in various declaration or conventions ordained by UNESCO, for example in the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2003). New technologies that enable the unlimited capability to index and archive are sufficient to satisfy human obsession with preserving the past in its totality (Nora 1989, 13). In short, heritage has ended the era of history, nation, monuments and introduced the times of memory, communities, identity. Narratives about the past (shared memory) and material explication of the past (heritage) displace the idea of monuments, historical discourse and its discipline. But human memory is itself selective (Pomian 2019, 12-13). For instance, the memory of conquerors becomes an official part of public discourse and thus is given the name and authority of official history (Pomian 2006, 192-194.). This layer of memory with accompanying narratives is then present in museum exhibitions and celebrated during official commemorations. In the form of the memory of those who are conquered, its opposite is doomed to extinction, pushed into the underground or censored. Nevertheless, this apparent distinction implicates the de facto existence of two conflictual memories, with the memory of the conquerors claiming the role of official history. Within this context, forgetting becomes an act performed by individuals, communities and, above all, social institutions (Connerton 2008). However, this socially accepted view of the past lacks the discipline of scientific research. That is why the memory of conquerors can be easily transformed into a political statement bringing slogans and emblems to the sites of various social conflicts.

One of the most significant instances of managing the dynamics of forgetting and remembering is the State, with its administrative structures, the decisions of which affect policies, education, and strategies for development. It is usually the State that decides whether a particular national institution will be established. In matters related to cultural policies, it is also the State that creates the need for institutions designed to help commemorate or recreate the common experience of the past and conceptualizes their ideas (Nora 1998, 616). In other words, decisions taken by the administrative organs which are responsible for cultural politics in general, have a considerable impact on cultural institutions, museums, the art and the historical canon assimilated by youngsters, as well as on how the cultural heritage of the nation and the rest of the world is presented. With time, this institutional framework and state-sanction becomes the “natural” and obvious point of reference about the past, less prone to critical examination.

Beyond all the claims to the inheritance of the past, there is also a tourist industry that gives rise to discussions about its economic context. The development of heritage-oriented tourism has been largely perceived as a matter of tourism industry reaching global level after the Second World War. However, it is still a phenomenon directly linked to the specificity of each state and its socio-economic order (Light 2015, 145-146). Dilemmas referring to the relationship between heritage and its subsequent industry are nothing new. For instance, in the 1980s, Closson (1989, 192-194) criticized the British tourist industry, pointing out that it should concentrate more on qualitative criteria instead of quantitative calculations to show that, in the so-called concern about the heritage, there was something more than just financial profit. Nowadays, offers of the heritage industry often invoke the local specificity of cultures and employ global tools of their evaluation. What is described as the universal human value of heritage that is the subject of UNESCO declarations actually supports the development of tourism. The acknowledgement of some tangible objects or intangible resources as worldwide heritage usually makes the regional or national offer more attractive. Distinctions, lists, titles that place an object or a cultural area in the centre of the world heritage discourse play the role of surrogate authority. Trusting this system of evaluation, the tourist does not need to search for the most precious relics of the past on his/her own. Legitimated verdict given by scholars and experts resonates on the offers of the tourist industry.

The functioning of the tourism industry, which eagerly explores various and heterogeneous resources that constitute local specificity of culture, is subject to some inconsistency. On the one hand, it creates institutional practices that follow market expectations and consider primarily the needs of the visitor. On the other hand, this kind of touristic exploration is accompanied by the belief that, somehow, it is a way of paying tribute to the culture of the past. The desire to protect cultural “authenticity” (Basu & Modest 2015, 4-8) is accompanied by the desire to make it a visitable experience (Dicks 2004, 119). The factual presence in a historical place and the possibility to immerse oneself in it become more relevant than the meaning the heritage embodies (Silberman 2016, 34). The offers proposed by the tourism industry are a conglomerate of various stimulating factors which create an apparent sense of deep understanding of local culture. However, this created vision of culture, with which tourists are confronted, usually reflects its past time rather than the present (Dicks 2004, 42). Consequently, the cultural imagery that the traveller encounters is a form of illusion that randomly mixes various time planes. This way of creating experience encapsulated in an institutional framework resembles the strategies of entertainment centres, eliminating the possibility of interpreting the relics of the past. The emphasis is on quantitative criteria, such as the number of visitors, which then translate into the language of financial profit, into trivialization of content and ubiquitous standardization. In this way, the memory of the original heirs of heritage becomes part of a global strategy for marketing cultural uniqueness. The local specificity that creates the interpreting frames for a culture is exploited mostly by the state and involved in the construction of authorized heritage discourse (Smith 2006, 29-30). This kind of officially and politically acclaimed discourse parasitises on the memory of communities, making them the starting point for creating a global product that will meet the expectations of the market. These mechanisms are especially apparent in the case of postindustrial heritage, which uses different value assessment tools.

Post-industrial explanations

What constitutes the heritage of a post-industrial society? I use the term “post-industrial” to emphasize that these objects constitute the heritage of post-industrial society (Bell 1997) and are excluded from their original functionality. The issue of functionality plays a crucial role for the tourism industry that tends to widely exploit it. There is a growing tourism branch devoted to the industrial past (Ćopić et al. 2014; Ling, Handley & Rodwell 2007; Vargas-Sánchez 2015). Otgaar, Van Den Berg & Feng (2010, 2-4) divide this type of tourism into two subtypes. The first one is associated with visiting industrial plants that are still operating, while the second focused on exploring postindustrial heritage. In other words, industrial tourism would refer to fully operational industrial facilities that could follow a long tradition, while its postindustrial version would involve facilities excluded from exploitation. Therefore, it can be assumed that the industrial heritage is associated with still active plants, factories, or mines, the transformations of which should be considered the testimony of technological, social, or scientific development. Postindustrial heritage is constituted by objects whose functioning as a production site has been suspended

Unlike the elements constituting a cultural canon, objective artistic criteria would not be used to assess its value. Its significance is attributed to the fact that it provides testimony of the industrialization process that has changed modern society (Edwards & Llurdés i Coit 1996). However, such attribution did not come about without controversies. For instance, Lowenthal (2015, 420) criticized contemporary efforts to save ordinary and everyday places, including factories and residential houses, which in his opinion were neither interesting nor pleasant. According to him, in post-war America there was a clear tendency, expressed also in the public opinion, to legitimize the heritage of the working class, shaped by successive generations of immigrant population. Similarly, in Australia, which had been excluded from the Eurocentric art narratives for centuries, this idea gained ground because of the need to institutionalize traces of the past of the former colonizers (Lowenthal 1998, 15-16). With its artistic canon constituted over the centuries and accompanied by cultural history, as well as with a long tradition of its material heritage being considered an outstanding trace of the past, only Europe provided an exception. Finally, the consequences of global social transformations, leading to the democratization of culture and abandoning monolithic canons, have changed the idea of heritage on all three continents. The trend of popularizing post-industrial heritage spread from the United Kingdom to continental Europe, finding favour especially in Germany. It was in the Ruhr area in 1999 that, after a series of restructuration attempts, the Route der Industriekultur was opened. With the Zollverein complex in its centre, it was regarded worldwide as a successful regional example of deindustrialization (Höber & Ganser 1999; Barndt 2010). In the Polish context, post-industrial heritage is also growing in popularity, and it is defined as material documentation of the development of civilization that concentrates on technical and technological processes, and is illustrated by buildings, machines, spatial structures, or landscape (Jędrysiak 2011, 17).

If we consider post-industrial heritage as constituted by objects excluded from its original functionality, it is necessary to specify its concrete forms. This heritage is created by architectural remains of factories, mills, both upper ground such as shipyards and under-ground such as mines (Hospers 2002, 399). The second category of places of the post-industrial legacy relates to the land and water modes of transportation, offering nostalgic travel in both space and time. Restored cars, railways, carriages, trams, passenger liners are used again for the need for transporting tourists. Their elements also become a fragment of various exhibitions in museum institutions dedicated to the everyday past. The third kind of post-industrial legacy is constituted by socio-cultural attractions resulting from the specificity of the industrial region that arises because of its past. The surroundings of ex-industrial objects, such as workers’ houses or the regional landscape, may serve as examples. The new functionality of ex-industrial objects has a wide spectrum. Some of these places are renovated and transformed into a museum space that demonstrates the transfigurations of industry-related professions. Others are used for entertainment or artistic purposes and become the space for concerts, theatrical performances of exhibitions. Some are just left derelict and, filled with postindustrial aesthetics, they attract the attention of dark tourism explorers. The rest is transformed into lofts or objects dedicated to the promotion of entrepreneurship, high schools, shopping malls, or offices

These strategies are common also in Poland (Wojtoń 2010,159). Referring to the example of the city of Katowice in Silesia, in the south of Poland, Lamparska (2013) identifies six possible variants of the use and functioning of post-industrial heritage related to the extraction of raw materials, mainly hard coal: (1) historical post-mining landscapes; (2) places adapted for recreation; (3) places documenting changes in the groundwater environment; (4) specific features of the Silesian landscape, places commemorating stages of mining development; (5) post-mining facilities adapted for service, commercial, and residential purposes; and (6) museums and open-air mining museums. This classification also shows how variable and, at the same time, important the local context of post-industrial heritage is (Ibid.).

If post-industrial heritage is constituted by objects stripped of their original functionality and accorded testimonial and scientific value instead, it is crucial to analyse the monument-heritage dilemma discussed in the previous section. What would constitute the substantial difference between post-industrial heritage and monuments of technical achievement? As already mentioned, the idea of monument, especially in Poland, is common in history as a discipline, whereas heritage is rather associated with memory studies. These two separate discourses about the past do not combine into a coherent homogeneous narrative and they fulfil different culturally defined functions. In other words, not all monuments become the heritage of the community, and not all heritage content should be considered as a historic monument. Monuments are likely to be subjected to objective criteria of evaluation. This need for objectivity is also the decisive element in claiming the status of a historic monument. As a competitive narrative about the past, heritage creates a sequence of imaginary ideas that replace non-personal academic history. All this means that in some cases post-industrial heritage will act as a part of a globally recognized monument of technology.

The universal presence of post-industrial heritage does not mean that it gains the quality of universal value. On the contrary, the assumption about universal value, emphasized in UNESCO conventions, becomes even more troublesome in the case of a post-industrial object because of the lack of consistent evaluation instruments. The doubtful quality of universal value (Ashworth 2007) which is ascribed to it without hesitation, homogenizes collective memories and transforms them into authorized heritage discourse. The problem of universal values was raised especially by the post-colonial researchers who suggested that the globally perceived idea of heritage is de facto a Europocentric concept, supported by such methodology and criteria of evaluation that it will always favour Western culture (Coombes 1998, 488-489; Byrne 2014; Smith 2006, 30; Lowenthal 1998, 5; Labaldi 2013, 15-17). It is however necessary to mention that UNESCO itself has been aware of such controversies (UNESCO 1999). This raises another question as to whether the heritage bonded with the memory of a specific community may be given a universal meaning. In terms of post-industrial heritage, the problem of universal value is even greater. The post-industrial legacy is constituted by objects from the 19th and 20th centuries. Most of them are not ascribed aesthetic value, or the aesthetic value is the additional argument for claiming the status of a heritage (such as Zollverein in Essen, Germany).

In other words, universality cannot be combined with the memory of a specific community deprived of its scenarios of the past. Discussing this problem in the context of heritage connected with coal mines, Dicks (2008) finds that the material presence of this legacy may improve relations and act as an integrational factor for the people and their families working in the mine site. At the same time, such heritage described in a language that avoids class distinctions has its consequences in the de-politicization of the past (Ibid.). However, this may be a dangerous mechanism of neutralization used upon memory that creates an image of the past according to the need for receptive conformism. Defining objects and places in the category of post-industrial heritage does indeed help to create a narrative about development, the industrial revolution, and pioneers. This narrative eliminates class distinctions and unifies under a common goal factory owners and workers, although their experiences of their industry are radically different. There is a considerable number of discursive practices that manage to avoid mentioning about work in disastrous conditions and beyond physical abilities, or about social injustice and exploitation. The memory of conquerors always has an impact on narratives about a past represented in a public space (Pomian 2006, 192-194). By that, I mean that the heirs post-industrial heritage defined in this way cannot come from the working class. Reducing the memory of industrial workers to a general narrative about technological development and the industrial revolution is just an act of ignorance.

That is why the post-industrial heritage raises doubts as to the whether it explores the memories of former working-class communities. In other words, it provokes the question of whose actual memory narratives correspond to a given representation of the past. If heritage became the foundation of creating a network of power relations between the Western and non-Western world (Smith 2006, 29-30), then the legitimacy of establishing their universal value was handed over to the experts. Their professionalism was defined through the prism of Eurocentric and classist criteria and contributed to the creation of an authorized heritage discourse. The transformation of a derelict area into a heritage exposition allows tourists to sentimentalize about the past (Frisch 1998). It also eliminates any references to the economic impact and financial problems of those who experienced this deindustrialization. The celebration and interpretation of memorial sites as a particular embodiment of the workers’ past, under the auspices of government administration structures, can indeed produce an authorized heritage discourse available for public interpretation (Shackel & Palus 2006). At the same time, the past of the workers becomes a marginal element in this narrative that concentrates on various aspects of the production technology of manufactures, factories, and mines. The authorized heritage discourse tends to ignore unpleasant memories and creates a narrative that emphasizes the significant role of regional progress both in the economic and social sphere. At the same time, these erstwhile workers, suffering from the effects of deindustrialization, are put to the test a second time. This is another problematic issue that relates to the possible development and career opportunities of the residents themselves if they wish to stay close to the facility transformed into post-industrial heritage (Jones & Munday 2001). In larger cities, the consequences of interest in the industrial past take on a slightly different turn, becoming a touchstone of the gentrification processes. The previous inhabitants, whose memories are intertwined with the presumed character of the transformed place, are trapped in luxurious life, the cost of which exceeds their financial capabilities. Interestingly, and paradoxically, this process of a specific aestheticization of the past (followed by the offer of luxury apartments and lofts for sale), which emphasizes the unique character of the place, is constantly and universally replicated (Sattler 2013). This way of constructing heritage and historical places becomes a general solution to the problem of enhancing the image of the region, reproduced in various cities around the world. At the same time, this strategy, which parasitizes on the memory of residents (ex-workers) of post-industrial areas, turns them into undesirable and inadequately wealthy tenants.

To conclude, it is worth mentioning that several decades ago post-industrial heritage was intended to become a manifestation of the memory of the unprivileged, demanding recognition of their vision of the past, devoid of the spectacular. These expectations then permeated the political sphere, leading to the creation of apparently egalitarian-oriented memorial sites, the existence of which was regulated by the official authorized heritage discourse and financial expectations. In this way, despite having many critics, such as Pierre Nora, the heritage of everyday life has become one of the forms of presenting the past. Nowadays, the idea of exhibiting post-industrial heritage grows in popularity, evolving into various interpretations depending on the cultural context. Everyday life from the time of dynamic industrialization also becomes a fragment of representations of the past in Poland. At the same time, such heritage, which is subject to institutional control, becomes its own contradiction, and this authorized discourse - the most effective tool of the policy of memory.

A discursive clash around one shipyard

The shipyard in Gdańsk may be considered as an example illustrating all the dilemmas mentioned above. Its contemporary status may be described as a conglomerate of historical facts, difficult memories, the vulnerability of the contemporary idea of post-industrial heritage, and changing functions. It is also a place transformed to address the needs of the tourist industry that offers an experience of the past in a radically consumerist way. The restoration of the shipyard comes along with the gentrification process, following the usual course already described above. Finally, it is also a post-industrial complex already prepared to lay claim to the status of world heritage, even though currently it seems to be limited to a derelict industrial space transformed into a food court.

The shipyard in Gdańsk is a kind of place that has special significance for the city’s residents, as well as the whole of Poland (Krzemiński 2010; Krzemiński et al. 2016). However, its status reflects the division between objectifying history and politically oriented collective memory, and this has an impact on the ongoing transformations. This study reflects on the status of the shipyard in Gdańsk as of the autumn of 2020. At that time, the whole complex was rather empty and ruined with several examples of buildings transformed into industrially designed food courts and one hall with an exhibition site prepared by the Institute of National Remembrance. To help visitors navigate throughout the area, the place displays several maps presenting basic information about previous functions of each building in the industrial complex. The description of the Gdańsk shipyard is based on the author’s own observations and it concentrates on the overall look of the whole complex.

In September 2019, The National Heritage Board of Poland, an institutional representation of the memory of conquerors, introduced a campaign Stocznia Gdańska warta UNESCO (Przylipiak 2019). The campaign aimed to popularize the idea of the ex-industrial site appearing on the register of globally recognized UNESCO world heritage, which, if accomplished, would be a culminating moment for the joint actions of regional authorities and the government. For this purpose, the campaign expectedly emphasized the role of the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement in the eventual fall of the Polish communist regime and “reunification of Europe,” but also described the Gdańsk Shipyard as “an example of a large-scale state-owned production plant and over a hundred-year tradition of shipbuilding.” In 2015 the Shipyard had already obtained The European Heritage Label ([Knoch et al.] 2018, 11), a recognition awarded to objects of cultural heritage that played a significant role in the development of European history and culture, or which contributed to the development of values considered as the fundamentals of European integration ([Polish Ministry of Culture] 2017). Such an award may be also perceived as a symptom of the Europeanization of the national places of memory that reach somewhat universal level and are deprived of local/national interpretation frame (Kowalski 2015, 70). In 2017, the shipyard area was also included in the Registry of Objects of Cultural Heritage.

At the same time, the post-industrial complex was bought by two Belgian developers to pursue a restoration project that would reflect the shipyard’s surroundings of valuable historical buildings. As it is described on its website, the project

“covers 16 hectares located in the heart of the Young Town in Gdańsk, on the banks of the Martwa Wisła, within walking distance of the Old Town and the Main Railway Station. This monumental area is known worldwide as the main stage of historical events that shaped Eastern Europe as we know it today. This is where Solidarity was born, and the united efforts of many people made Poland what it is today. We respect the strong sense of community that has always been part of this place. Not only jobs but also places where people could make a significant contribution to the development and building a better future” (Stocznia Cesarska [2021]).

The undertaken restoration of the historical complex is accompanied by diverse expectations. The area that is intensively revitalized and turned into recreational infrastructure functions under the name of Stocznia Cesarska (Imperial Shipyard). It is a Polish translation of Kaiserliche Werft Danzig, a name of a German plant established in 1871. Referring to the past and using a Polish translation of the original name seems to be motivated by the belief that its Prussian origin can be eliminated from the authorized heritage discourse. What is more, the Polish authorities tend to concentrate on the commemoration of Stocznia Gdańska (Gdańsk Shipyard)(1947-1988) as such, and the role of its workers in overthrowing the communist regime. As the place functions under different denominations, it could be said that they reflect diversely constructed narratives about this widely disputed fragment of urban space.

The actual status of the shipyard is a result of negotiations and transformations compliant with directives of authorities on a variety of levels and it can be considered as a practical realization of the material memory of the conquerors that meets the demands of contemporaneity. Authorized heritage discourse concentrates on the post-war period and emphasizes the role of shipyard workers in rejecting the communist regime. The interwar period is presented in marginal way, and this is a deliberate decision motivated by the need to eliminate the problem of Gdańsk as a city that has a significant non-Polish history. After the second and third partitions of Poland (1793 and 1795) that ended the existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Gdańsk was annexed by Prussia and became Danzig, a Prussian city. After the First World War, it was transformed into the Free City of Danzig, an independent quasi-state under the auspices of the League of Nations. During the Second World War, the shipyard produced U-Boats for the Third Reich (Westphal 2018). At that time, some of its areas were also transformed into a concentration camp and the prisoners from the Stutthof concentration camp were forced to work there for the military industry (Owsiński 2018).

Similarly marginal is the presence of Lech Wałęsa, the 1983 laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded for the “non-violent struggle for free trade unions and human rights in Poland” (Nobel Peace Prize 1983). As an iconic representative of the 1980s protests, he seems to be excluded from the contemporary narrative because of allegations about cooperating with the secret police, the Ministry of Public Security (Skórzyński 2016). One might say that these discrepancies could be solved by paying a visit to the Europejskie Centrum Solidarności, an institution located in the building of the shipyard management and dedicated to the development of the Solidarity movement. However, despite the distinctive architectural form that transforms it into a popular Gdańsk landmark, this single institution cannot be fully responsible for the creation of the discourse about the urban space and its past.

With its claim to the status of universal heritage, the Gdańsk shipyard becomes a manifestation of the phenomenon identified by Pierre Nora. There is nothing visually spectacular in the ruined industrial complex, its abandoned assembly halls, and other shipyard buildings. In other words, a post-industrial heritage shipyard is not attracting attention because of aesthetic or artistic criteria. It is neither representing a prominent technological innovation, outstanding type of building. Nor does it exhibit developments in architecture or represent human genius. Its value assessment is based on its role as living testimony, the arena for exhibiting the contribution of the workers to bringing down communism. None of that excludes the presence of the global tourist industry that seems to be part of the formulaic strategies of revitalization. As a UNESCO world heritage candidate, the shipyard had to be transformed into a visitable experience. As a result, the empty and devastated ex-shipyard buildings are full of bars, food courts, food trucks, and clubs. Visitors may also glance at the separate exhibition about the 1980s protests located in one of the halls. In 2020, this was an exhibition concentrated on the person of Anna Walentynowicz, prepared by the Gdańsk delegature of Instytut Pamięci Narodowej (Institute of National Remembrance), an institution closely linked to the central authorities. Visitors can also climb the famous M3 crane that is symbolic for the city’s industrial past. At the same time, new housing estates and office buildings are being built around the former shipyard, with some of the representatives of the companies investing in the buildings of the shipyard also declaring their support for the UNESCO campaign (Przylipiak 2019). Therefore, the unique character of the place attracts the real estate market and consequently increases the attractiveness of the post-industrial urban area, a process that eventually triggers gentrification.

Not least, there are also issues related to the further operation of the plants that are still working, expanded outside the historical area of Stocznia Gdańska, and those closed in 1996 due to financial inefficiency (Szczypiński 2018, 308). The local company operating the shipyard is struggling with financial inefficiency and the need for thorough modernization ([Tygodnik Solidarność] 2018). Freshly implemented projects for the shipyard’s operation (Portal Stoczniowy [2019-2021]) show how dramatic and at the same time dynamic these changes are. Ironically, the whole situation may be seen as a continuation of the shipyard workers’ struggle for decent living conditions (Socha 2001), one of the many reasons for the protests in the 1980s (Paczkowski 2015, 11-20). The image of the shipyard workers as perpetrators of violent and incomprehensible protests has dominated media narratives (Filipkowski & Wegenschimmel 2018, 553). The description of the shipbuilding industry is now governed by neo-liberal imperatives, presenting shipyards in terms of their unprofitability, losses or negative balance sheets. From this perspective, the transformation of the former shipyard area into a recreational space may seem like a mockery.

In short, in the debate on the shipyard’s future, several sides of this discursive dispute emerge, with completely different visions and perceptions of the role of the post-industrial complex itself. For foreign investors, there is a need for the area to represent a glorious industrial past which, in combination with the recreational function, will make the project profitable. For the Polish authorities, the narrative focuses on the 1970s and 1980s, and emphasizes the place’s political connotations. They also regard the shipyard as a symbol of the struggle against communism. In the context of the former and current shipyard workers, the most common is the issue of jobs and livelihood. This contradicts the vision of the closure of the plant and its transformation into a museum-park. Finally, there is also the community of Gdańsk residents and their memories of the shipyard, which form yet another narrative about the past. However, it is hardly known how their forms of commemoration compare to the authorized heritage discourse, and what form of representation they would desire.


Heritage is a reproduction of culturally defined desires and expectations about the past that accompany societies, their authorities, and institutions. Its sometimes ambiguous character derives from the fact that not all heritage content should be considered as a historic monument and not all monuments become the heritage of the community. Whether an object would constitute heritage is a matter of social consensus. Monuments are likely to be subjected to objective criteria of evaluation supported by the methodology of historical research. This need for objectivity is decisive in claiming the status of a historic monument. In terms of heritage, valuation always comes with the social usefulness of represented images of the past.

Decisions taken by the governmental administrative organs which are responsible for cultural politics in general have a considerable impact on what and how the cultural heritage of the nation is presented to the public. Created discourse of authorized heritage enables pursuing a particular image of the past that reflects also the political interests of the state. In the case of the Gdańsk shipyard, this interest concentrates on the “Polish” part of its past which serves as an identity-creating factor. The shipyard is regarded above all as a symbol of overthrowing the communist regime, emphasized in reckonings with the past, undertaken by the actual authorities. Despite the historical findings, the shipyard is credited with being the birthplace of resistance to the USSR and having had a great impact on bringing down the Iron Curtain. However, the remaining past of Kaiserliche Werft Danzig stays beyond the interest of the Polish state and is developed in urban projects of private investors.

The memory about the shipyard, which is already recognizable for all the people in Poland, is additionally supported by legislative acts and projects ordained by authorities. That is why it serves as a substantiation of memory of the conquerors, which concentrates primarily on the issue of the first free trade union – Solidarność. This memory of the conquerors, represented by the narrative about the shipyard as a place of anti-communist struggle, demands the status of the official history of a place. As it proves to be susceptible to political turbulences, trends, and scandals, it is jeopardized by suppressions that become acts of forgetting controlled through the state. This presence of the authorities is unquestionable, since one of the organizations responsible for the revitalization projects is the National Heritage Board of Poland, a state institution. Also, the memory of conquerors uses the example of a shipyard to emphasize its rich past and diminish contemporary problems. Such memorial sites under the auspices of government administration involve a mechanism of neutralization used upon a memory that creates an image of the past according to the need for receptive conformism. The authorized heritage discourse created by the state builds solid narration about its past enabling the later issue of deindustrialization to fall into oblivion. The difficulties that started in the 1990s and the remaining problems of the shipyard are basically non-existent in a public space.

The shipyard raises a question about the value assessment of post-industrial heritage. Although decisions about what would constitute heritage are not totally arbitrary, in terms of the post-industrial heritage they might be questionable. It basically involves the act of acknowledging the object as culturally important, although it is not an interesting piece of architecture or manifestation of technological improvement. It is here that we see the transformation of an outstanding into an ordinary trace of the past. In other words, the shipyard is an illustration of the “common past,” the heritage of everyday life, connected with physical work, an element of global reality that also becomes a part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. As a candidate for the distinction awarded by the international committee, the object will become part of the global map of the heritage industry. This, however, leads to a question about the value assessment of heritage, with emphasis on its universality. In other words, can the importance of the shipyard be readable for non-Polish visitors as well? To what extend the shipyard past may be considered an example of universal values?

The presence of the tourist industry accompanied by the economic issues has also significant impact on the transformation of the ex-shipyard into a heritage site. As already mentioned, the heritage industry employs global tools of their evaluation such as the potential UNESCO distinction that places the object in the world heritage landscape and discourse. This involves creating a visitable experience of the past that resembles the strategies of entertainment centres. The metamorphosis of the shipyard is tending in the direction of exemplary post-industrial complexes reinvented for the demands of the heritage industry, such as standardization (e.g. creating a map and a route to help visitors to the shipyard), providing comfort and sustenance (e.g. food and leisure court), and creating attractions (e.g. climbing the crane and visiting the exhibition). However, this type of standardized internationalization of the national place of memory, which leaves no place for local interpretations, may not be welcomed by the state which promotes its own narrative about the shipyard and the Polish past.

That leads to another controversy, as the shipyard becomes a space that activates the gentrification processes. This strategy for marketing cultural uniqueness is eagerly exploited by various urban investors. This manner of constructing heritage and historical places becomes a general solution to the problem of enhancing the image of the urban space reproduced globally. In terms of the shipyard, the image of a place is created based on a pattern common in the USA and other European countries that tends to attract the attention of the so-called creative class. Characterized as a space with a glorious and rich past, it has also attracted investors’ attention who pursue expensive housing projects. Yet, the employees of the new Gdańsk shipyard may not seem to fit in such an “authentic” space.


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Karolina GOLINOWSKA (ORCID iD: currently works as Assistant Professor at the Institute of Culture Sciences at Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz, Poland. She obtained her doctoral degree in Cultural Studies from the Institute of Cultural Studies of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, and she specializes in cultural theory studies with a focus on cultural memory, heritage, and the practices of its institutionalization, as well as in cultural politics with a focus on the practices of cultural institutions. Her recent publications include the volumes Polityki kultury [Politics of culture] (2017, Gdańsk: WN Katedra) and Paradoksy dziedzictwa [Paradoxes of the heritage] (2021, Poznań: WNHiS ) and the studies "Attendance, Participation, or Education" (In Interpreting Globalization: Polish Perspectives on Culture in the Globalized World, ed. L. Koczanowicz, P. J. Fereński, J. Panciuchin, Rodopi: Brill, 2021) and "Nostalgia for the PRL in contemporary Poland," Twentieth Century Communism: A Journal of International History 2016(11): 67-82.



The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


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GOLINOWSKA, Karolina. 2021. Post-Industrial Sites and the Clash of Narratives: The Case of the Gdańsk Shipyard. Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series] XXIII (2): 245-269.