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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Culture during the war

Why museums should not stand aside current events
27 May, 2014 - 10:58

Energy must be infused in culture. Museum workers, culture experts, and artists think that all the emotions that are already sweeping off-scale in Ukraine (and not only there) should be directed into a constructive course. Not into criticism, mutual accusa-tions, or denial, but into generation of something new. Into creativity, education, and knowledge.

“We must talk about conversion and transformation of energy into a constructive course now. During all these events, my friends often pondered whether exhibitions can be held now, because people are dying... I think they can, since we have to try to convert at least a part of the conflict energy into positive one, to transform at least a bit of it,” says artist, researcher at the Institute of Contemporary Art, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Oleksandr KLYMENKO. “Perhaps, perception of culture through museums is the core around which material and economic prosperity and tolerance are built. One would think, what culture can we talk about, when the level of hostility and rejection in the society is so high that it exceeds all expectations? My old friend, director of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology Volodymyr Paniotto told me that even in Israel there are daily squabbles that sometimes even turn into fights over Ukraine. He gave an example, when two old men had a fight over Ukraine; one was 91 years old, the other – 79. It seems that right now this conversation is important and relevant, because any actions that will drag energy from this mutual hatred and rejection into culture, museums, exhibitions, literature, will calm down the heated debate in the society. We see a Kafkaesque transformation, which happened to many: people that seemed to be intelligent and educated before, call each other fascists with foam at their mouths. It is terrible. Museums have always stayed outside of conflicts and discrepancies, and it is very important for them to be able to rise above the internal cultural contradictions, misunderstandings, and conflicts. Museums are a uniting factor. If more attention was paid to culture in our country during the past two years, these processes would not have been that acute now.”


At the same time, head of the Mikhail Bulgakov Literary Memorial Museum Liudmyla Hubianuri has another point of view, that a museum cannot stand aside the events that are taking place, aside the politics.

“A position ‘above the clash’ does not seem to be right to me. It is a position of indifferent people. And I think that museums cannot stand aside in the current situation. I am deeply convinced we must react to everything, because the social role of museums is changing all over the world: they become increasingly active, hold exhibitions that can unite people, they debunk national myths, promote reconciliation of conflicts that existed for many years. A very serious approach to this is taken in Germany. Our museums also must expand their social functions,” Hubianuri is convinced. “We had two responses to the ongoing events. One is rather traditional, the other one drew a wide response. I mean that we hung a sign that reads ‘Entry of persons who support military occupation in Ukraine is undesirable.’ On the one hand, it was a response to Russian culture figures who supported the occupation of Ukraine. A lot of them have been to our museum. It seems to me that people who support occupation, support war as well. And if they support war, they have nothing to do in museums, because museums cannot exist during a war. They should not be hypocritical. The other answer is in our exhibition. We have photographs from 1914, which are a hundred years old. They have been taken on the eve of the World War I. And in one of them, there is a beautifully set Easter table at the Bulgakov house. It turns out that it was the last peaceful Easter, because civil war began after the WWI, and later the holiday was prohibited. We recreated this photo in the dining room, everything that people see in the photo: Easter cake, flowers, Easter eggs, a very beautiful table. We called this year’s exhibition ‘War and Peace,’ because above this table, we placed a photo of how war entered the Bulgakov house. I think that such stand of the museum is crucially important now. We have to reconsider the ways to response and evaluate the events with the museum’s means.

“Each museum must determine the extent to which it will be involved in the relevant events. Everything depends on a museum’s management and their stand. Culture experts advise not to forget that everything in life changes, and the conflict will be over sooner or later, but culture remains. Museums must give an impulse for reconciliation, wisdom, unity. We will have to live side by side and build relationships with people we consider ideological enemies today.”


As for the urgent problems that worry museum workers today, they have not changed: from insufficient funding and lack of facilities to the absence of visitors. Museum workers say that they understood long ago: no one would help them and they need to take care of themselves. And they learned to do it, at least in Kyiv: through new projects that attract visitors, international projects, creation of a foundation to support museums, involvement of patrons. At the same time, culture experts say that it must be done carefully as to not damage the spirit of a museum. Also, very dangerous times have come for the activity of some museums.

“Let us look at museums in Crimea. Incredible treasures are located there. And suddenly, a letter comes in: indicate which works you gave to Crimean museums. Since the 1950s, our museum provided a lot of its exhibits to Crimean museums. But this must be thought over and solved in some way. However, it seems to me we are late again. Now something must be done to museums in Ukrainian hot spots. Take a look at Horlivka: there is an absolutely unique collection of Roerich’s works there. Or at the Donetsk Art Museum. For some reason, no one is interested in this,” says deputy head of the Kyiv National Museum of Russian Art Kateryna LADYZHENSKA. “If we look at the general tendency in museums, we see there is a demand for entertainment: there must be a cafe, a gift store, areas for children in each museum. And sometimes we forget that museums have different specifics. I would like to preserve the authenticity and spirit of an art museum. Each museum has its special appeal, its own collection. Art museums remain classic in Europe. There are modern art museums. If an art museum is combined with a modern one, it is a totally different issue, because we have to exhibit modern art in a different way. But to display it properly, a good modern building is needed in order to present it at a decent level. We do not have a single museum of that kind, because the collections are huge. Museum that does not receive new works has no life, therefore it has to be dynamic and develop constantly. But museums cannot take new works, because they do not have storage space. It is not a problem of our museum only, but of all Kyiv museums. That is why all the compounds must be combined: it must be interesting, people must want to visit a museum, and moreover, it must remain classic, because otherwise it would be a gallery. There is a difference between these two.”

Museum workers say it is extremely important to talk about the past through the prism of today’s life and modern values. The chief task is to maintain balance between the past and the present, because there are traditions that must be preserved and revived. The head of the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum said that they started having attendance problems only this winter, people started being less interested in it, unfortunately. “We have to shift our focus to Kyivites, to Ukrainians, we understand it already. There was a nice program once, when children could travel all over Ukraine for free during school holidays. And it was so great when school students from remote places could visit our museum and other ones! Perhaps, this issue should be raised now again,” Hubianuri shares.

According to Klymenko, a proposal should be made to the Ministry of Education to introduce visiting museums as a part of the mandatory school program, as it has been before, as it is now in esthetic education programs in Europe. It will become a very good contribution to the future.

By Oksana MYKOLIUK, The Day