Monday, 16 December 2013

Guest post: "Museums in Ukraine: Learning to be with the people", by Ihor Poshyvailo (Ukraine)

My friend and colleague Ihor Poshyvailo´s museum, the Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv, published the following post on Facebook on 30 November: “Ivan Honchar Museum supports the national protests against the government policy and police crimes against the student protesters, and encourages people to join the current people movement for the democracy. Do not be indifferent - come to the Maidan! We can only win being together!". I was deeply impressed with such a bold statement by a national museum and asked Ihor to share with us his thoughts on the role museums can play in their societies at historic moments, such as the ones currently going on in Ukraine. I have no words to thank Ihor for this beautiful text. mv

Photo: Bohdan Posyvailo
On December the 1st, my American colleague and friend Linda Norris published the post If I ran a museum in Kyiv right now in her blog The Uncataloged Museum. It was a prompt response of this museum expert, well-known in Ukraine, to the riot police night attack on the peaceful protesters, mostly students, in Kyiv. A wave of demonstrations and civil unrest began in late November due to a massive public outpouring for closer European integration in Kyiv and was named ‘Euromaidan’. It was claimed by Guy Verhofstadt, Member of the European Parliament, former Prime Minister of Belgium, to be the biggest pro-European demonstration in the history of EU. Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary at the United States Department, underscored that Euromaidan is symbol of the power of civil society: “It is about justice, civil rights and the people’s demands to have a government that listens to them, that represents their interests and that respects them.”

In her post, Linda puts herself in a Ukrainian museum director’s shoes and offers a program of action in three museum spheres: representing community values and ethics, serving the community, and collecting. In particular, she would make a public statement, take a look at the ethical practices and transparency of her own museum, throw open the museum doors and invite the public in for free.  Keeping the museum open early and late, she would have cups of hot tea ready, provide a warm place for reflection and contemplation, and find a space in the gallery for people to write or draw about their hopes and fears; encourage participants to think about Ukraine as a nation, about beauty, truth and complicated histories. Even more – she would permit and even encourage the staff to take part in the protests if they so desired. If Linda was the director of a history museum, she would be out collecting lots of potential exhibits for the future, starting from Tweets and Facebook postings, oral histories, flags, banners and hand-made signs and photographs to metal barriers,  face-masked helmets and police uniforms, and even home-made antidotes for tear gas.

Photo: Bohdan Posyvailo
Indeed, a simple, effective, and seemingly common reaction for a typical American or Western Museum. A museum which is 'about', 'for' and 'with' people. Such was the topic for discussion proposed by my another great colleague and friend Maria Vlachou at the European Museum Advisors Conference in Lisbon last year (here). Serving the community is especially important for modern museums, which are becoming active agents of communication, operating not only explicitly at the level of objects of history, science, culture, education or entertainment, but also at an implicit level, approaching spheres of power, ideology, values​​, and identity.

But for me, in the context of recent events in Kyiv, the combination of words ‘museum with people’ gains a new, special meaning. This seems quite a clear, even banal, phrase. But is it common for Ukraine and other post-Soviet nations? Do our museums want, can and know how to be with people today? Especially in a period of social uprisings and political tensions, in unusual situations, which require from a museum an open and honest look into the eyes of its current and potential visitors, of the communities it represents.

It happened historically that most museums in Ukraine are state-run and, therefore, they depend ideologically, economically and administratively on the government. So, how should they behave in a deep conflict between government and society? I hope for many museums the answer is theoretically obvious – same as for army and riot police soldiers who took the oath “to serve their people”. Do Ukrainian museums remain indifferent observers of the breath taking and internationally covered events at Independence Square? How can they be responsive and inclusive to the needs of the society and communities they represent and serve?

Photo: Bohdan Poshyvailo
Ironically, at the moment the President of Ukraine Yanukovych was visiting the Museum of Qin Terra-cotta Warriors in China and writing a review in the book of honourable guests, ICOM Ukraine and a number of Ukrainian museums were issuing public statements condemning unexpected crackdown on peaceful protesters and the pulling out of an association pact with the EU. The Directors Council of Lviv Museums coordinated protest statements of a number of Lviv museums. One of the oldest ethnographic museums in East-Central Europe – the Museum of Ethnography and Crafts in Lviv – displayed a banner on its balcony saying "We support the demands of Euromaidan". In Kyiv a dozen museums made their public statements, including the Museum of Kyiv History which is run by the City Hall and depends upon the Mayor of Kyiv, whose headquarters were taken by the protesters. Pavlo Tychyna Memorial Museum (located closely to Maidan) opened its doors to protesters and proposed them tea, rest and cultural programs. The Historical Museum-Preserve "Tustan" in the Lviv Region asked people on facebook to bake honey-cakes, "Knights of Goodness", write a message of support and send them to the freezing activists. The Ivan Honchar Museum, which glorifies the eternal traditional virtues of the Ukrainian people – freedom, faith, honour, democracy and humanism, shifted its educational programs to Euromaidan. It launched a series of flash mobs (such as the installation and decoration of the main Ukrainian traditional symbol of Christmas – Didukh ("the spirit of ancestors") - at the foot of the monument of Independence) and organized folk celebrations, dancing and singing at the epicentre of the protest area.   

Virtually all museums in Ukraine are government run and funded. Of course, there is a worry regarding possible repercussions. We know about the director of the famous Territory of Terror Museum in Lviv, who was summoned for questioning at the Investigation Department of the prosecutor's office as "a witness" to events at Euromaidan. We heard the story of a Kyiv metro driver who was fired just for telling his passengers how to find the shortest way out of the blocked central stations and join the protesters. We heard about dismissed commanders of the riot police forces in some regions, whose soldiers refused going to Kyiv and attack the protesters.

Photo: Bohdan Poshyvailo
Of course the Tahrir Square syndrome is still vivid in the memories of many museum professionals, but I think the Ukrainian Euromaidan is a great chance for many museums to test their ability to be with the people. I saw this need in twinkling eyes of peaceful protesters in the past three weeks.  And I drew the conclusion that in order to be with people our museums should not necessarily do extraordinary things, the should firstly listen carefully to the pulse rate of their nation and open their doors to frozen hearts.

Ihor Poshyvailo is an Ethnologist with a PhD from the Institute of Art Studies, Folklore and Ethnology, National Academy of Sciences(1998). He is the Deputy Director of the National Center of Folk Culture “Ivan Honchar Museum” (Kyiv). Co-moderator and co-organizer of international museum management seminars (since 2005). Participant in the International Visitor Program (USA, 2004), Global Youth Exchange Program (Japan, 2004) and The World Master’s Festival in Arts and Culture (Korea, 2007). Curator of international art projects, including the traveling exhibition “Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Culture Of, By, and For People” (2011), “Interpreting Cultural Heritage” (2011), “Home to Home: Landscapes of Memory” (2011-2012). He was a Fulbright Scholar at the Smithsonian Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage (2009-2010) and a Summer International Fellow at the Kennedy Center (2011-2013). Ihor wrote another post for this blog in 2012, entitled Reinventing and making museums matter.

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