Monday, 10 September 2012

Guest post: "Reinventing and making museums matter", by Ihor Poshyvailo (Ukraine)

Ihor Poshyvailo is a very discreet man, but, once we get to talk to him, we discover a wealth of knowledge and experience. In these conversations, it becomes obvious how concerned he is with the opening up of his country, Ukraine, to the world and the role museums can play in this period, which is still one of transition, especially in what concerns the encounter of folk culture and contemporary artistic expression. In this post, he shares his thoughts on the present and future of museums in his country. mv

Parade of "vyshyvankas" on Independence Day in Kiev. (Photo: Bohdan Poshyvailo)
Arts and culture were embedded in the environment I was brought up in. My grandparents were prominent folk potters who founded the first home-museum in Ukraine, the one which happened to be a predecessor of the National Museum of Ukrainian Ceramics in Opishne, a small village that boasts the title of “Capital of Pottery”.

I have been working in the cultural sector for over twenty years, but I should admit that the last three were especially favorable for me. I became a Fulbright Scholar at the Smithsonian Institution and a Summer International Fellow of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. These generous opportunities have provided me with new knowledge and empowered me with new ideas and visions.

Our world is becoming smaller and globalized. Nevertheless, it remains unstable. The cultivation of multicultural respect and mutual understanding between different communities can be one of the solutions to the biggest challenges and threats of the 21st century. In this process, special roles are given to arts and culture organizations, and especially to museums, which today turn out to be not only classical institutions for the preservation and presentation of historical, cultural and natural values, but important communication facilities. They have the power to profoundly alter our knowledge and sense of ourselves and of the world around us by transmitting information by means of presentation of objects and concepts, and their interpretation. As a number of researchers have suggested, museums also implicitly communicate messages about authority, power and the values of the dominant culture. Museums help us to reconstruct the past as well as provide an essential background for the understanding of the present.

In the last decades, museums in the United States have become more responsive to a diverse public by shifting focus from the presentation of objects to their interpretation and the production of experiences, while exhibitions have become people-centered, idea-oriented and contextualized. As envisioned by Stephen E. Weil, “The museum of the near future as an intricate and potentially powerful instrument of communication…will make available to the community… its profound expertise at telling stories, eliciting emotion, triggering memories, stirring imagination, and prompting discovery.”

Performance by a famous ethno-chaos group, DakhaBrakha, at Ivan Honchar Museum. (Photo:  Bohdan Poshyvailo)
The expansion of cultural heritage boundaries in the second half of the 20th century prompted new answers in what concerns the relations between heritage objects and their consumers. ‘Heritagization of space’ – a process of reinterpretation of one’s environment – puts heritage objects and cultural institutions in line with other popular leisure facilities, including circuses and casinos, restaurants and resorts, even television and the Internet. This phenomenon has had an impact on contents and methods of presentation and interpretation of cultural legacy and has inspired the transformation of museums into special and important grounds for a dialogue about the role of cultural heritage in the development of democracy and civil society. According to the famous futurologist Rolf Jensen, the present society, characterized by scientific approach and rationalism, will inevitably return to emotions, history and values.

In this context, it should be mentioned that the social role and popularity of a museum in Ukraine are quite small, unlike in the Unites States and other developed countries. There are numerous reasons for this. The genocide policy of the communists in Ukraine and the cultural oppression of the last 80 years resulted, of course, in a considerable loss of historical memory for the Ukrainians. During the repressive years of Soviet culture, much of the distinctively Ukrainian heritage lay dormant, hidden. This was unfortunate in many ways, but our cultural isolation preserved our traditional culture as in a time capsule. Since 1991, new freedoms have come providing access to new markets and cultures. Along with this access came the flood of global cultures. Although there may be many economic advantages, in Ukraine this flood of global cultures meets a vacuum of cultural memory. For our nation, charting a distinctive course into the future and the democratic open society requires some memory of who we have been.

The Ivan Honchar Museum, as well as many other museums, can uniquely provide these cultural bearings. The only problem is how to shift from the still dominant communist model of museums - which served only as depositories for imprisoned cultural and ethnic treasures and for ideological purposes, for the ceation of a new nation, the Soviet people. Today, hundreds of museums in Ukraine can boast unique and rich collections, but they are not inspired for transition, to reinvent and make themselves matter. The museum field in Ukraine is at a critical juncture confronting daily challenges. This happens because of a lack of professional knowledge and international co-operation, outdated methods of operations, policies, and programs, that prevent them from becoming leading centers of learning and education, shaping, creating and interpreting values. Their collections, libraries, archives and other documentation resources are still not open to the broad public. New forms of art expression and new segments of the cultural sector are starting to emerge in Ukraine. But there is no effective professional management in this field and no efficient cultural policy. And the Family – an important element of The Cycle model, crafted by Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center’s President – has not been built in Ukraine yet.

Fashion show during the Lion Fest in the galleries of the Ivan Honchar Museum. (Photo: Bohdan Poshyvailo)

But I believe in cultural diplomacy and entirely agree with my DeVos fellow-mate Caroline Miller from London, who suggested in her post for this blog that a big cultural or sport event can effectively communicate to a mass audience more about the host country “in just one show than politicians have achieved in decades”. In my recent trip to Tunisia I was so surprised that many local people (even at the “gate to Sahara” south region) smiled friendly when finding out I was from Ukraine, admiringly saying “Ukrajna. Shevchenko!”. Of course, I wish they meant our national icon ­– the legendary poet, philosopher and artist Taras Shevchenko, who lived in the 19th century -, not only our famous football player Andriy Shevchenko. Nice illustration of how this Euro 2012 Football Championship has served as a great cultural diplomat for Ukraine.

And I do believe that foreign experience in the cultural field can be of critical importance and value for Ukraine. It will help us find a way to comprehend and advance the use of our cultural legacy and of new forms of artistic expression in a rapidly-changing environment, focusing on why museums are important to our culture, what they can contribute to the quality of human experience and welfare, how they can enrich lives through engaging emotions, enhancing experience and deepening the understanding of people, places, events, ideas, conceptions, and objects from the past and present.

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); the Chairman of the Kyiv Regional Branch of the National Union of Folk Art Masters; a founding board member of the Ivan Honchar Foundation. He is an expert in the State Art Commission of the Ukrainian Ministry for Culture, as well as in the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2009). He is the author of the award-winning book Phenomenology of Pottery (semiotic and ethnological aspects). 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). Holder of the International Charitable Fund “Ukraine-3000” Scholarship (2005–2006), he has also got the title of Honorable Man of Arts (2008). He was a Fulbright Scholar at the Smithsonian Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage (2009-2010) and is currently a Summer International Fellow at the Kennedy Center (2011-2013). 

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