For the first time since the museum was founded in 1905, all the exhibition halls are empty – all the objects in the museum are wrapped up, wrapped and hidden… When you speak, you hear echoes echoing in the empty halls. It hurts. It’s very sad.”
Ihor Kozhan, director of the National Museum of Lviv
It’s a war against our history, our culture.
Ihor Poshyvailo, director of the Maidan museum in Kyiv
Ukrainian cultural institutions – museums, national parks, libraries, theaters – are not military objects, nor oil depots or airfields, but they are nevertheless under threat…. We see and understand that the aim of the enemy is to destroy everything that concerns Ukrainian identity — the language, the national culture, the traditions.
Mykhailo Zakopets, director of a museum
What – one wonders to oneself deeply troubled – can we do in bloodthirsty and violent times? In particular, what can cultural institutions do? Take the case of devastated Ukraine, which is on everyone’s mind right now. With a bloody war raging, cultural institutions like museums, theaters or libraries will, of course, be closed; there will be no visitors, no performances, no exhibitions. But with bombs raining down and living structures reduced to rubble, how do we save national treasures, cultural memories and lacerated hearts?
There are no easy answers. Maybe there isn’t any at all. When the director of the museum, Ihor Kohzan of Lviv, whom I quoted above, declares, in down-to-earth but bleached terms, that “all the exhibition halls are empty; all the objects in the museum are wrapped, wrapped and hidden…”, one can begin to imagine ghostly, abandoned galleries without a stick or an object inside. But then he adds, “When you speak, you hear echoes echoing in empty rooms. It hurts.”
Unlike our country, Ukraine has thousands of museums: large and small, old and new, urban and rural, general and specialized. Not all of them are managed or supported by the government: a very large number are in fact maintained by local communities. Even consider this random list of institutions that I put together while working on the theme a bit. In Kyiv alone, the capital of Ukraine, one reads the National Museum of Art, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, a Museum of Religious Antiquities, a Museum of Theatre, Music and cinematic arts, the National Aviation Museum, a Pharmacy Museum, a water museum, a science museum called Experimentarium; even, oddly enough, a smuggling museum and one of the much-visited restrooms. Not every director or curator wants to speak publicly about what’s going on for fear of alerting Russian invaders or looters. But one said: “In almost all museums, workers sleep, stay for days to be close to the art, to be able to make last minute decisions. I can’t tell you more, unfortunately. Museum basements suddenly become wealthy ‘occupiers’, with hastily packed large works of art being transferred to them for security reasons.
Even if here we don’t know much about it, Ukraine is remarkably rich in sites and monuments that are part of the history of man, so to speak. The country is home to seven World Heritage Sites, including the 11th-century Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv and the kyiv Caves Monastery, an Orthodox monastery founded in 1051. All of Lviv’s Old Quarter – a city that has unfortunately been much news, having been targeted by Russian invaders, is documented as dating back to the 13th century. That aside, many museums house not only “local” works, unknown outside Ukraine, but priceless artifacts: Scythian antiquities, including intricately carved gold helmets worn by warriors from the 4th century BC JC; works by great Renaissance artists – Bellini, David, Goya among them; stacks of works by this pioneer of abstract art, Kandinsky, who settled in Odessa in southern Ukraine. A nostalgic recording of an event, a recent video showed a queue snaking outside the Odessa Museum of Fine Arts. “It was Sunday February 20 and – perhaps for the last time – men, women and children were lining up to admire its treasures (10,000 works of art from the 16th century, including the first paintings by Wassily Kandinsky ).” Just four days later, the Russians invaded. Descriptions of the ornate buildings still standing are marked by “windows blown out by explosions, plaster and dust covering the floors, and surrounding streets littered with debris”.
Already there are rumours, tales in fact, of Russian soldiers looting and looting art treasures from museums in cities they captured: grim reminders of what happened from memory of man at Kabul Museum in Afghanistan; at the great library of Baghdad in Iraq; to the famous art collections in Germany before the World War. Added to the “depressing costs of war” – loss of life, destruction of entire cities, near millions homeless – is an unfolding “cultural catastrophe”.
Someone once described museums as “islands of human happiness”. And I am tempted here, at the end, to speak of a Ukrainian museum which certainly belongs to this category, and which must also be threatened. It’s an egg museum: the Pysanka Museum – pysanka being a Ukrainian Easter egg decorated with traditional folk patterns, using a wax resist method – in the town of Kolomiya, western Ukraine. It was opened in 2000 and consists of nothing but painted Easter eggs, all brought in by rural people: whole families happily take up the task of painting eggs as the holiday draws near. The entire museum is shaped like an egg (14m in height and 10m in diameter), with parts of the exterior and interior of the dome painted to look like a pysanka. It houses around 10,000 painted eggs, all using traditional folk motifs, some recent, others dating back to the 19th century and still preserved. A special collection at the museum consists of pysanky decorated with hand-signatures by all Ukrainian presidents and most first ladies, and, of course, by foreign leaders and politicians who visit the museum. When I searched for photos, I found dozens showing families – parents leading smiling children carrying baskets of painted eggs – heading to the local Orthodox church to have their work blessed by their priest. Before dropping them off at the Museum, we guess.
But smiles, like eggs, must be threatened now. Because the clouds, already black, thicken all around.