Museums of Now or Then?

Children playing under giant silk flag at Maidan

Children playing under giant silk flag at Maidan

I was recently asked by Kraina magazine to share some thoughts in response to the idea of a ‘Museum of Maidan’; and last weekend I took a marshrutka to Pereyaslav Khmelnitskyi, the “city of museums” which boasts at least 27 different museums.

Sign for the Museum of Bread

Sign for the Museum of Bread

I only managed to see the Museum of Bread and the Museum of Rushnyk, both contained within the outdoor Museum of Folk Architecture and Folklife, a picturesque location to which various historic buildings were relocated when the Dnieper river dams were built and several villlages were submerged.

Entrance to Rushnyk Museum

Entrance to Rushnyk Museum

The open air museum, and the various small museums within, were maintained with care and with a real attention to detail within displays. So there were fresh rushes on the floors and dried flowers were chosen to match the rushnyk (embroidered cloths) hung on the walls.

To western European visitors, the museums might seem old fashioned – no interactive flashy displays, no high tech gadgets to persuade hyperactive children that learning is FUN; just well-used historical objects placed in cases, or displayed within very old buildings, supervised by even older women. But I found these museums to be totally engaging – purposeful, with a singular sense of identity; intimate and small enough not to feel overwhelmed; and loved.

It made me think about how to ensure museums are places of passion as well as curiosity; of fierce learning and a sense of connection to what’s gone before; arousing the same passions in the viewer as in the collector, and thus defended for the future?

an informal Museum of Maidan is already happening in the square

an informal Museum of Maidan is already happening in the square

“Like Ukraine now, any ‘Museum of Maidan’ needs to face forward whilst respecting the past.  As well as preserving heritage, we need to make space for new conversations in and about the public realm, and for new traditions. How can we use the ‘Museum of Maidan’ to encourage people in Ukraine to participate in, and thus redefine, culture as something that speaks to us about life now?   A Museum of Now, as well as a Museum of Then.

I was particularly impressed by the spirit of creativity maintained throughout the adversity of the Maidan revolution…how people managed to subvert state power and the armed police by making small acts of individual protest that were a creative response to the dominant narrative of showing strength through combat: the piano-playing men and women on the frontline, whose fingers kept playing in temperatures below minus 20; the painted helmets bringing the tradition of ‘petrykivka’ to the protesters’ orange hardhats; the women holding mirrors up to the ranks of policemen, inviting them to look closely at who they were.

Window for blogI propose that the Museum of Maidan is not a place but a series of Acts of Creative Protest that celebrate the collective spirit of Maidan. Rather than a building, full of objects, could there be an annual call out for ideas which results in actions? Ideas shortlisted and winners agreed by a committee of experts who allocate resources to each year’s Maidan Museum of Now?  These small gestures of protest would honour the past by staying relevant to the present, responding to the specifics of new times and new places.

Tributes of candles and flowers brought daily

Tributes of candles and flowers brought daily

Another idea would be to make the Museum an event which involves both a temporary display of objects in public, and a shared civic curatorial responsibility.  People would be invited to bring an object of their choice – something which symbolises the spirit of Maidan to them – which would be displayed in Maidan Nezhalezhnosti for one day only. It might be something they made, or a photo, or a newspaper cutting. On that day, others might contribute by doing something in public like singing a song, reading out a poem, playing a tune for those that attend.

The final action would involve people leaving the square,  each person taking a single object away with them and looking after it at home until the following year… when the Museum opens again, for one day only.  The Museum is then both public, for a very short time, and also private, back in your home, with one object in your care…so the people are the curators, and the custodians of the Museum,and the event serves to remind us that we are responsible for looking after our society as carefully as we do our own homes and family.

Rushnyk on display inside a traditional cottage

Rushnyk on display inside a traditional cottage

Just as the work to create a better society in Ukraine carries on, and isn’t over just because a corrupt President has gone and there’s a new Parliament, so the struggle to create a better world continues beyond this country’s borders as well as inside. I would like any Museum of Maidan to connect with people engaged in peaceful struggle elsewhere: in Thailand or Turkey, Venezuela and Egypt. So could the Museum be something very small that contains fire or light which moves around the world –  kept alight by the care of those who are in the frontline, as a way of reminding us all that we do better if we think about others before ourselves?”

(This text was published in Kraina magazine, 20/04/14; a current affairs magazine published weekly in Ukraine)

 

the Sauna Train of Ukraine, to Chernivtsi

With Anatolii and Katya - they might look cool but actually we were HOT

With Anatolii and Katya – they might look cool but actually we were melting HOT

So it’s 20 degrees outside, and 30 degrees inside, with no possibility of opening any windows. 4 bunks in our cabin, and the train rattles through the night on its 13 hour journey to Chernivtsi in western Ukraine.

Chai, served by each carriage’s conductor in glass mugs with decorative silver holders and matching teaspoons, provides welcome refreshment as we gently sweat.

I was invited to Katya’s home town to speak at the University where her father, Dr Vasyl Byalyuk, is Chair of the Dept of Translation.

pic of university building

Chernivtsi University – A UNESCO World Heritage site, built in 1860.

Sixty students of English (philology and translation) and teaching staff turned up to listen to my presentation about the value of culture, sharing the experience of how the arts have been a driver for regeneration and entrepreneurial activity in the UK’s North West.I talked too about stories – how my story and your story become, collectively, what represents us…our culture: a national identity woven from the warp and weft of individual and civic stories.

The evening before, the British Council had hosted a soirée designed to hear from some of the key players in Ukraine’s cultural scene about what they perceive to be the challenges facing them, and what they need from the British Council at this point in the country’s development.

pic of 12 people

Ukraine’s cultural leaders meet British Council’s team in Ukraine

“We need to make and show film, theatre, and art which promotes tolerance” said one. “We need you to support the education of our young film makers, choreographers, theatre makers by offering fast track ways in which curators and producers can learn skills which enable them to support our own artists from all disciplines” said another. “The British Council’s role in encouraging work which promotes diversity, and supporting artists to find ways to bring diverse communities together is crucial – given the increasing schism between eastern and western Ukraine” observed a third.

In a guidebook for Chernivtsi I read “From the City Hall balcony, magistrate employees once spoke to citizens in 3 languages (Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian) informing them about events in the world and the city. The capital of Bukovyna (the region of Ukraine which touches Romania and Moldova) was always distinguished by tolerance and a variety of cultures“.

That rich history is everywhere: Armenian Street, the House of Romanians, Turkish Square, the synagogues around the corner from Orthodox churches, the German Haus, the classicism of the architecture of the Austro-Hungarian empire next to modernist 1930’s civic buildings. The history of Bukovyna is one (another one) of occupation, assimilation…and tolerance. Today the pedestrianised Main St is full of prams and children, balloon sellers and girls in high heels, and in the nearby markets old women sell their pickles while old men sit smoking.

Deliciously random objects to sit side by side, in the Museum

Deliciously random objects to sit side by side, in the Museum

In the museum of the History and Ethnography of the Chernivtsi Region, rooms of objects are laid out in a wonderfully haphazard way – the taxidermist’s handiwork juxtaposed with traditional costume, next to a room of WW1 memorabilia, alongside some fascinating photos and masks from the Malanka carnival tradition still maintained in Bukovyna’s villages.

One of the students asked me about whether we in the UK are envious of the purity of some of Ukraine’s folk traditions…in our mixed up, mash up cultural melting pot, have we lost respect for “purity”?

I don’t think ‘pure’ traditions really exist – the folkloric aspects of western Ukrainian culture come to us from the weaving together of different influences. And culture that stagnates becomes irrelevant and we no longer care enough to fight for its survival.

The challenge facing Ukraine’s new cultural ministry remains – how much of its tiny resources are needed to preserve the past and how much should be spent on supporting artists to create new work, new films, new shows that speak to, and of, today’s fractured society? Art which might help people understand the immense shift that has taken place in Ukraine in the last 4 months.

A round table discussion with teaching staff, and a shameless promotional opportunity!

A round table discussion with teaching staff

The British Council in Ukraine is listening carefully to those who have proved their credibility in the artistic life of Ukraine by making things happen against all odds. It needs to be bold in its own approach, and in its encouragement and support of Ukraine’s artists, curators, producers, teachers and translators to be ambitious, despite the constant challenge of finding resources; and above all, it needs to continue to promote tolerance as a fundamental value.

 

Dancing to a different tune

pic of oranges on sale

Oranges and pomegranates on sale at all the markets

Flower sellers at every metro station

Flower sellers at every metro station

At this time of year, when everywhere looks grey and unkempt, the fruit and flower sellers of Kyiv are a particular delight – brightening up the underground markets, or, wrapped up against the cold at their outdoor stalls, supplying Vitamin C in the form of oranges for Kyiv’s population of 3 million people.

I enjoyed 2 dance productions back to back this week – the first the Kyiv Modern Ballet’s production of Swan Lake, created by one of Ukraine’s foremost choreographers, Radu Potlikaru (see interview here for more info about his work). Clearly aimed at a younger audience, I enjoyed the playful choreography, the loose dance style and the humour in the piece, and the packed theatre loved it. Radu Potlikaru himself was part of the creative team working on the Sochi Olympics Opening spectacular, so it was a surprise to see him back in the theatre, able to enjoy the standing ovation at the end of the performance.

The next evening, I went to the National Opera House of Ukraine for  the first time. Again, a packed theatre, this time for a “ballet fantasie” version of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, created by David Aydysh, for which tickets cost from 50UAH to 250UAH (£4 to £20). I had no idea what to expect…and ended up completely transported to another world: a beautiful traditional theatre building, imaginative choreography and strong design, impressive staging skills that included flying both performers and scenery silkysmoothly, and over 40 classically trained ballet dancers – all those pointy toes! I came out feeling giddy and lightheaded and wanted to dance my way home. I went and ate beetroot salad with herring instead, just to keep it earthy.

Curator Alina Glotova, with Sergei Paradzhanov

Curator Alina Glotova, with Sergei Paradzhanov

The third delight of the week was my visit to the Museum of Dreams exhibition inspired by the life and work of Sergei Paradzhanov, one of Ukraine’s most celebrated film directors. Born in Georgia to Armenian parents, imprisoned under Soviet rule, and exiled to Georgia at the end of his life, he was a maverick artist who danced to a different tune… his work includes films like The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – one of Ukraine’s most important 20th century films; and collages, mostly made during his imprisonment.

Film maker Andrei Tarkovsky commented on  “His way of thinking, his paradoxical poetic vision…the ability to love beauty and the ability to be absolutely free within his own vision”   and to me, his work feels sumptuous, fantastical, and bravely defiant of the harsh greyness that seems to have been the default Soviet setting.

the unlikely suburban setting for the Museum of Dreams

the unlikely suburban setting for the Museum of Dreams

The Museum itself is found down some steps in a block of flats and opens two evenings a week, and 1pm – 5pm on Saturday and Sunday. Run by two dedicated curators, Alina and Viktoria, and their team of helpers, I was struck by what love has gone into this exhibition. Beautifully displayed objects and photographs, video, audio, collage and trinkets…and a wishing well in the middle of the room.

Paradzhanov (1924-1990)

Paradzhanov (1924-1990)

Privately run, it receives hardly any financial support, so I hope that the people of Kyiv visit in large numbers (well, not too many at once – the space is tiny!) and make a donation if they like what they discover there.

If you live in Kyiv, do go and see this exhibition before it finishes on March 16. It’s in the Pechersk district, just a 5 minute walk from the Druzhby Novodiv metro.

In another conversation with some British Council Young Learners we looked at museums in the UK, and they outlined their choices about which museums they would like to visit after looking at the websites of institutions like the National Football Museum, the Maritime Museum in Liverpool and the Museum of Science and Industry.

Kristina and Lesa, two of the British Council's Young Learners

Kristina and Lesa, two of the British Council’s Young Learners

They recomYoung Learners - Kristinamended museums I should visit here, and two of the young people had brought in some examples of Ukrainian culture – in the shape of vyshyvanky (embroidered shirts)… Kristina is shown here wearing her vinok (a headdress of flowers worn by girls) and holding the ubiquitous Kalina berries.