Local Museums in a Dynamic World: the (Post-)Soviet Legacy and the Future

Text by Iryna Sklokina

November, 2015
Lviv, Ukraine


Iryna Sklokina – historian, research fellow of the Center of Urban History of East Central Europe. Defended her dissertation about the official Soviet policy of memory of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine using the example of Kharkiv region. Graduated from V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University (major in history of Ukraine). Worked at Kharkiv National University and the Kowalsky Eastern Institute of Ukrainian Studies (Kharkiv). A member of the Kharkiv Historical and Philological Society. At the Center for Urban History Iryna Sklokina researches historical heritage, in particular industrial and Soviet heritage in Kharkiv and Lviv.

In this text I’d like to present some thoughts about how the Soviet period proved to be formative for regional museums as we know them today, and also about possible paths for changing and adapting these museums to modern times (1). Were Soviet museums fundamentally different from those of other countries? Is their experience a burden or source of potential? Are these museums needed nowadays and for what?

Museums around the world became important institutions of modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries, tasked with disseminating a rational world-view, an image of the world as an ordered and systematic place, with asserting the values of science, the enlightenment, and high culture. At the same time, museums sprang up as instruments of power, asserting national statehood and imperial supremacy over “backward” and “ethnographic” nations. The power invested in a history museum consists in its task to present “real”, “authentic” exhibits which should reflect the “real” past, “as it really was”. Aside from that, it is expert, universal knowledge that stands behind the creation and functioning of a museum, knowledge which should replace local knowledge and folk ideas. It was precisely this powerful position of the museum – as a bearer of objective knowledge, as an institution of enlightenment, which was meant to change the world-view of “philistines” – that became the foundation for a game between various centres of power, centres which exerted influence on museums’ activities and in fact, their exhibitions. Accordingly, in the 19th and even the 20th centuries, museums not uncommonly found themselves used as weapons of self-representation for rulers, dynasties, and influential donors.

However, as the self-awareness of the bourgeoisie and other urban societal groups rises, so does the critical attitude to official state myths – disseminated by museums (2), amongst other institutions. In addition, along with large, influential museums which embodied the might and glory of the nation-state, there also existed collections owned by private people or societies, which at times and subsequently remained mere collections of curiosities, and at other times could offer alternative narratives and question state policy.

Local museums became particularly active in Western Europe and around the world in connection with the radical changes which took place in historiographic culture in the 1970s, when new social history played an important role, including many initiatives involving “history from below”, and public and oral history, aimed at supporting those groups which had been marginalised as part of traditional political and state-centric history. For example, the “historical workshop movement” from Great Britain, which then spread to Europe, America and South Africa, turned its attention in the 1970s and 1980s to working class and women’s history, and encompassed dozens of local initiatives with the involvement of leftwing historians, musicians, amateurs, and most importantly – average people, who themselves told stories from their lives. Similarly, Sweden’s “Dig where you stand” movement (3) (“Gräv där du står”), which later spread to Canada, democratised historical culture by bringing the working class to the foreground, as well as ordinary town and country dwellers, who all became heroes and co-authors/creators of historical books, pamphlets, exhibitions and theatrical performances, and also 1,300 (!) “museums of working life” (4). This movement paid much attention to studying the natural and constructed environment at a micro- and local level. Thus, local museums became a part of initiatives which took on the historical schemes of the nation-state, and underlined the value of individual and collective experience. New local history museums were created not just by experts, but above all by communities themselves as institutions that were as open and flexible as possible, orientated to the needs of the public. In the end, the features of new social history were incorporated by academic science, and even traditional museums – sanctuaries of science and nations – became more democratic, open to discussing societal problems which troubled the local population, and became critical of the generalising national narrative. And to this very day, popular movements such as oral history, women’s history, environmental history, and the history of minorities, often work with museums to create history from historical material that is close to the historical actors themselves – “from the bottom up”.

This situation is particularly evident in the USA, where local museums depend on the community more, whereas in, for example, France, a whole chain of museums in the regions was formed in the 19th century and is financed primarily by the state, due to which grassroots initiatives in the museum sector are less well developed. Amy Levin, a researcher of museums, writes that in the USA an important factor in helping small museums flourish is the individualist ethic, and the idea of the value of all individual experience, therefore anyone can found a museum devoted to any subject at all(5). Museums in the USA are now more open to collaboration and temporary undertakings, and in particular their orientation towards comprehending contemporary problems, especially multiculturalism and coexistence in diversity, increased after September 11, 2001; people felt the need to understand the reasons behind this tragedy, reasons that had their roots in the past(6).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all small museums in Western Europe, the USA, and Canada started to worship new social history and forsook the traditional view of a museum’s work. Many provincial museums continue to present history as the exploits of famous politicians, and in other exhibitions they sometimes remind you of a collection of old rubbish or random objects which serve perhaps only to arouse tenderness and nostalgia, not to tackle the current problems of life in today’s society(7). Many local museums continue to fulfil the functions of the 19th century (social control via education), appealing to an idealised national history (the image of the US as the cradle of democracy is a widespread strategy used by museums to justify their existence) and to items of cultural prestige, and also uncritically glorify their own community, without paying attention to marginalised groups(8). However, a link to the local community, emphasis on the unique, and openness to contemporary problems – these are still paths of development that are more than familiar to local museums and historical societies.

Where can we place Soviet and post-Soviet regional museums in this history? Are there any essential differences between them and local museums in other countries? Is there a definite potential for positive change today to be found in their experience?

The advent of museums in the Russian Empire, as in the west, was a matter of not only the state, but also of independent and semi-independent actors: local historical societies, amateurs, collectors, pre-Revolutionary district councils, and universities. Changes in the 1920s reflected tendencies that were in fact universal for the whole world: growth in the role of the state in the life of museums, the centralisation of government, the founding of museums on the periphery of the state, and the use of museums as both scientific institutions and instruments for forming political loyalty. However, such modernisation at a time of monopolisation of power by the Party, and its leader, took particular forms. From the end of the 1920s, complete planned rule over museums was approved. In 1930, at the first museum congress, the idea of a museum as above all a “political enlightenment factory” was consolidated, at the same time that science and the preservation of heritage were becoming more or less secondary. In 1932 the Central Research Institute into Methods of Regional Work was established in Moscow, to carry out the function of preparing instructions – including about both model exhibitions and criteria for selecting items for collections. This beautifully demonstrates the combination of the authoritativeness of science with propaganda, something typical of a modern state. In 1936 the V. I. Lenin Central Museum opened as a separate institution, becoming a template not only for museums of Lenin in various republics, but for all museums in the USSR. The state aimed more and more to determine from the top the contents of exhibitions and excursions, and visitors were expected to become exclusive recipients of enlightenment and “culturedness”(9). Oblast, regional, and town Party committees were meant to approve plans relating to topics and exhibitions.

The best path (and safest for employees) for creating an exhibition under Stalin came to be the use of already printed, and therefore approved, texts – such as “A Short Course in the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”, the book “The Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union” by J. V. Stalin, histories of party organisations in oblasts and republics, speeches by the “Dear Leader” and other leaders on the occasion of historic anniversaries and current events, and publications in “Pravda” and other newspapers.

It was precisely this path that was simplest in order to construct a narrative with preordained ideological content – use texts already approved and legitimised by the state; this allowed one to avoid problems and the multilayered ideas of non-textual material objects. Display items were often specially created: a museum exhibit was seen as something to be created, prepared (the expression “preparation of an exhibit” was widespread). One instruction even asserted: “During the creation of an exhibition, you must ensure the presence of one particular item or another. The starting position is to be found in the topic of the exhibition, in those issues which we must shed light on in the exhibition or excursion for the correct assessment by the visitor of a given phenomenon, fact, or exhibit, in issues which are necessary for the propaganda of particular ideas, opinions, and world-views”(10). It is unarguable that this bears witness to the modernisation of the museum, to the dropping of the archaic view that it is a collection of things. At the same time, such a modern view served the ideological indoctrination of the museum.

However, the authorities were not satisfied with the strategy of repeating texts and more and more often required “real things” to be provided, in particular the “past as it really was,” and demanded museums find original items that would represent an “objective picture of the past”, “reality”(11). Statements made by the state leadership were not meant to remain just statements, but to become incarnate reality. This attempt to overcome the division between reality and its representation, between the intention and its incarnation, form and content, in fact, was characteristic of the whole utopian ideology and artistic method of socialist-realism(12).

In addition, museums had to instantly respond to current events and make the exhibitions revolve around the current events of the day. Excessive focus on the past could be read as a symptom of a dangerous “idealisation of patriarchy”, “delight in the old days”, as an attempt to flee from socialist reality. As we can see, this is very similar to current approaches to museums – they should be close to the life experience of the community and should address the problems of the current reality. But in fact, this “reality” was embodied in the revolutionary dynamics as the ideas and plans of the party and its leaders. The museum became a reflection of an expected, future, a never-actually-unattainable reality that appeared to be the already available “here and now”.

However, authoritative texts – on which exhibitions were based – contained only general statements, and often one had to determine the ideological tendencies intuitively. The role of local museums and their employees remained very important, particularly because of the need to present more general statements in the concrete form of local artefacts. This task of presenting above all local material was endlessly pointed out in numerous manuals and instructions: this was how the grand narrative of Soviet history was supposed to become “closer to the people” and take the form of well-known, local things: “our own” things(13).

This required much more ingenuity, skill and independent interpretive work which museum workers tried to avoid in order not to take responsibility for it. Trying to get detailed information at the highest levels about how an exhibition should be built in accordance with the latest ideological trends and at the same time on the basis of specific material did not always meet with success.(14) It was typical that the approval of plans in the Party Committee and that verification commissions, which examined exhibitions, were not usually considered by employees of museums to be a foreign hostile force, designed to expose the ideological errors of the museum staff. On the contrary, inviting senior officials to inspect the exhibition was the easiest way of legitimising it, a possibility to shift the responsibility for it onto these officials and, accordingly, to reduce the fear of possible charges for any mistakes(15). In addition, those checking the exhibitions were seen as an additional source of information about the most recent developments in the ideological line of the party.

Regional museums in small towns, in addition, were subject to the oversight of large, oblast museum-chiefs. Thus, a clear hierarchy was produced, and the contents of exhibitions in smaller museums became limited: they were, above all, meant to reflect purely local events and heroes, especially achievements regarding the construction of socialism and the wise plans of the Party regarding their own town or region. Reviews of thematic exhibition plans for regional museums often stressed the need to use more local material(16), which in practice basically meant provincialisation, ridding local issues of any link with the global or national context. Regional museums were accustomed to the fact that their role was to present general ideas using specific local examples. All the variety of local exhibits, and the uniqueness of local history, were seen as important “frills” which would help to convey the general idea of the historical process better, to decorate it and make it more relatable for the visitor.

Paradoxically, such “localisation” was more a translation of the generalising party line on local material and not at all similar to “history from below” which was spreading through western public history institutions.

Certain similarities with European processes can be seen during the Thaw, when numerous “people’s” museums began to appear, ie non-governmental institutions run by local activists, local historians, school children, and funded by kolkhozes or companies(17). Museums of individual institutions and organisations began to appear more and more often. “People’s museums”, of course, were still subject to control “from above”. They were run by state regional museums, among other entities, but they still did not have unified thematic exhibition plans, and, moreover, were often specialised, i.e. they covered more narrow aspects of the past (for example, people’s museums of partisan glory), i.e. an overarching comprehensive narrative was not always fully implemented. The participation of local inhabitants themselves, participants in historical events, in the lives of these museums expanded significantly(18). However, this does not change the main issue – the vision of a museum as an authoritative educational institution designed to convey objective knowledge, and through it – to agitate and exhort. Museums’ views of their actual audience did not change either – the view, above all, was powerful, educational, a view “from above”.

Ever since Stalin’s times, instructions for museum staff noted that the role of the guide should be as active as possible and, well, guiding(19). Ideally, visitors were not to be left alone with the exhibition, because, obviously, they had to get a complete picture of the historical process (i.e. so that they wouldn’t suddenly think of non-canonical interpretations that might easily grow out of the ambiguity of the material objects). Priority was given to visits by organised groups, which were without fail to be “given a tour”, while grouping together all single visitors proved to be impossible. Therefore, in the museum a clear spatial direction was also important, as was choosing the route through the exhibition, so that even without a guide the sequence of a visit would be set in advance(20).

The reaction of the visitors was also meant to be intentionally preset. One of the most popular methods was to cause visitors to identify with the heroes of the past and present, whose example should be emulated, especially via hard toil. In times of war, museum workers headed directly for the front line with travelling exhibitions and lectures meant to inspire immediate action: “The men of one of the batteries, under the command of Lieutenant Dyachenko, after leaving the lecture opened devastating fire on the enemy, and with their fire they destroyed several gun emplacements and their machine-gun crews. Soldiers convinced the lecturer that in the future they would destroy the enemy with even greater violence and hatred.”(21) The same is seen in peacetime: for example, at the Kharkiv Electromechanical Plant, in the 1960s in order to be hired a new worker had to visit the factory museum and make a solemn vow to continue the glorious traditions of the heroes.(22) And until the very end of the Soviet Union, museum workers were expected to be ‘agitators’ – for example, to walk with travelling exhibitions through trains, talking about the successes of constructing socialism, and accordingly to call for improvement in work-related enthusiasm, moral, and political unity.

However, visitors to Soviet museums still found ways to not only take part in this ritual of loyalty, but also to fulfil some of their own goals. The main benefit, which visitors identified according to entries in comment books – was to get certain knowledge about “the past as it was”, because after all, museum materials actually could prepare you well for sitting exams in such subjects as the “History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union” or biographies of Lenin and Stalina(23). Knowing the interpretation of certain issues from the point of view of the official ideology was extremely important for supporting the discourse of loyalty to the state. Especially in the Stalinist period, reputable institutions such as museums were needed, places which could – with the frequent changes in ideological trends – inform the bewildered and frightened people for whom the use of the correct ideological language was the key to surviving (particularly for cultural sector workers)(24).

However, in the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet museums found themselves in a new context. The relative increase in well-being, the proclamation by the party of a policy of competing with capitalist countries when it came to living standards, the growth of mass culture and entertainment, as well as the penetration of Western cultural products into the USSR all made the values of a consumer society increasingly significant. Along with an emphasis on transmitting more objective knowledge, methodological recommendations referred to the need to make exhibitions more interesting and attractive. At the end of the 1970s, the Research Institute of Culture in Moscow (formerly the Research Institute of Regional History and Museum Work) conducted extensive research into the audience for local history museums, called “The Museum and the Visitor,” and in the middle of the 1980s it carried out a study of the attitude of inhabitants of large towns and cities to museums(25). There was a clear tendency to pay attention not only to the content of exhibitions and their ideological consistency, but also to the recipient, the consumer.

For museums at the end of the Soviet period, there was a characteristic growth in the aesthetics and attractiveness of exhibitions, and a greater emphasis on the emotional impact and design. Big bright pictures and dioramas, which aimed not at a cognitive but emotional and aesthetic impact, became typical for museums. A new form appeared, setting museums up in former partisan dugouts, directly at the place of events, putting the viewer in the position of a participant in history, including them in the past via the use of space. These changes were important given the change in the approach to the museum as being a place not only of education and indoctrination, but also of cultural consumption and leisure.

According to entries in comment books, museums are increasingly seen as a place of rest, where there is “a lot of interesting stuff”, where you can have certain experiences and get “cultural services” and other such things(26). These changes were important indicators of broader cultural transformations.

However, awareness of these changes did not reach a significant amount of local history museums. It was mainly elite research institutions and large museums (or tourism museums/centres, including foreign tourism) that understood the new context as their employees were in the scientific loop. In a planned economy with no market, state- or enterprise-funded museums had no vital need to change or focus on new requirements. The growth of pop culture was not perceived as a challenge to the traditional institutions of culture, but rather as a “decline” or “corruption”. In addition, in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union there was no point in talking about the democratisation of historiography or the new social movements which became the basis for changes in historical culture in the free world.

During perestroika there was loud criticism of the administrative-command methods of managing museums, the lack of funding, the neglect of cultural objects to the benefit of industry, the newly-exposed Stalinist (and later) clearing-out of archives and museums, the sale of collections, and the focus on the glorification of the achievements of “developed socialism”(27). Ideas regarding a dialogic approach and the pedagogy of cooperation, which were known before, now found support in the communal atmosphere. The self-identification of museum institutions started to change as they found themselves caught between educational and recreational goals(28).

There was a general optimistic expectation that the elimination of Party dictatorship and “filling in gaps in history” would automatically lead to positive changes in the sphere of culture, but the need for reform was much deeper.

Indeed, the absence of a more profound rethinking of the vision of the museum led to a simple “changing of the flags”. Museums in today’s Ukraine have remained mostly translators of the “general line” of the historical policy of the state or the regional elites; they continue to receive recommendations regarding the subject matter of exhibitions, calendars of recommended events to celebrate, and are also thought of as yet another resource for the concept of “patriotic education”, which varies depending on the current president and government. Against the backdrop of a lack of funding, the depopulation of villages, infrastructure decay (and hence a deterioration in the availability of local history museums in villages and settlements), there is a fundamental crisis. These institutions are simply no longer able to enjoy the full support of the state and the planned economy, but continue to work for the state, transmitting, in essence, the old tasks of legitimising power and political propaganda.

What steps could be taken to change museums today? What resources are needed to do this? I’ll try here to outline are a few suggestions that are being implemented for real in modern museums, as well as being discussed in the works of museologists.

Changes in the system of financing. State grant programmes are where funding is provided on a competitive basis according to an independent evaluation of projects – such as projects for long-term change in a certain museum institution, museum collaboration projects with other cultural institutions, educational programmes, and research projects run by museums. An important additional source of funding today is international cooperation, especially cooperation with foreign museums which have more opportunities to apply for grants. Undoubtedly, more profound changes will also be impossible if the standard of living continues to remain low, since this means that museum attendance will also stay low as will admission fees. It is also worth working to attract private funding and volunteers. Volunteers can be guides, teachers in educational programmes, help organise celebrations, and collaborate in the creation of temporary exhibitions. Improving infrastructure is also critical(29). Museums should be aware that they do not occupy the position of elite institutions of high culture, but are in a situation of competition with leisure and entertainment offerings from other institutions. In this situation, it is important that the museum should not lose its identity (as an institution not only related to entertainment, but also to knowledge and educational services), but also become as open as possible to the needs of the public and start activities with thoughts of them, not with what the museum can offer.

A museum of communities. From the previous thesis it follows that changes in a museum should be linked to an awareness of what audiences the museum caters for, what needs the community has, whose interests it should represent, and who should be given a voice and power? Departing from the illusion of “objectivity” that any historical representation might have, we should at the same time examine critically our own position and be honest with ourselves, asking ourselves questions about our own level of engagement. Namely: which community runs this museum? Whose viewpoint does it represent? Does this representation promote mutual understanding? Does it also find room for the voices of “others”? What social consequences will it have? Will it become a legitimisation of an overly partisan point of view?(30) I think that after Maidan and the war, these issues are highly relevant for Ukraine.

A museum should transform from a transmitter of dominant ideology into an open institution which expresses the interests of the community that supports the museum and which is interested in it. It should address itself to the living stories of life, to grassroots material. However, that does not mean some kind of deep provincialism or position extremely critical of the government. Modern historical research methodology allows a museum to go from the grassroots and local to the global and universal, creating knowledge “from below”.

Museum staff should also think about which special groups exist (perhaps older people, people with disabilities, or children in the countryside where there are few educational opportunities) that might be interested more than others in visiting the museum, as well as in collaboration and co-creating. Education should not be the transfer of prepared knowledge, but the actualisation of the capacity to participate and gain experience – and therefore the museum can teach people from different environments and with different educational foundations. One and the same exhibition should leave open the choice of suitable – for a specific visitor or group – methods of learning, communication, and interaction, i.e. the museum experience should be both individualised and collective at the same time.

A museum in an urban space. A push to transform a local museum may be found in its connection with the development of the actual town or village where the museum is located. According to C. Orloff, the museum should be involved in the planning of a town, providing information about its historical heritage for the general plan and for plans for revitalising particular areas where heritage objects can lead to new ideas about future changes and about the new / old functions of certain buildings and places(31). More events should be held outside the museum, in the urban landscape. This should help to use history not as a burden but as a resource for building the future, as a source of new ideas for development and at the same time a sense of rootedness. Such a position should facilitate the formation of a civic culture of participation, when people feel responsible for the town or city in which they live. To do this, the museum can organise projects with the involvement of certain groups or small communities (for example, exhibitions of photographs, paintings, or the life stories of neighbours in the communities)(32). The museum can help to solve existing problems by covering their historical roots, demonstrating possible solutions that have been employed in the past. Of course, the museum is not always able to make the municipal government take the steps needed for society, but at least it can show a good example of how you can change the urban space, and provide extensive expert knowledge, as K. Butler-Bowdon and S. Hunt write(33).

A critical museum. It is essential that a modern museum is a critical tool for the community to view its own past. Since Soviet times, and to this day, we have mainly had a cult of heroes and the celebration of happy modernity in exhibitions, something which contrasts sharply with the real experience of people. On the other hand, such a representation is not only Soviet, it is actually a feature of the traditional museum of the 19th century, when the museum was seen solely as a treasure trove of all that was the best and worthy of praise and respect. And even now, visitors to museums are often outraged if exhibitions contain something “scandalous” (and therefore they do not accept critical contemporary art which shows the dark sides of life), or things that belong to hostile forces in history (for example, particularly in the 1990s, veterans visiting the Historical Museum in Kharkiv were incensed by the presence of many Nazi items connected with the Second World War, a flag with a swastika, and a colour photo of Hitler)(34). Museums are still perceived as places of propaganda, as pedestals on which you may only put something totally positive and worthy of repetition. The modern museum should leave this “higher mission” in order to be a tool for critical self-reflection and to show the historical roots of today’s problems. Under no circumstances should it present historical sources as being self-evident, as “remnants of the past”. The visitor should be aware of the nature of the created artefacts as well as the interpretive component of each exhibition. A museum should compare different opinions and encourage visitors to talk about the exhibits.

A participatory museum. The basic idea of a sharing museum is not only to attract visitors to the museum, but the realisation that knowledge in a museum is created in collaboration with the audience. Instead of giving ready knowledge and the “right” answers, a museum poses stimulating questions and at the same time speaks not to the audience but with the audience. The museum’s narrative should not be authoritarian but inclusive, bringing together different voices.

N. Simon, author of the excellent book “The Participatory Museum”(35), identifies a number of possible forms of participation: in addition to traditional forms, such as public councils in museums and help with expanding collections, museum visitors can contribute to the exhibition by creating their own videos (e.g. via a presentation of their own experience of an historical event), a drawing or collage, by commenting and voting on the exhibits, and many other forms. The main thing is to develop a good design for such cooperation, one that will assist with creativity, at the same time without programming it unambiguously, and without leaving the visitor alone with challenging tasks. Of course, there will always be visitors who love traditional static exhibitions and do not desire to be active participants – and for them a museum must also be open. Technology – for example interactive screens, the ability to interact with the exhibition through one’s iPhone – this is just one of the possible ways. In fact, an exhibit can become interactive even without expensive technical fluff. The ultimate aim of participation is not only fun, but above all gaining both personal and at the same time social experience of the past and the surrounding world. Ideally, a participatory museum should encourage dialogue not only between the audience and their guide, but also dialogue and debate among the visitors themselves regarding the museum’s exhibits. It is also worth noting here that interactivity should be mandatory for all activities aimed at children.

Of course, the key challenge to a participatory museum is the ability to share power and authority with the audience, and the ability to depart from the position of an all-knowing expert and claims to cultural superiority(36).

Changes in historical culture and eco-consciousness. Needless to say, all these methodological approaches should also be combined with knowledge of the approaches used by contemporary historiography and other sciences. There is no point in making the museum digital, interactive and open, just to transmit old authoritarian, imperial or narrowly nationalistic approaches to history, or disdainful and environmentally insensitive approaches to nature. Undoubtedly, participation in international exchanges, educational programmes, and partnerships with academic institutions can play a key role.

In summary, we note that all these changes are aimed, above all, at museums becoming real actors in the creation of civil society, as open, collaborative, democratic institutions, which are happy to work with others and facilitate the social inclusion of different groups, including those displaced from the grand narratives. Leaving behind all illusions about receiving complete support from the state, a local museum should serve the communities around it while retaining its identity as a cultural (rather than purely entertainment) institution, which, however, is primarily public and can facilitate positive changes through the use of historical, natural and artistic heritage resources.

(1) The empirical part of this text is based on my research on the Kharkiv Historical Museum which was included in my dissertation: The Official Soviet Policy of Remembering the Nazi Occupation (based on Material from the Kharkiv Oblast), 1943-1985, Kharkiv, 2014, and was also published as a separate article: I. Sklokina. The Politics of Remembering the Nazi Occupation in Soviet Museums. The Case of the Kharkiv Historical Museum (1943-1985), in: E. Makhotina, E. Keding, W. Borodziej, E. François, M.S. Wessel (Hg.). Krieg im Museum. Präsentationen des Zweiten Weltkriegs in Museen und Gedenkstätten des östlichen Europa. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.

(2) In her fantastic work “Monarchy, Myth, and Material Culture in Germany, 1750-1950” (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Eva Giloi shows, in particular, how the representation in museums of the rulers of Prussia and Germany changed in connection with the growth of the educational remit of museums, with the formation of bourgeois consumer culture and mass media, and with the process of state-building in various German lands.

(3) The name of the “Dig where you stand” movement comes from a book-manifesto: Sven Lindqvist, Gräv där du står. Hur man utforskar ett jobb (“Dig Where You Stand. How to Investigate the History of Your Place of Work”) (1979).

(4) By 1997 there were 1,600 such museums in Sweden: Industrial Heritage in the Nordic and Baltic Countries. Seminar on Cooperation in Strategies, Research and Training. 1-3 October 1999, Helsinki. TemaNord, 2000. Pр. 105-106. For more about changes in historiography, see: Dworkin D. Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left and the Origins of Cultural Studies. Duke University Press, 1997.

(5) Levin A.K. Why Local Museums Matter // Defining memory. Local museums and the construction of history in America’s changing communities / Ed. by Amy K. Levin. Altamira Press, 2007. P. 9.

(6) Ibid, P. 11.

(7) See Peterson D. The New Social History and Local Museums // Journal of American Culture. 1989. Vol.12 (2). P. 61.

(8) Levin A.K. Why Local Museums Matter… Рр. 12-17.

(9) Paradoxically, for example, even actual participants in historical events (particularly, respected revolutionary heroes, participants in events between 1905-07 and 1917-21) were not seen as sources of information that could contribute to museum exhibitions or collections: at meetings held by the Society of Old Bolsheviks in a museum, it was quite the opposite: “mistakes and distortions” were pointed out to them in their own reminiscences and it was suggested that they correct them in accordance with accepted Stalinist theories.

(10) Manevskij A. D. Fundamental Issues Regarding the Regional Museum Sector / Research Institute of Regional Studies and Museum Work. Moscow, 1943. P. 14.

(11) Simkin M. P. Collecting Material about the Soviet Period. A Manual for Regional Museums. Moscow, 1950. P. 20.

(12) Groys B. The Struggle against Museum or, the Display of Art in Totalitarian Space / Boris Groys // Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles / Ed. by D. Sherman, I. Rogoff. – London: Routhledge, 1994. – Pp. 144–162.

(13) Cf. inter alia, the State Archive of Kharkiv Oblast (GAKO). F. 5942. Op. 1. D. 35. L. 6; D. 36. L. 35; D. 43. L. 64 and others. Balancing general material and local material was not that easy, after all going too far in one direction or the other would be criticised. One typical example is: Serebrennikov G. N. The Organisation and Content of the Research Work of Museums. Moscow, 1950. P. 8-9.

(14) Hence, while on a business trip to Moscow in 1946, workers from the Kharkiv Museum tried to obtain thematic exhibition plans, however, they were refused everywhere: GAKO. – F. 5942. – Оp. 1. – D. 21 – L. 38. This is a typical example of how red tape, disorder, and a shortage of resources (of banal paper) were natural limits for totalitarianism.

(15) GAKO F. 5942. Оp. 1. D. 21. L. 8zv, 10-10zv.

(16) So, in 1946 regional museums were meant to do the following when creating exhibitions about the Second World War: “material, connected with the historic events in Europe, should be excluded for not having anything to do with a regional museum”, and they were meant to significantly reduce sections on the ancient historical past: GAKO – F. 5942. – Оp. 1. – D. 21 – L. 40. A museum’s history of the war became ever more provincial, not considered in a global context. The Second World War was boiled down to events solely on the Soviet-German front.

(17) The beginning of this process was instigated by the Decree of the Minister of Culture of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1957 regarding spreading experience related to creating museum rooms in village clubs following the example of the village of Kozeevka in the Kharkiv region. Regarding the wider hiring of non-specialists to work in museums, see: The Role of the Social Activist in the Work of a Museum, Moscow: Research Institute of Museum Studies, 1966

(18) Cf. in particular: To Help People’s Museums. Moscow, 1976. (Collection of Scientific Works of the Research Institute of Culture No. 42); Kasparinskaya S. A., Chudov I. S. The Activities of People’s Museums Nowadays. Moscow, 1965; The Methods and Experience of the Work of People’s Museums / Ed. S. A. Kasparinskaya, P. Y. Bukshpan. Moscow, 1973.

(19) See, in particular: Manevskij A. D. Fundamental Questions Regarding the Regional Museum Sector / Research Institute of Regional Studies and Museum Work et al. Moscow, 1943. P. 4.

(20) GAKO. F. 5942. Оp. 1. D. 21. L. 8-9.

(21) Vrochinskaya K. A., Komarova M. F. The Work of Museums of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic during War Time (information letter No. 1). Moscow, 1942.

(22) Burenkov M. The Heroics of Three Generations / M. Burenkov // Agitator. 1962. No. 5. Pp. 12-14.

(23) See in particular: GAKO. F. 5942. Оp. 1. D. 31. L. 28; D. 59. L. 4zv; D. 130. L. 24zv; Manevskij A. D. Fundamental Issues Regarding the Regional Museum Sector… P. 17.

(24) So, for example, one visitor to Kharkiv Museum soon after the death of Stalin (obviously, there was an atmosphere of uncertainty) expressed their wish, in the comment book, that the “plans of our Party and nation” could be more widely presented, which in principle was not at all strange: modernity and five-year plans were widely displayed exhibition items (GAKO. F. 5942. Оp. 1. D. 130. L.17); another group of visitors in 1954 expressed their discontent with the lack of “modernity” on show in the museum (GAKO. F 5942. Оp1. D 145. – L4).

(25) Current Issues in Museum Building. The Museum and the Visitor. Moscow, 1979 (Works of the Research Institute of Culture; issue 85). In particular, this collection devotes separate publications to the topics of advertising museums and organising holidays for schoolchildren in museums, which perfectly illustrates the direction of change. See also: The Museum Holiday: Organisation and Use of Methods, Recommendations / The Central Museum of the Revolution in the USSR. Moscow, 1985.

(26) See the comment book for 1966-1973 from Kharkiv Historical Museum: GAKO. F. 5942. Op. 1. D. 3036.

(27) Frolov A. I. Soviet Museums through the Prism of the Press // Museum Studies. On the Path to the Museum of the 20th Century. Moscow, 1989. Pp. 5-34.

(28) A. S. Soustin. The Exhibition Activities of Museums: Some Paths for the Intensification and Raising of Efficiency // Pp. 127-144.

(29) Amy Levin, in particular, notes that in the USA it was the developed network of highways that helped to organise and facilitate the huge number of local museums. Levin A. K. Why Local Museums Matter… P. 9.

(30) E. Kruk poses these questions in her studies of (Northern) Irish museums: Crooke E. Putting Contested History on Display: The Uses of the Past in Northern Ireland // (Re) visualizing National History. Museums and National Identities in Europe in the New Millennium / Ed. by R. Ostow. – Toronto-Buffalo-London: University of Toronto Press, 2008. Pp.90-105.

(31) Orloff C. Museums of Cities and the Future of Cities // City Museums and City Development / Ed. By J. Jones, R. R. Macdonald, and D. McIntyre. Altamira Press, 2008. Pp. 27-39.

(32) C. Butler-Bowdon, S. Hunt, Thinking the present historically at the museum of Sydney // City Museums and City Development… P. 75-89.

(33) Ibid, p. 76.

(34) Interview with V. Vokhmyanin, a historian and former employee of the Kharkiv Historical Museum, director of the museum of School No. 87, 12/04/2011, in Kharkiv (personal archive of the author).

(35) Simon N. The participatory museum. – Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010.

(36) An interesting example is the dialogic museum, which implements the idea of M. Frish regarding the necessity to “share power”: J. K. Wei Tchen, Ševčenko L. The “Dialogic Museum” Revisited: A Collaborative Reflection // Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World / Ed. by B. Adair, B. Filene, and L. Koloski. The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011. Pp. 80-97.

Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Radical museology

Lecture by Maciej Wołosiuk

20 March, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine


Maciej Wołosiuk – culture expert, researcher of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw that was founded in 2005, temporarily situated, and leads their activity, in modernist pavilion in the heart of the capital. The major goal of the Museum is to acquire a collection of artworks to be presented in the new building that is going to be built to 2020. The museum held an extensive educational program related to contemporary art – film screenings, lectures, meetings, discussions and workshops. These activities are dynamic and open to the public that consistently draws a lot of residents and visitors alike. The museum organizes numerous artistic events outside of the institution, invading with contemporary art in the current space of the city.

The lecture was a part of the project At the heart of community which is realized in the frame of TANDEM – Cultural Managers Exchange Ukraine is an initiative of the European Cultural Foundation (Amsterdam) and MitOst (Berlin). The programme is implemented by MitOst and Insha Osvita (Kyiv), supported by the Federal Foreign Office (Berlin) in the framework of Dialogue for Change.

Food for a Museum

Yulia Kostereva interviewed Data Chigholashvili and Nini Palavandishvili

August 25, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine


Data Chigholashvili is working between social anthropology and contemporary art, exploring the connections between them through theoretical research and projects. Since 2012 Data is affiliated with artist initiative GeoAIR. Nini Palavandishvili joined artist initiative GeoAIR in 2006 and since then she is actively engaged in curating and organising international exchange project in Georgia and beyond its borders. Through her projects Nini researches on social and political contexts and its interpretation in the context of cultural production and contemporary art. 

“Nobody really spends a thought on which role does cuisine and culinary play in our everyday life”

Yulia Kostereva: How does your previous experience intersect with your activities in Melitopol?

Data Chigholashvili: I think first of all the context is of course so different, the idea of many ethnic groups, or nationalities that come together – that is very actively present here. We’ve been working with people from different countries who live in Georgia, but there the context and the project was different. It was very interesting working with the group here, everybody had so much to contribute and most of them were so active and had lots of useful ideas for the project and it was also quite interesting that all of them were women. Here and there we had few men who stopped by, but most active ones were all women. Maybe that is stereotypically due to the fact that the project was about recipes and food, which is also an interesting fact. And in terms of what we were emphasizing – the exchange aspect was a starting point for the project in Melitopol, which was again another perspective on foodways.

Nini Palavandishvili: If in the previous case it was an exchange between us and our project participants, in this case it was an exchange among all the involved individuals. All the participants had to exchange among themselves and share. And this was very interesting to see and to observe it in this group of people.

Yulia Kostereva: Why did you suggest such an activity for Melitopol?

Data Chigholashvili: This year and last year we have been working a lot with cooking and we wanted to look at it a bit differently this time. It was mostly recipes and details, like culinary notebooks, again it was limited around the culinary aspects, but at the same time it was about the memory connected with this recipes and food. What I think was important about this project is that the museum and the culinary traditions are not really something that people would think together most of the time. Even though a lot of things that museums show, about whatever period, are connected to food and to kitchens and how people got food, what instruments did they use, a lot of things are there about the kitchen, etc. so why not bring contemporary foodways into a museum? And, I think, one of the good examples was that a woman who was doing the TV shows about cooking, she brought this film here after she attended the first session. She thought that it is OK to show it in the museum. I’m thinking she could have shown it before, and now somehow the boundary has shifted a little bit.

Nini Palavandishvili: And it is an interesting thing, that very often when you have different cultural activities, especially exhibition openings – vernissages, finissages – there is always food present at this kind of events, but nobody thinks of talking about this food, and why exactly that food is present. Nobody really spends a thought on which role does cuisine and culinary play in our everyday life.

“In the museum there is already quite a big number of people who are the community”

Yulia Kostereva: To what extent have your expectations regarding this work in Melitopol come true?

Data Chigholashvili: I think it’s wrong to have any precise expectations for a work, which is based on the process. This is very short term what we did here. One thing is what you see as a final result, or maybe the final event, but generally you work for a day or two and most of the things change during the process, which does not mean there is something wrong with the project, if nothing changes, then there might be something wrong. Sometimes, if the context and/or participants require, one can even go further from what one initially wanted to work on. We had some thoughts – maybe we go this or that way…

Nini Palavandishvili: But then these thoughts are about the process not about a final result or an outcome.

Yulia Kostereva: Did you notice any particular issues connected with working in a small town?

Nini Palavandishvili: It very much depends on a place and on a community. I think in the museum there is already quite a big number of people who are the community and they are visitors, they are friends, they are close participants of these events. It can be also in a big city when there are not many people participating in such events and that can be a village where people are disinterested. But in this case it was definitely very nice to see that so many people come to the museum and appreciate what is done here and also looking forward to new things and to get engaged.

Yulia Kostereva: How can the museum in Melitopol develop?

Data Chigholashvili: Personally, I would add more contemporary elements on the first floor, which they already have in a way, but not only to find the person who does caricatures or does portraits and make their exhibition in the museum, but also to look at things that are a bit different, but speak so much about the people, maybe, also have open calls and get some ideas from locals on what to exhibit temporarily. For instance, the recipe books, they can be so interesting in the context of this museum and in the context of the multicultural environment of Melitopol.

Nini Palavandishvili: And it is interesting always to rethink and to look anew on the museum collection and to work with it. To work and change the permanent exposition they have, to make more thematic exhibitions from the collection they have and also to add new things. And of course with the participation of many different people and to opening it more up.

Data Chigholashvili: Involving people in the work instead of just offering them something, so that they know that it is also part of their city. And that is very important, that it is more doable here, than in the bigger cities, in the bigger museums.

Yulia Kostereva: What other conclusions or thoughts following the project would you like to share?

Nini Palavandishvili: Wishes maybe, that these kind of initiatives are not temporary and single initiatives. That the museum also takes it over. Because that is also what we’ve been talking about, that you or any other artist won’t be able to work here permanently. I would wish, that they would continue this kind of work themselves, they would look for different people, they would themselves initiate things to trigger their own creativity and to developing the museum themselves.

The Game of Life

Yuriy Kruchak interviewed Nina Khodorivska and Jana Salakhova

June 30, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine


You can agree with the thesis that life is theatre, or you can dispute it, but it doesn’t hurt to rehearse some of your actions. This is proven by the experience of the “theatre of the oppressed.” Nina Khodorivska and Jana Salakhova are the “jokers” in Theatre for Dialogue, which operates according to this method. In Melitopol the activists held a theatre workshop for people without prior acting skills. The participants in the event, with the help of theatre games, learnt about memory and how it is constructed and destroyed. These “jokers”, i.e. coaches in the “theatre of the oppressed”, together with the participants, prepared sketches about memory, history and Melitopol, based on real-life events, and the thoughts and experiences of real people.

In an interview, Nina and Jana explained how, through theatrical games, they teach people to defend their rights, what their performances have in common with ancient Greek tragedies, and talked in detail about their work in Melitopol.

How life is rehearsed in theatre workshops

Nina Khodorivska: Our main goal is to humanise humanity. We are a humanist theatre with humans at the centre, not artistic traditions. We work with the views, problems, and interests of the people who come to us. We form our performances from these. Scenes are written and roles are handed out by the people themselves. At the same time they learn to listen to each other. We provide the space and carefully moderate the process so that the group remains together till the end, so that the people use aesthetically-pleasing techniques.

The workshop begins with a series of theatre sessions, which we call games. In an unobtrusive theatrical game people are willing to open up boundaries which they did not previously want to think about. We first analyse, and then we synthesise a performance. During a show, the audience become equal participants in the process. They watch the show, and then can challenge whatever was said, and say what they thought was lacking. Also, viewers can take the place of almost any character – except a sharply negative one – and try to play the role differently. To show how to behave differently in a given situation.

Jana Salakhova: We work with the “theatre of the oppressed” methodology, which was created by the Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal. There are two important points which, in his opinion, the method must implement. Firstly, making art, in this case theatre, accessible to all. Augusto Boal stated that everyone is theatre. The second aspect is that oppressed people are deprived of their right to vote. They know a lot about their lives, but they do not have a channel through which they can voice this knowledge. We can offer such a channel in the form of theatre. Here people can voice their questions and problems. One important aspect is this: we offer people a safe place to rehearse behaviour that they can carry out in life. Many games and exercises are aimed at the fact that a person does not speak but acts with the help of their body, which expresses his or her thoughts and feelings more naturally. We are trying to help people hear themselves, causing them to act via our productions. And we involve the audience in our performances.

Yuriy Kruchak: Why are you interested in this technique?

Jana Salakhova: Our performances cannot affect systemic problems, but on a personal level our workshop participants learn to change their lives. People learn to stand up for their rights. For example, we did a production with migrants and there was a scene of a conversation with a boss. It suggested a number of strategies of how to convince a person to change their position. Soon one participant in the performance got a job and was told that at first she would not be paid. After the performance she had the courage to say that that was wrong. And she persuaded her employer to pay her. That shows that in our theatre people can acquire useful skills.

"At the workshop we rehearse democracy, and at the show - revolution"

Yuriy Kruchak: To what extent have your expectations of Melitopol been met?

Jana Salakhova: It’s too early to talk about it. The complete process consists of two parts. The first is a workshop. In a few days we create a community of people who share stories about their lives. We act it all out through theatre, we grieve together, solve problems, and with this community formulate questions which are important to show in the performance. The second part is the show. The participants in the show are the writers and actors. They learn to make decisions collectively. During the workshop, we try to simulate a situation where the voice of each participant is involved in the process. We try to teach people to work together.

Nina Khodorivska: If in the workshop we rehearse democracy, in the show it’s revolution. At the workshop, through creative techniques, we show people how to hear each other. At a certain point we leave the room, there’s no moderation, all participants have equal rights, and they need to agree on a certain scenario. And they learn to find common ground without a leader. Democracy manifests itself in the fact that all opinions are taken into account, decisions are made together.

At the show, we put on a pessimistic performance in the style of an ancient Greek tragedy – where the hero dies at the end. Our hero does not necessarily die, but the situation is very bad. He or she has certain goals, interests, and desires, but circumstances – often in the form of people – take him or her further away from them. During the show we ask the audience to take the place of the actors and understand how the hero can behave so as not to be intimidated by the vicissitudes of fate, like Greek characters, and get what they want. On stage we cannot make a revolution, save all the oppressed, but we can rehearse it. Either way it’s better than discussing things in a kitchen.

Yuriy Kruchak: What are your expectations from the In the Heart of the Community project?

Jana Salakhova: When we were talking with the actors, many of them pointed out that all the problems that we touch upon are relatable and important to them. But usually inhabitants of a town just talk about these problems. They complain, but there is no critical mass, a community of active people who can take responsibility and begin to do something. A performance may become an attempt to create such public discourse. When people see that some of the problems have been stated out loud, in the theatre, it can affect their attitude towards the issue. They understand that some things can and must be aired for public discussion, for example, at an open meeting of the town council.

We want to show how it is possible to raise problematic issues. Perhaps in the hall there will be viewers who recognise the situation. And a sense of unity can sometimes be the impetus for the creation of a community of people, for their self-organisation.

"We were told that the 'theatre of the oppressed' sounds sad"

Yuriy Kruchak: In Ukraine, are there other collectives like yours?

Nina Khodorivska: There are people who in their human rights activism, or other activism, use the forum-theatre method. But the “theatre of the oppressed” is something much broader, it has its own philosophy. You know, in many countries there are departments or faculties of anthropology. And in Ukraine an anthropology course consists of six lectures at university. Can we say that in this university they are engaged in anthropology? Various organisations use a bit of this technique to reveal something of their own, but our “Theatre for Dialogue” totally focuses on this technique and utilises it for different groups of people.

Jana Salakhova: There are public organisations and human rights activists who use forum-theatre as a tool to achieve their goals, without the ideological component which we try to save. If we say that the “theatre of the oppressed” is theatre made by simple people for people, we expect that following this there will be direct action. When we started to conduct the workshops, psychologists and social activists came to us, people who saw it as just an interesting methodology for working with people. But the “theatre of the oppressed” was thought up so as to free people from oppression, so they understood what they wanted and acted independently. We do not always notice these things when the procedure is used by different organisations.

Nina Khodorivska: Working with a group of people to put on a performance regarding a certain, relevant, topic – that’s something different from the actual “theatre of the oppressed”. In Africa, for example, they use a group of people to stage a play on a “necessary” topic. People are fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS, they want to show as much as possible the problem that worries them, so they make of play about it. Yes, the play is based on true stories, but it has no connection to the people who are involved in it.

Yuriy Kruchak: You have conducted workshops in various cities in Ukraine, for example, in Kremenchug. How is Melitopol different?

Jana Salakhova: I was in Kremenchug for one day, so some things cannot be compared, but some aspects are similar. In Kremenchug we staged a play about a young female artist who dreams of organising performances, of ennobling the town, and she comes up against the outdated notions of her fellow citizens about how the city should look. Her work is not understood by her family, or among her peers. And in this aspect, the project in Kremenchug is similar to that in Melitopol. In general, our protagonist often has an idea that does not fit with what is acceptable in their town. Certain established values interfere with what the hero wants to achieve.

Nina Khodorivska: It all depends on who comes to the workshop. In Kremenchug, Yana had a group made up solely of women as, in general, we have in Melitopol. I worked with young people in Zhytomyr, half the group were not even 20 years old, and there there was a different vision of the key challenges. We worked with the concept of a certain structure – school, university, or college – where there is a tyrannical head, tyrannical teachers, and schoolchildren and students who do not seem completely human, you can scream at them and all that. There’s hopelessness, lawlessness, and so on. For the participants in the workshop that’s where the oppression was. The words “hierarchy”, “power”, and “abuse” cropped up in the scenes. In Kremenchug and Melitopol they spoke mainly about finding employment and opportunities. Here there is a view that if you are oppressed – join another social group.

Jana Salakhova: By the way, it’s mostly women who come to our workshops.

Nina Khodorivska: I think it has something to do with the fact that the name of the method is the “theatre of the oppressed.” We were told that it sounds sad, that there’s no need to mention this concept. But those who comes to our workshops really understand it. They feel the oppression and want to work with it. Now we’ve rejected the idea of removing the phrase “theatre of the oppressed” from our posters. We try to attract an audience that needs to work with oppression, and there is such an audience. Most of the workshop participants really are women. I won’t bang on about it, but it seems that there are more women than men who feel oppressed and hence wish to change something. Maybe men think theatre an unworthy activity.

Finding yourself in a museum

Yuriy Kruchak: In the In the Heart of the Community project we are working in the Melitopol Regional Museum. What proposals do you have for reforming such museums – small ones not in a capital city.

Nina Khodorivska: I was surprised, but half the rooms in the Melitopol museum are very modern. The palaeontology room and some other rooms with stuffed animals are obviously Soviet. But one of the rooms has a ceiling that glows with a blue light and it creates a sense of adventure. Another thing is that the museum should work not only with those who will come to look at exhibits. The museum needs to work with people in general. Each museum employee can conduct a small popular-science course. Employees can organise creative excursions for different categories of people. The National Art Museum of Ukraine carries out such events. There are lectures for people of all ages, and it’s fantastic. Yes, the museum deals in the past, but it is not only objects, but also customs, that their experts know something interesting about. I would like to work together on a human level.

Jana Salakhova: I think the At the Heart of the Community project is moving in the right direction. In smaller towns there are plenty of spaces where people could do something, but these spaces were built in a certain period and for certain purposes. Many of these spaces, including museums, should take into account the interests and needs that exist among their citizens today. In one of our workshops someone was talking about working people who have a need to develop. And a museum can be a space that responds to this need: it is possible to hold lectures, workshops and master classes. A certain discourse may be formed. But this place should be free, so that people from different walks of life can come and feel comfortable. In some ways our workshop is about that. About a model of space where everyone can find themselves. Museums can become such a space, the staff can develop them in this way, in particular through conducting various activities.

Yuriy Kruchak: In Melitopol you have had the idea of putting on a festival. Tell us more.

Jana Salakhova: We were inspired by the local Palace of Culture for railway workers. The acoustics are good, the very design of the building is cool. At the workshop it was mentioned that Melitopol has ceased to be the gateway to the Crimea, and now the city has a problem with jobs. I thought that it would be cool to hold an art festival in this Palace. The main room lies empty, it is not in very good condition, but one could get money for a festival and some of it could go towards renovating the hall and maintaining the building. You could attract an art crowd to Melitopol. But a simple arts festival will attract a closed group of people. So the idea has been expanded to include a festival of culture and business.

In Melitopol, as in any other town, there are resources that can lift the economy of the region. Now is the time to do it. But we need to know how to build everything, so as not to crash and burn. We need an impetus, inspiration and knowledge. A festival of culture and business could become an impetus for creating an active part of the city, one which has a physical or social and intellectual capital. So that Melitopolites could talk with people from out of town there, people who excel in the arts or business. I am talking about business that develops something around itself, about social entrepreneurship. Maybe a businessperson would invest some of their profits in cultural education, in a space for art. For example, a symbiosis of a club and art centre, factory, and exhibition area.

Yuriy Kruchak: Are you ready to become part of a group that would launch such a process?

Nina Khodorivska: I’m curious to try. I have read a little about how to organise such things. Perhaps I could get together with people who carry out such activities, I would study foreign experience – in order to understand how to make the project succeed.

Why collect stories?

Yulia Kostereva interviewed Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

August 11, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine


Hundreds of people’s “little” personal stories merge into one big story that in a hundred years will be taught from textbooks – of course, if books and school will exist at all. Such stories were collected at the Melitopol “Festival of Memory” by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac.

Gabriela Bulisova is a documentary maker, photographer and artist. She is originally from Slovakia, but spent most of her life in the United States. Gabriela explores socially important topics, for example she is doing a project with American prisoners. Mark Isaac is a multimedia artist who lives in Washington, DC. His work focuses on issues regarding people’s immersion in electronic media and their attempts to forge a true identity.

In Melitopol, Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac were impressed by work in the local penal colony – where they talked a lot with the female prisoners and took photo-portraits of them. In the Regional Museum our guests from America talked about festivals and, in the end, organised a “Festival of Memory” with Melitopolites. During the event everyone could share personal stories about their favourite locations and suggest objects associated with memory. What came out of it, and how Melitopol surprised the American participants – they told Open Place

Free dialogue - in a penal colony

Yulia Kostereva: How does your previous experience correspond with what you did in Melitopol?

Gabriela Bulisova: Very much, I think. As far back as ten years ago or even longer I’ve done projects in Ukraine and Belarus, focused on environmental and social justice issues, associated with the Chernobyl disaster. Thus, my previous work, at least on a cultural and ethnographic level, informed me on how to proceed with a project in Melitopol. And specifically, our work in the penal colony was preceded with years of working on criminal justice issues in United States. However, it was an entirely new experience for Mark and I to gain a permission to enter the colony (which is not something that’s really possible in the United States), to be warmly welcomed by the deeply caring professional staff, and to meet the lovely young women, face-to-face, and listen to the very personal and intimate stories they decided to share with us. We are deeply touched by the heartfelt welcome, and we treasure our experience at the colony.

Mark Isaac: The difference is that you were not able to obtain that level of access. You very likely would not be able to enter the facility at all, and you would not be able to engage either with the staff or the inmates in any way, shape or form. Most of our projects in United States have been done with people who are returning from prison or with family members who are affected by prison, but we’ve not been able to gain the same type of access that we gained here.

There is another thing that I’d like point out that is important. We have been searching for the right way to engage more directly and to have a more interactive experience in our artwork. And the entire experience in Melitopol , not only with the colony but also with the local residents who volunteered to participate in “Festival of Memory” created a new level of collaboration with the local community. It was quite a good experience for us, and I hope also for the people who participated, and I think very importantly it will probably influence the way what we work on future projects. Because having had that experience it will make easier for us to develop good strategies for engagement with the community.

Gabriela Bulisova: Which is something that we continuously think about: how to engage a subject, how to engage the audience in a more meaningful way. And it is very important for us when the subject is on an equal level in terms of collaboration. The subject basically gives his or her voice to the project.

Mark Isaac: Right, in this case, interestingly, rather than us making all of the decisions regarding what would be shown, the project very specifically called on the participants to make decisions about an object that is very important to their memory that would be included in the project. We are always searching for a way in which to authentically portray the stories of our subjects, and this really allowed them to be direct collaborators in choosing some of the material. I think that was very successful and will inform the way that we will work going forward.

Yulia Kostereva: Why did you choose this type of activity to propose for certain place?

Gabriela Bulisova: We didn’t know what to expect when we first came to the colony. We didn’t know what kind of access we were going to have, and we didn’t know how many girls would like to participate. Obviously it was very open, very collaborative, and I specifically find interesting what happened on the last day when we worked in there, when each one of the young women would present an idea where they wanted to be photographed. Because we spent some time with them, and they understood what the project was about, they had an opportunity to think how they would like to be portrayed and what place was important for them. And, I think, a similar thing happened in Melitopol working with the other participants. They understood that they are an equal part of the dialogue. They could choose the location where they wanted to be portrayed, and select the object they wanted to highlight as part of their story. We provided ideas on what kind of strategies could be implemented given time restraints and so on, and they were able to make selections. It was very much a dialogue from the beginning to the very end.

Yulia Kostereva: Did you have any expectations and if so, did they prove in the reality?

Gabriela Bulisova: Of course you have some thoughts, visions, plans and expectations, but I think it’s very important to be flexible and open to suggestions and opportunities once you actually meet with the person you are photographing, after you have a conversation with them and understand their thoughts, the details of the location they selected, and so on. Because, if you are not flexible, if you just try to move forward with your expectations and your ideas, you may find yourself at a dead end.

For this specific project, because we didn’t know what was going to happen in the colony at all, the outcome is far greater than my expectation. And also in Melitopol, when we first got there, we knew that five people might want to work with us, but at the end it was 25 people who worked with us, so again the result was far greater and meaningful than what I personally expected.

Prior to starting any new project, one has to do some research, some preparatory work, etc., but what I think is very important to stress is that none of the work we were able to accomplish would have happened was it not for your help (Open Place) and also the help of the museum. Because if there was no foundation we could build upon, we would have been complete strangers, we would not only have had a language barrier but also a cultural barrier and that would have closed doors ahead of us.

"For the USA it is rare that a museum contacts a correctional facility"

Yulia Kostereva: Did you notice any features to work in a smaller city, not in the central one?

Mark Isaac: On some level, I think, in a smaller city, what we found is that people are very open to collaboration, and they were very welcoming and there was a desire to become a part of the project. I think in a larger city generally speaking people may be a little bit more cautious about participating in a project like this. So in a way it makes things easier, I think it may be a desire on the part of people in a smaller city to connect to something larger. So, when we come in as artists who work other places, in other parts of the world, and also work often in larger cities, then the local residents see opportunities to connect to something larger. And many of the questions we received reinforce that they were wondering, for example, if the Festival of Memory was held in other cities, could they connect to something larger than their own city. And this felt rewarding for us too – to be able to think of ourselves participating in something that became on some level more global. I think that makes it exciting, no matter where you are that you are connecting people in common strategies and in a common vision of what will improve the ability of our cultural institutions to serve the public. I think that the willingness of people to engage of that level was very rewarding for us.

Yulia Kostereva: And how do you see the role of such institution like a museum in the life of the community?

Gabriela Bulisova: Back to the colony, again, it rarely happens in United States that a museum would have any kind of relationship with a juvenile institution or any kind of penal institution. The relationship between the Museum and the girl’s colony already existed, for me it is a tremendous asset, that there is an openness and willingness on both of the sides – on the colony side and on the Museum side – to embrace the similarities and differences and create a bridge and a dialogue between those two institutions. To me that’s really crucial.

Mark Isaac: It’s very important that the Museum embraced this type of project and this type of engagement with the community as part of their mission, which shows that they are already thinking of themselves as a hub for the community in terms of the cultural life of the people. And this larger mission means the museum is not just a place where objects from the past are archived or held up to be important, with people coming to look at them and go home,. It means the museum thinks of itself, at least in part, as a way to bring people from the community together and to create strategies for cultural enrichment. That is an exciting and real opportunity for the museum to grow and develop in that direction and for the community to grow and develop in that direction. What we see is the beginning of recognition by the people that if they come together in collaboration that they can create projects that enrich their cultural life. And the more the people realize that, the more they will be inspired to create something that’s very valuable for the future.

Gabriela Bulisova: As we know, often museums are very exclusive. Whatever decision is made is made solely by the museum and the museum stuff. The Melitopol museum was willing to embrace a new concept and to open its doors to a rather innovative idea, and I see that as a great potential. I also find it very interesting that they let strangers in, open the door even further, and start to implement new ideas. The name of the project is Tandem, right? And the project is happening in tandem: somebody had an idea and somebody had to respond to it.

Instead of local - a "Museum of cultural heritage"

Yulia Kostereva: Do you have any ideas how such institutions can be developed?

Mark Isaac: A couple of things come to mind. I think it’s important for the museum to embrace this type of strategy going forward outside of the Tandem project. They need to create a lasting path to pursue new strategies into the future. Melitopol places a lot of emphases on its diversity and its diverse culture. And we definitely witnessed that, and it is definitely strength of the community. I think that the museum already has shown that it embraces a lot of those different people, but I think it will be an important strategy to reach out even wider in the future. It will be important to reach out, not just to the same people they’ve already reached this time around, but to reach totally new people and to increase the number of residents who start to become engaged in a broader dialogue about the future of culture and the arts. That way, the cultural enrichment of the community will be supported by more and more people going forward.

Gabriela Bulisova: We’ve also met many talented local people who may not necessarily always have an outlet to express their talent. Collaborating with the Museum, the culturally and ethnically diverse residents of Melitopol can actually bring to the Museum ideas on what could happen in the future and how they can work on programming and scheduling together. Based on some of the questions people asked as a part of the Festival of Memory, I feel there is a wealth of promising vision, innovative ideas, and exciting potential. And I think if people feel that their ideas are being taking seriously and are being considered and discussed as part of a larger conversation, there is a potential for future collaborative projects enriching all parties involved.

Mark Isaac: The final thing to say that could potentially be important going forward is that the name of the museum, as it has been translated in English, is perhaps diminishing its role. In English it was translated sometimes as “Museum of Local Lore,” and we saw elsewhere it was translated as a “Museum of Local History,” but we suggested they change that translation to something like “Museum of Cultural Heritage.” We suggested that because their role is wider than just “local lore” or “local history.” They are not just concerned with the history of the city, but also as an institution that is helping the forge the cultural future of the community. And that is why they might think about whether their name could change to reflect this different role.

Yulia Kostereva: Do you have any thoughts you would like to share?

Gabriela Bulisova: The idea of sharing stories from our memory and sharing oral histories is very important for me personally in my work. But also I think it’s something that we see less and less, especially because we are so engaged in being entertained by somebody – watching TV, being online, or whatever. We often stop sharing stories; very often we don’t have this kind of multigenerational conversation any more, especially in United States. People used to listen to their grandparents’ stories and learn about their past. Very often we don’t ask some of the essential questions because we are so busy or preoccupied with something else. And I think it is extremely enriching when we learn more about our personal past, our parents’ past and our grandparents’ past and the past of our communities and our cities. It’s back to the very beginning of human conversation – sharing and listening to stories.

The Museum – a Portal for Communication between the Community and the World

Yuriy Kruchak interviewed Мykola Skyba

May 27, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine


Мykola Skyba – director of the Agency for Cultural Strategies, participant in the Culture 2025 platform, and expert on the creative economy – conducted a workshop in Melitopol. Мykola’s workshop was called The Museum as Storyteller. After a meeting with the museum’s staff, Мykola Skyba shared his impressions of the project, explained why a museum can become a “window to the world” for a small town, and gave examples of modern cultural institutions. 

A museum as producer of stories

The situation in Melitopol Museum is encouraging, even though there is much work to be done, and the scope of the project is not wide enough to achieve the goal set, which is to “get the museum talking.” At the Heart of the Community can become a “magic kick up the backside” and the trajectory of further development will be decided by the museum workers themselves in the long run. The main thing is to overcome the stereotypes that are ingrained in the heads of the museum staff. There is a core that wants change. We can and should work with them, delicately suggesting how to bring the museum to the desired level.

At the workshop, we began with the participants naming three words which they associate with museums. Many people said that a museum should be interactive, modern and innovative. But those touch screens are just a façade. And this façade will fail if there is no core – one which the museum exists for, and ideas that the museum conveys to the world. We need to create such a core and it is very difficult.

We spent some time discussing the difference between history and stories. History, as a substance, is similar to amber, in which some prehistoric insects become “stuck”. Stories are what we ourselves produce. Museums must move from polishing history to the production of stories, i.e. some narratives and aspirations. History has no end. And we must show this incompleteness, this openness to continuation.

Museums as engines of change

Today, projects like At the Heart of the Community are timely, because decentralisation is ongoing in Ukraine; towns and cities are receiving more powers, and they are choosing how they develop further. This is great if the future of the towns takes place in sustainable way. In such event, a museum can and should become a platform where different communities come together, and culture becomes a resource for development.

What we do in the intimate format of the workshop requires the expansion and attraction of different audiences. These processes cannot be artificially accelerated. Otherwise, a community is formed that will simply break up without any pressure from outside.

Some spontaneous social processes occur without meaningful content. Something substantial is overlooked by people. There is cultural, social, intellectual and human capital, and it is necessary to combine them. We need a place where they can be made public. It is best to do this through cultural institutions. A town should have a social centre, where the community can address issues of self-government. I think gradually such centres will appear. But while there aren’t any, museums can take on this function and carry out certain processes, and then transfer the groundwork they have laid to the town. Museums are portals of communication between the town and its community and the wider world.

The museum is one of the most globalised of institutions. In fact, no city in the world lacks a museum. Museums are to a city what streets with houses are, or shopping areas and people. They are a space through which the voice and the memory of the people, and their artefacts, speak more than they do at home. A functional item becomes a semantic artefact. The museum concentrates the voices of the town and can send this information on further to the wider world. We must learn to use the museum as a means of communication with the world. This is the point of projects such as At the Heart of the Community.

The museum as a platform for communication

I called my workshop in Melitopol The Museum as Storyteller. The most common type of museum in Ukraine is the regional one. Such places exist in every regional centre. Often, what they represent is monumental history, typical of similar museums in Ukraine, from Uzhgorod to Donetsk. The exhibition simply has to include the moment the territory was settled, nature in the guise of various stuffed animals, collections of dried plants and other “gems”, war sections with weapons and ammunition, photographs, and a “corner of achievements”, often steeped in socialism. You are thrown into this history and, like a bug in amber, you freeze. You are expected to bow before such history.

A museum teaches us “not to rock the boat,” because everything has already been decided for the people. This message destroys our human relationship with the world, denying the thesis that everyone can do something important. The challenge is to move from history to stories, comparable to humans. Despite their richness in numbers, dates, and indexes, museums are deafeningly silent. But a museum can and should speak with a human voice, and tell interesting stories. The essence of my workshop in Melitopol was for museum workers to understand: they are moderators between the past, present and future, between different communities.

The most powerful thing in the world is human values and beliefs. They are more difficult to change than anything. There is a comfort zone that you do not want to leave. In the workshop I tried to show that changes are a push, a step towards new possibilities. To do this I described what a museum is in the modern world. A museum today is a space where different communities interact, where you can go through an intellectual adventure. We have to show that the museum in Melitopol can also become such a platform.

I would like to attract a larger audience to the workshop. A small focus group attended the classes at the museum. This was a minus, because we did not fully exploit the potential of the event. On the other hand, those who have already joined the project might draw new people into the process. Hopefully, other lectures and workshops in At the Heart of the Community will get the community excited. Then the museum will have become a “DJ”, unifying different voices.

The museum as a place of study

During the The Museum as Storyteller workshop, we tried to comprehend what the museum in Melitopol is for, what it can tell the town, and we thought about the meaning of existence for the very town itself. Also we discussed specific audiences who may be interested in local history museums. For example, students, entrepreneurs, and certain older people. Also, there are tourists, but at the moment in Melitopol they are few and far between.

We generated a concept of what exactly Melitopol is. We formulated some definitions: it is a commercial town, an entrepreneurial town, a town of intersections, a town of opportunities. Then we thought how the museum could work with these categories. We toured the exhibition and the building to assess the potential of the establishment. We strove to find projects that would appeal to different audiences. We finished the workshop with interventions in the exhibition, to break the spell of the world of “mega-history.”

Each museum has its own unique team. There is a recognisable type of museum curator, but in every town these people have their own characteristics. There are always leaders, people who drive the development process. In Melitopol it is the director of the regional museum; she is open to young people who trust her, she continues to learn, is ready to implement new ideas, and expects initiatives from her staff. This is encouraging. Another thing is how museum staff respond to this. Sections of the team are comfortable in the museum’s “amber”. And later a lot depends on how the director will explain the museum’s new policy.

The museum as a place of experience

In Ukraine, most modern museums are in Kyiv, although it is still a bit varied there. Thus, the National Museum of History is an example of preserving. So is the Bulgakov museum, whose exhibition looks like a ‘dejstvo’, an old church play. Among the modern museums outside the capital, there is the “Tustan” open-air museum in the Lviv region. This is a unique facility, a fortress carved out of rock and a customs point between the 9th and 13th centuries. The museum staff have developed a strategy for its development, and the employees use every opportunity to develop. There is a decent shop and they organise a festival. There are other positive examples as well, and everywhere museums themselves are looking for opportunities to develop.

The National Art Museum in 2012 managed to fend off an attempt to impose a new head on it. An active community formed around the museum, protested and put forward a positive agenda: an open application process for the positions of director, PR and so on. Now the museum is showing how to rethink a museum’s own content. Recent projects – “Heroes. An Attempt at Making an Inventory” and “Special Fund” – are about this. There are Pirosmanis and Goyas, which people will come to see because they are famous names. The museum shows history, and engenders resistance in people to the transformation of culture into propaganda. Generally, one’s attitude to memory attests to one’s willingness to work with people.

The museum as a collective of individuals

Reforming a museum should begin with a correct assessment of one’s abilities, with a definition of particular aims. It is important to identify the specifics, the mission. It is also important to distribute roles around the team. Often change is initiated by a few leaders. At some point, this increases the distance between them and the other members of the team. You must synchronise efforts and build a team. It is better to sacrifice speed of transformation for quality.

It is important to give a museum’s staff an incentive or “carrot”. This can be an educational tour, or the opportunity to make oneself known through different channels. The motivation to do something is often highly personal, and any reform strategy should include a personal component. It is necessary to take into account the interests of specific people – then we will keep the motivation to change alive.

A resource component is important. It’s wrong to give a lot of resources right away. It is also bad to arouse people’s desire to change something when there’s an absence of financial and material resources. We need to help a museum to raise funds for small transformations, to establish close ties with the communities of the town, communities which are ready for change. You may need a facilitator to help the museum become an influential partner in the community. If such practices spread through other Ukrainian towns and cities, we all win. This will cultivate an audience in different regions of the country.

The museum as a "window to the world"

Now various cities around Ukraine have become active, and this must be made permanent. You may need to establish a place in a public space, one which will show what’s new in the town or city. These new things can be informal events: a festival of street food or skaters, street musicians, a place for reading and children’s games. There should also be multi-functional community hubs where anyone can come with an initiative and find someone to address it to.

The general public have little trust in the authorities and public organisations, they have a lot of questions regarding the transparency of these structures. This can be changed by creating a place where civil society organisations will directly help people to solve various problems, such as social ones. Such functions are often distributed amongst various small agencies, and a certain amount of disorder is the result. We need to create spaces for the accumulation of communal memory and experience, and make sure that people support them. Various initiatives should work together to operate and maintain such a place. In part, the “assembly point” for activists could be museums and libraries. This would be an example of collaboration between institutions which are maintained by the state or town, and grass-roots initiatives.

The practice of creating counselling centres is not at all bad. Often people do not know how best to realise their potential, they are not aware of certain competitions or exchange programs. There is a certain algorithm of where and how to file applications, and it can be taught. It requires few resources: a person who works part-time, a computer and the internet. You can go to a museum or library to find out what grants are now available. For example, once a month, a museum could tell people about the opportunities that are available outside the small town. This gives the museum the status of a “window to the world.” The museum thus finds itself at the heart of the community.

War as a museum exhibit

Yuriy Kruchak interviewed Oleksiy Radynski

June 16, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine


Oleksiy Radynski – documentarian, journalist, and member of the Centre for Visual Culture, held in Melitopol a series of  meetings called “What is Society?”. Using Melitopol as material, the researcher analysed the relationship between the museum and local communities and voluntary organisations. Oleksiy also recorded video interviews with representatives of public organisations and initiatives, and informal communities in the town, in order to create a kind of catalogue of socially significant events in Melitopol.

Oleksiy Radynski told about the place of war in the history of Melitopol, the role of the town in the current war now being waged in Ukraine, and on how the local history museum is dealing with these important issues.

Melitopol – a city between two lines of fire

Yuriy Kruchak: How did you see your work on the At the Heart of the Community project before arriving in Melitopol?

Oleksiy Radynski: The title of the session was very provisional. I wanted to come to Melitopol, to explore something in this town. This region, the Zaporizhia region, had long interested me, particularly in the past year and a half. But I did not feel that I had the right to propose a ready-made project here. Basically, I arrived to conduct a study. I was interested in how society works in these areas. I mean society in particular, not communities. Community is a substitute word, a euphemism that is used to avoid talking about society. There are a host of such substitute words. Under neo-liberalism and neo-capitalism, which are now established in many countries, it is considered that there is no society, that there are only separate individuals, at best – communities. And “society” is something from a communist dictionary. This is an odd twist, and I believe it is important to talk about society. Sure, I’m interested in how communities interact. But to talk about this category one should start out at the level of society.

The Zaporizhia region, a region in south-eastern Ukraine, interested me because there was a threat of total social disintegration that was occurring next door in the Donbas. First of all, one must mention the disintegration of state structures, which quickly led to society in Donbas disintegrating to the state of a “wild jungle”, of war. This is a kind of pre-society, natural state, every man for himself, where people gather together into armed groups and protect their territory. In south-eastern Ukraine, this did not happen. Judging by everything, the decisive factor in the collapse of society in the Donbas was the betrayal by Ukraine’s law-enforcement bodies, its repressive structures. Society could do nothing to counter this. This suggests that in the absence of punitive organs, such as the police, there are no other factors that prevent society from decaying into a state of war. In the Zaporizhia region the collapse of society has not happened, although attempts to destabilise the situation have occurred.

What does the average citizen of Ukraine know about Melitopol? For example, there is the myth of Melitopol as a multicultural capital of Ukraine. For quite a long time various structures, focused on grants, have been trying to hold Melitopol up as a model place where a large number of ethnic groups peacefully coexist. I am always amazed by this admiration for peaceful coexistence between these groups – as if it were not normal. Melitopol was presented as a place of triumph for Ukrainian multiculturalism. But there is another nasty side to this triumphant coin – ethnic groups live peacefully, but are, perhaps, equal in their poverty.

The multicultural component of Melitopol has right now acquired a special significance, because Crimea is close by. The Crimean peninsula is now a place of potential ethnic conflicts in Europe. In general, the ethnic conflict in the Crimea is already in full swing, but it is not a “hot” conflict, the type to which we are accustomed. The usual model of ethnic conflict is the pogrom, which is organised by those at the bottom, due to social factors, and supplemented by artificial xenophobic sentiments. Ethnic conflict in Crimea is dictated from above, it occurs through “quiet repression”, infringements of the rights of the Crimean Tatars. Perhaps it makes sense to talk about the infringement of the human rights of the Ukrainian-speaking population in Crimea. A monocultural chauvinistic society is being created based on a militaristic imperial paradigm. It’s good that the conflict has not turned “hot”, but it could still happen.

So what it comes down to is that Melitopol is located between two zones of conflict: the Crimea and Donbas.

What does the museum need helmets for?

Yuriy Kruchak: To what extent have your expectations of Melitopol been met?

Oleksiy Radynski: I was prepared to work with any existing social initiatives here. But it turned out that most of the active organisations in Melitopol are ethnic. I strongly modified my plan. I immediately realised that social life in Melitopol is defined by the war that is happening in Ukraine, 200 kilometres from the town. I wondered how exactly the war was affecting life in this seemingly peaceful town.

The museum plays a central role in my session. The Regional Museum in Melitopol is open to various community initiatives, so it was interesting to look at the museum as a social structure, to see how the war is reflected in its exhibitions. A quick glance is enough to understand that the theme of war dominates the Museum, reflected in the history of the town. The situation is not unique: the same happens in many other towns and cities in Ukraine. We are talking about many various wars that took place in or around modern Melitopol, above all, about the Second World War. I think this is logical and correct. But it is another thing how the topic of the Second World War is presented. In addition, I immediately focused on an exhibition dedicated to the “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) in the east of Ukraine. It is interesting that the museum has already included the topic of the ATO in the exhibition, it is working with modern events. And again the question arises – how does it do it. The study of these types of mechanisms has been my main occupation here.

Yuriy Kruchak: What conclusions did you come to, having been plunged into this situation?

Oleksiy Radynski: The topic of war will become even more important to local society. Especially since World War II has become an important factor in fuelling this war. It is important to note that schoolchildren who come to the museum and other children, when viewing the exhibition about World War II, are offered helmets to wear by the staff, helmets used during the fighting. This is called military-patriotic education, but, in fact, it programs in children dangerous tendencies from an early age.

Museum employees say they need to educate children in the desire to protect their homeland, just as their grandparents did. They say it is likely due to pro-Ukrainian motives, but such a mechanism might work in the opposite direction. Many people who are fighting on the side of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” may have been subjected to the very same mechanism of so-called military-patriotic education in Ukrainian schools and museums. For many people it can become a strong emotional experience, there is a psychological mechanism that reduces barriers when perceiving violence, fighting, military uniforms and other attributes of war. And nothing indicates that such a mechanism mobilises children to protect the Ukrainian state. Perhaps such education encourages them to side with those who claim to be the legitimate successor to the struggle against fascism. This side today is Russia, which in its propaganda uses the myth of fighting modern fascism in Ukraine.

In addition, the distribution of military attributes in an informal atmosphere can distort children’s perception of fighting attributes. The distribution of helmets in a museum has nothing to do with the fact that the army, in accordance with regulations, distributes helmets and ammunition. And, at the same time, the situation in the museum has a lot to do with when people in a division of militants, in some informal battalion which has nothing to do with “regulated” war, hand out helmets and weapons.

About historical memory and downed pilots

Yuriy Kruchak: What are the peculiarities of working in a small town?

Oleksiy Radynski: Melitopol is not such a small town – it is bigger than some regional centres in Ukraine. The peculiar thing about this town is that it is easy to meet the people and organisations you need. However, maybe this is down to the management of the museum. It was easy for me to conduct research in a short time. I managed fairly quickly to choose from a variety of topics one which seemed most relevant, to meet the right people, to visit events of interest, to examine the context in which they occur, and record the necessary interviews.

Yuriy Kruchak: What topic did you yourself work on in Melitopol?

Oleksiy Radynski: After my first visit to the museum I decided to focus on the topic of the representation of war, on how memory works in modern conflicts. I was interested in how the topic of war in eastern Ukraine was becoming part of the museum’s exhibition. The theme was developed further because my stay in Melitopol coincided with the anniversary of the death of some local pilots in the sky over Lugansk on 14 June, 2014. I watched a variety of events, rituals to immortalise this event. This tragedy has already been presented in the exhibition in the Melitopol Regional Museum, and I was able to get into the opening of a mini-museum dedicated to this date in the Officers’ House at the local military camp. I also saw military rituals at the cemetery where these people are buried. Probably, the central event of the modern historical memory of Melitopol is the death of some airforce pilots. And what is being constructed around their deaths is especially important in a situation where many citizens recognise that Melitopol is quite a divided town. Currently, it has been observed that pro-Ukrainian sentiments dominate. But many citizens say it is for show, that in fact most just side with those who are stronger. At the same time, there are large pro-Russian groups, and the jury is out as to what this category will do if events go a certain way.

Anyway, during the anniversary of the death of the pilots I saw a model of how the historical memory of events in the east of Ukraine will be shaped. Of course, it was interesting to study and document such an early and striking example, in order to continue working with this material later.

Museums at the centre of world history

Yuriy Kruchak: Let’s return to the topic of the At the Heart of the Community project. How can the local history museum in Melitopol develop?

Oleksiy Radynski: There is a need to reform the museum. And everyone, including the staff of the museum, understand this. I do not feel qualified in the matter of reforming museums. The museum interests me as a representation of a given society, and if we talk specifically about the museum in Melitopol – here I concentrated on military issues. I and the director of the museum discussed how to reform the exhibition, and she said she wanted to reduce the bit dedicated to the Second World War. I agree with that, but I think that it is not necessary to cut the military theme all together. It is possible to demonstrate the continuity of history between the various wars that took place in the town, and so come to the topic of the war in the east of Ukraine. By the way, no matter how the part of the exhibition about the ATO looks, I think its presence is a good thing that should be developed.

In general, I would recommend that the museum focus on historicising the present, on the topic of developing a society that lives next to a war – a state which Melitopol now finds itself in. Moreover, some museum staff have been collecting modern artefacts that will someday become history: leaflets, newspapers, and posters with political campaigning.

It is difficult to talk about reforming the museum in the current situation. It is important that museum workers have realised their role in the “memory” of a society which is living through a major historical period. This part of Ukraine is suddenly at the centre of world history, although it has long been at its periphery. And documentation of the process is important, even more than exhibiting things associated with this period. It is not Donbass or Crimea that have become the key regions in the war that is going on in Ukraine, but the territories of the so-called south-east of the country, which according to Russian military strategy were considered to be the obvious springboard for rebellion against Ukraine. But it was a huge miscalculation. In a territory which is within Ukraine itself, in the centre and west of the country, which many considered second-rate, Russified, and Sovietised, it turned out that people lived here who in their loathing of the Novorossiya idea, thwarted all Russia’s plans. The role of these people is no less important than the role of the Ukrainian army, perhaps it is even more so. If the grains of Russian propaganda had fallen on fertile ground here, the Ukrainian army would not have been able to keep a hold of the situation. It is important that the museum explores this moment.

By the way, the state of Ukraine owes its existence to these very same south-eastern regions. During the 1991 referendum, it was the decision of the inhabitants of these areas to vote for the independence of the country – not the decision of the West or Kyiv – that of course created a real basis for the emergence of the state of Ukraine.