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.