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.