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

On the manifestations of the modern museum – by cultural analyst Мykola Skyba

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.