The war and the cultural catastrophe in Ukraine : The Tribune India

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The war and the cultural catastrophe in Ukraine

Apart from loss of human lives and whole cities being destroyed is the impending death of national culture and art

The war and the cultural catastrophe in Ukraine

Chains around columns. Symbolic installation on a museum façade, Ukraine.

BN Goswamy

For the first time since the museum was founded in 1905, all exhibition rooms are empty — all museum items are wrapped, packed and are hidden….When you talk, you hear echoes reverberating in the empty rooms. It hurts. It’s very sad.”

Ihor Kozhan, Director of National Museum at Lviv

This is a war against our history, our culture.

Ihor Poshyvailo, director of the Maidan museum in Kyiv

Ukrainian cultural institutions — museums, national parks, libraries, theatres — they are not military objects, not oil depots or airfields, but still they are at risk…. We see and understand that the enemy’s goal is to wipe out everything that is about Ukrainian identity — the language, national culture, traditions.

Mykhailo Zakopets, director of a museum

What — one asks one’s deeply troubled self — can we do in sanguine, violent times? What especially can cultural institutions do? Take the case of devastated Ukraine which is on just about everyone’s mind at the moment. With a bloody war raging, cultural institutions like museums or theatres or libraries will, of course, be shut down; there will be no visitors, no performances, no exhibitions. But with bombs raining and structure after living structure being reduced to rubble, how does one save national treasures, cultural memories and lacerated hearts?

The Pysanka Museum in the shape of an Easter egg at Kolomiya, western Ukraine.

There are no easy answers. Perhaps, there aren’t any at all. When Museum Director Ihor Kohzan of Lviv, whom I have cited above, says, in matter-of-fact but blanched words, that “all exhibition rooms are empty; all museum items are wrapped, packed, and are hidden…”, one can start imagining ghost-like, forlorn galleries with not a stick, nor an object, in them. But then he adds: “When you talk, you hear echoes reverberating in the empty rooms. It hurts.”

Painted vault of the Pysanka Museum.

Unlike in our land, Ukraine has thousands of museums: large and small, old and new, urban and rural, general and specialised. Not all of them are run, or supported by, the government: a very large number are maintained by local communities in fact. Just consider even this random list of institutions which I put together by working a little on the theme. In Kyiv alone, the capital city of Ukraine, one reads of the National Art Museum, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, a Museum of Church Antiquities, a Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema Arts, the National Aviation Museum, a Pharmacy Museum, a Water Museum, a science museum called Experimentarium; even, oddly, a much-visited Museum of Smuggling and one of Toilets. Not every director or curator wants to speak publicly about what is happening, for fear of alerting either the Russian invaders or looters. But one of them went on record: “In almost every museum, workers are sleeping, staying for days to be close to the art, to be able to make some last-minute decisions. I cannot tell you more, unfortunately.” Basements of museums are suddenly getting rich ‘occupants’, great works of hurriedly packed art being shifted to them for security.

A priest blessing Easter eggs painted by a family.

Even if here we do not know much about it, Ukraine is remarkably rich in sites and monuments that are a part of the history of man, so to speak. The country is home to seven world heritage sites, including the 11th century St Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, and the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves, an Orthodox monastery founded in 1051. The entire old quarter of Lviv — a city that unfortunately has been much in the news, having been targeted by Russian invaders — is documented as dating back to the 13th century. This apart, many museums house not simply ‘local’ works, unknown outside Ukraine, but priceless artefacts: Scythian antiquities including gold helmets with delicate carvings worn by 4th century BC warriors; works by great artists from the Renaissance onwards — Bellini, David, Goya among them; stacks of work by that pioneer of abstract art, Kandinsky, who based himself in Odessa in southern Ukraine. Wistfully recording an event, a recent video showed a queue snaking around outside of the Odessa Fine Art Museum. “It was Sunday 20 February, and — perhaps for the last time — men, women and children were lining up to look at its treasures (10,000 artworks from the 16th century onwards, including early paintings by Wassily Kandinsky).” Just four days later, the Russians invaded. Descriptions of ornate buildings still standing are marked by “windows blown by blasts, plaster and dust covering the floors, and surrounding streets littered with debris.”

Already, there are rumours, accounts in fact, of Russian soldiers looting, and plundering art treasures from museums in towns captured by them: grim reminders of what happened within living memory to the Kabul Museum in Afghanistan; to the great library at Baghdad in Iraq; to famous art collections in Germany before the World War. To the depressing ‘costs of war’ — loss of human lives, whole cities being destroyed, virtually millions being rendered homeless — is to be added a ‘cultural catastrophe’ that is unfolding.

Someone once described museums as ‘islands of human happiness’. And I am tempted here, in the end, to speak of one Ukrainian museum that certainly belongs to that category, and that must also be under threat. It is a museum of eggs: the Pysanka Museum — pysanka being a Ukrainian Easter egg decorated with traditional folk designs, using a wax-resist method — in the western Ukrainian city of Kolomiya. It was opened in 2000 and consists of nothing else than painted Easter eggs, all contributed by rural folk: whole families cheerfully engaged in the task of painting eggs when the festival approaches. The entire museum is shaped like an egg (14 m in height and 10 m in diameter), with parts of the exterior and inside of the dome painted to resemble a pysanka. It houses something like 10,000 painted eggs, all using traditional folk designs, some recent, others going back to the 19th century and still preserved. A special collection at the museum consists of pysanky decorated with hand-signatures by all Ukrainian presidents and most of First Ladies, and, of course, by foreign leaders and politicians who visit the museum. When I was looking for pictures, I found scores of them showing families — parents leading smiling children carrying baskets of painted eggs — heading towards the local Orthodox church to have their handiwork blessed by their priest. Before depositing them in the Museum, one guesses.

But the smiles, like the eggs, must be under threat now. For the clouds, already dark, are thickening all around.

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