Monday, July 26, 2010

A Even Cloudier Look: Thefts from L'viv Museum

After my post earlier today about corruption in Ukraine and its relationship to museums, followed up by a thoughtful comment,   I came across a L'viv Post article about the theft of manuscripts and books from a Ukrainian museum (linked from the always informative Ukrainian Museum Portal.)  Milena Chorna was generous enough to translate the full article for me which raises as many questions as it answers.  (if you're interested in the full English text, please contact me directly).

What happened?  40 rare objects are missing from the collections storage of the  National Museum in Lviv including 15th century manuscripts, described as priceless.   But here's where it begins to get complicated.  At least some of these losses were identified in 2005 and the museum's director said, "The museum storage of the manuscript department are quite extensive, one of the blocks at Dragomanov street is under remodeling, so we were hoping the manuscripts were just misplaced and would be found in some time. But we did inform the law-enforcement authorities right away.” In 2005 5 books were identified as missing;  now more than 40 are although no list is being made public as the investigation is continuing.   Museum employees deny that the theft could have been from the inside, but they admit that no one else had access to the collections and there have been no signs of forced entry.

The museum's director described the procedure for access to the collections, 
“There could have been no trespassing into the storage area.   The quarters at Dragomanov str., were the department of manuscripts and cunabulas stations itself, is under permanent State security. An outsider can enter the place in order to provide research of a specific book only by a special access granted and signed by the Director of the museum. Such papers are given to no more than 10 people during a year. But the researchers still do not have access to the storage area, by no means. Visitors work at a specially equipped room, where the books are being brought by the staff. Such an access is given to the museum researchers as well, but only in the presence of the custodian. The books are not allowed to be taken away from the museum quarters. I still got no answer from the chief custodian on how such a theft could have occurred.” 
The newspaper reports that there have been rumors about thefts from collections at several L'viv museums, including this one, and other rumors have seen  some of the manuscripts  been offered for sale.  But there's no definitive answer. 

So many questions here and so few answers. 
  • Why was there a delay of 5 years for a full investigation?
  • If there is State Security in the collections, what was their role?
  • Why is information about the stolen items not being made public?
  • What staff had responsibility for care of collections?
  • What about those rumors?  Where were things seen for sale?  Why do the rumors about the collections exist?  Is there any truth or just rumors?
  • Are there other security concerns at the museum?  What would be needed to address them?
  • Is this a reliable news report?
There have been other documented museum thefts in Ukraine--within the past several months a Caravaggio (or reputed Caravaggio) stolen from an Odessa museum was recovered in Germany.  However, Ukraine has no official body to deal with art thefts.   

Compare this occurrence to a recent spate of thefts from small museums and historical societies in western New York State.  When a theft was discovered at one museum a email went out on a regional museum list-serv to alert others;  eventually an arrest was made and the state police circulated photos of recovered objects to museum colleagues in the region. It didn't take 5 years, the information was made public and shared; and the police and the museums worked together.

For museum colleagues all over the world, the Museum Security Network is a great on-line resource to both find and share information about "cultural property protection, preservation, conservation, and security."   Although museum security is not a main focus of my work, I wanted to bring attention to this particular issue in the hopes of encouraging transparency and openness.

Photo:  from brtsergio on Flickr

Through a Clouded Glass

Although back in the Catskills, I continue to think about my experiences with Ukrainian museums.  I never wrote much about corruption while I was there, but  corruption is a constant fog in the country.  Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index ranked 146th  out of 180 countries in 2008,  (And as an aside,  New Zealand ranks #1 and the United States #19).

Corruption is a fact of everyday life in Ukraine and it exists on every level of government and business from the police who stop speeders and take traffic in cash to bribes to enter universities up to incredible amounts of money for government officials.   Museums are not exempt.  Museums are governmental entities and their staff salaries are very low--one factor which leads some to take advantage of a museum's resources.  What does that mean?   I rarely heard a definitive story about museum corruption, but rather I heard many sideways allusions.  Was a bribe being taken so that a businessman could build on museum territory?  Perhaps.  Were collections loaned to individuals and copies returned?  Perhaps.  Did income from renting space for changing exhibits go directly into a director's pocket?  Perhaps.  

I found it surprising that I was rarely shown collections storage area on my museum visits.   In the U.S., it's often one of the first things that a museum colleague shares--either to show off or commiserate.  There's no question that one factor is that generally collections storage is very poor in Ukraine,  in substandard spaces in substandard buildings, due to lack of adequate funding over a long period of time.   But then one colleague made a startling observation when I mentioned it.  "Maybe they don't want to show you because nothing is there,"  she said, implying that the collections had been sold off and only the paperwork remained.

At the end of my workshops I tried to ensure that there was some time to answer questions about any aspect of American museums.  Some of those questions referred obliquely to corruption.  "If a painting is stolen by a museum worker are they prosecuted?"  (For one such American example, see here.) was one such question.  It was heartbreaking to sense that museum workers who came into their jobs with some sense of idealism now see people above them as cynical exploiters of the situation.  It puts a nation's cultural heritage at risk.  When a manager skims off money for building repairs, it means the historic building and the collections suffer.  When collections are sold under the table for individual profit, it means that part of the nation's heritage is lost to the public forever.

I can't pretend to know how this will change in Ukrainian society.  It will take a long time,  and it will not be done by outsiders.  Like other parts of civil society, dealing with corruption must be, as one colleague said, "built here, by Ukrainians."    But I'll end this post with one small but encouraging example.  The National Art Museum of Ukraine installed a project earlier this year by a group of independent artists that included the insertion small windows into providing views from galleries into spaces used for storage.  It provided a surprising view behind the scenes for visitors and as I understand it, will remain, providing a clear view.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What Do You Like Best?

In Ukraine, I found asking the question, "What's your favorite...?"  or "What do you like best?" often generated a surprised look, a shake of the head, and a shy answer.   And upon reflection, it struck me as a major difference between the way Americans think about museums (and about life in general) and the way Ukrainians do.  In the Soviet system,  individual thought was never encouraged.  You did not have favorites, you were taught to believe that the "approved" writer or artist or building or object was the only one to like;  that experts had determined it was the best.   Americans are considerably more comfortable with holding--and voicing--their own opinions about almost everything.

As my time in Ukraine continued, I asked these questions more and more.   One reason is because I was genuinely curious about what people liked but I was also curious about people's reactions.  I liked their initial look of surprise, and then the careful consideration some gave to their answers.   It felt a small honor to have someone share an opinion with me.

And it also deepened my experience in museums.  In Opishne, I visited  a newly opened memorial museum--it had been the home of a local man who went on to become an artist, scientist, and collector of pottery from this community of potters.  The house was interesting and I enjoyed the visit--but as we reached the last room, I asked the guide if she had a favorite piece of pottery in the house.   She looked surprised, but led us back through two rooms and pointed to a jug on top of a cabinet--something I had absolutely missed before.   "This is my favorite,"  she said,  "It was made by my grandfather."

All of a sudden this museum--and this town--was not just a memorial-- it became a living place, a place where the traditions of pottery, despite the collectivization of the Soviets,  continued to hold a place of importance and honor to the people who live there.

Top to bottom:  Pottery at the new memorial museum;  guide showing me her favorite piece, and at another memorial museum in Opishne, a small tribute to a woman potter.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Look Back and Forward

I've returned home to upstate New York, working on both getting back into my life here and reflecting on my second stint in Ukraine.   I had written when I first went about what I hoped to accomplish--see here.  And here's, in brief, what I did--some activities I planned on, and many I never imagined.

Workshops and Presentations
  • In Kyiv on Cultural Tourism and Collaboration.  In advance of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament which will be held in Ukraine and Poland, these are both critical issues.
  • Visitor Friendly Museums in L'viv and Kharkiv.   These workshops focused on every aspect from the visitors's perspective--from the entrance to the exhibitions.
  • Project Management:  for museum managers in Crimea
  • Oral History:  not so much a workshop as a facilitated conversation with a group of American Peace Corps volunteers in Crimea.
  • National Ethnographic Institute:  about the general work of museums
  • National Ceramic Museum in Opishne:  a reflection on my work over the past two years and the challenges facing Ukrainian museums.
Direct Work with Museums
  • Did a day of interpretive planning with a lively team from the Tusten Preserve;  other work put on hold because of their intensive efforts to stop unlawful development on this historic preserve in the Carpathians.
  • As follow-up to workshops,  worked on visitor-friendly issues and discussed audio and other archives for icons in L'viv,  exhibit concepts and design in Chernigiv,  live animal exhibits and traveling exhibit contracts for L'viv organizations.   Talked cultural tourism with the National Art Gallery;  participated in Slow Art Day.  From the street in, brainstormed ways to make the Literature Museum in Kharkiv more visitor-friendly.
  • Meet with staff at the museum at Kyiv Polytechnic University to discuss hands-on interactives
  • Continued contacts with colleagues at the Ivan Honchar Museum, the National Museum of Books and Printing, the Bulgakov Museum and the National Ceramics Museum.
  • With Dutch colleague, Mariska Schrage,  we developed plans, considered venues,  and created a budget for a Ukrainian tour of Passing on the Comfort.
  • With the State Museum of Toys, began work on plans for a United States traveling exhibition exploring the history and meaning of toys in the Soviet Union, based on their wonderful collection.
  • Began discussions about a return to Ukraine with colleagues to conduct a program audit of Pirogovo, the outdoor museum near Kyiv.
Ongoing Training
Had great, ongoing conversations with my tremendous colleagues Anna Perekhodko and Katya Chuyeva, and Linda Knudsen McAusland,  about the issues of ongoing professional development in Ukraine.   Thanks to the Fulbright Program,  was able to provide ICOM-Ukraine Committee with a selection of professional publications in English that will be made available for loan to museum colleagues throughout Ukraine.

Oh, and,  rode trams, trolley buses, regular buses, mashrutkas, planes, trains and automobiles.  Enjoyed celebrations of Easter, Victory Day and other holidays.  Heard every variety of street music through my Kyiv window, and more music in churches,  on the streets of a tiny village, at festivals and more.   Visited a dacha and a khan's palace.  Ate borscht,  Crimean Tatar food,  salo,  home-grown potatoes, pickles and raspberries.  Posted entries here and on The Pickle Project.   Learned a bit more of Ukrainian and Russian,  but still ended up with breath mints when I asked (well, pantomined) for matches.  Made many, many new connections and friends.  Wrote three articles based on my experiences here.  Discussed politics (both US and Ukrainian); watched many street protests in my neighborhood.   Got to visit Budapest and Prague and see the transformation over the last 20 years.
Drank many, many cups of coffee and tea.

My time in Ukraine was as a Fulbright Scholar--a tremendous opportunity to have an intensive experience in another culture.   If you're interested in learning more about Fulbright opportunities, click here for the Scholar Program and click here for the Student Program.

I am often impatient and want change to happen fast-but Ukraine has taught me a bit of patience.   Change is happening despite a host of obstacles.   The most important thing I accomplished, I believe, is the planting seeds for the future.  It may take a while, but sooner or later, all those great young professionals I worked with all over the country will be museum directors or working in the Ministry of Culture. So I'll end this post with the familiar quote from Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Are Local Museums the Best Social Museums?

There's lots of discussion right now about how museums can be social places, places to gather, to come together, to enjoy each other's company.  And amidst all the talk,  I'd forgotten how nice an event that just brings people together can be--and this weekend, I got a beautiful reminder in the town of Opishne, in the Poltava region of Ukraine.   It's a bit unusual for a museum with national status to be located in a town the size of Opishne,  but the National Museum of Ceramics, run by an energetic director, Oles Poshyvailo, is.   So it's a national museum, but with a distinctly local flare and connection to this town, the traditional home of many potters.  For the past two weeks, there's been a ceramics festival, culminating in Saturday's National Potters' Day.

So what happened during these two weeks?  A unique combination of events:
  • A scholarly symposium about Ukrainian traditional ceramics
  • A two week artists' residency where 12 contemporary ceramic artists from 5 countries came to live and work, producing three works each for a juried show--and as side results, many new connections and ideas for collaborations among them
  • The juried show, a juried show of traditional ceramics and a juried show of photos about ceramics
  • The presentation of a new publication on Opishne ceramics in a Moscow museum
  • Special exhibits in the museum's several buildings
  • Master classes and demonstrations

and finally on Friday and Saturday, a fair held in the center of town--and that's the event that reminded me that museums, particularly local museums, can be these community centers.  It's particularly compelling here, where the event was held on the grounds of the former House of Culture, built by the Soviets to replace the traditional gathering places in communities.  But here, the event had the feel of a small-town event anywhere.  Local dignitaries (and not so local, including me) made opening speeches, traditional musicians performed,  young and old alike got to get their hands dirty trying a potter's wheel, slip decoration and straw braiding.  Hayrides, the sale of traditional pottery and a benefit auction and nicely out back, away from the main event,  a bouncy castle and the junk food I associate with a county fair.

And who attended this event?  Lots of people from the town--arriving by foot, bikes, scooter and car. The contemporary artists, jurors and scholars,  people from the larger community of Poltava.  Young people, old people, in between people.

The ceramics museum is, I suspect, the major employer in town and its employees worked incredibly hard during the two weeks to make the event a success.  Their success resonates beyond the museum however as it also served as a bit of an economic generator.  Artists and others were put up in local homes,  a restaurant served lunch every day,  I bought ceramics from local potters:  all those things make a difference in the local economy, no matter where you are.

I've planned fairs and festivals myself, and I know how much work they are (and how lucky one is to get a beautiful day like Saturday) and sometimes I groaned at keeping them fresh and new.  But in fact, the opportunity to see friends and neighbors, to enjoy music, to enjoy the work of potters and other craftspeople--and perhaps bring a piece home.  These things are the things that can  make local museums important social places.

Ukrainian museums lean towards the scientific--it often seems as if it is not acceptable to have fun in a museum setting.  In Opishne,  I found wonderful proof that the two can be combined.