Sunday, September 28, 2014

What Do You Do When You Disagree with a Speaker?

As anyone who knows me personally knows, I'm generally not reluctant to speak out in disagreement. But this post is about a time recently when I didn't, and I continue to regret it.  The recent Museums and Politics conference was held at a very challenging time for many people and nations.  The Russian government's actions in Ukraine, including both Crimea and the Donbass,  have dismayed many, including me. Thousands have lost their lives in Eastern Ukraine in the continuing conflict.  The governments of the United States and Germany (along with the European Union), the other conference co-sponsors, have imposed sanctions on Russia; but most of those who came to the conference came with the intention of listening and learning.  It was a hard choice for me to come because ICOM Ukraine requested a boycott,  but I did, with the same motivation--to listen and learn.  In general, speakers and audience members were respectful, even of viewpoints that differed greatly from our own. For a full conference roundup, check out our conference blog.

However, one speaker embarked on a diatribe that I did not respond to and I should have; I wished I had had the courage in the moment to step forward with questions and clarifications.  So I will respond here--that's the advantage of having my own blog, I suppose.  Sergey Pushkarev, director of the Association of Preserves and Museums in Crimea gave a talk so filled with hate and vitriol that I was astounded.  I'm relying here on my own notes from the simultaneous English translation and a colleague's notes from the German version.  His accepted session proposal was to be about tourism in Crimea, a topic of critical importance to museums there.  His topic published in the schedule in Yekaterinburg was about the state of Crimean museums now: also potentially a topic of interest. However, his talk could be be described as a tirade against the current Ukrainian government and its people.

He shouted his way through a talk that included the highly debatable point that, although fifty percent of Crimeans voted to join Russia, he personally was sure that 100% of people were in favor of it--and even more directly, that 90% of museum staff in Crimea are pro-Russian. As a corrective example, I'll just point to the recent search and closure of the Meijlis, the Crimean Tatar Parliament, in Simferopol. It's crystal clear that at least 12% of Crimea, the Crimean Tatar population, did not support the takeover in any way.  And also very clear that it's dangerous in Crimea these days to support Ukraine.

He then accused the Ukrainian government of the misuse of funds for museums, but neglected to mention that this kind of corruption was exactly what led to Maidan and the ouster of President Yanukovych.  He stated that Maidan was nothing more than an effort by the West to sever the ties of the Slavonic people:  something I know that would be a surprise to those of you who stood on Maidan. He did state, correctly, that museums in Ukraine supported the anti-Russian campaign, although I expect those museums would describe it as a campaign for dignity, human rights, and a just society rather than an anti-Russian campaign.

Not surprisingly, he addressed the issue of Crimean artifacts on loan to a museum in Amsterdam, having said a letter was sent requesting their return.  As I understand it, some of those objects have already been returned to Ukraine, as they were, and continue to be, state property.  Negotiations for the remaining artifacts are ongoing.  He also assured the audience that no objects would be removed from Crimea to Russia.

He accused Blue Shield Ukraine of being active on Maidan, but not caring for what was happening to museums in eastern Ukraine, particularly mentioning the local history museum in Donetsk.  I've actually been to that museum (and I bet he hasn't).  Its destruction is heart-breaking, particularly since it's been very hard to get information and clear documentation because the area surrounding the museum is still controlled by separatists.  However, Ukrainian museums and the Ministry of Culture are supporting their colleagues and the museum there in whatever possible ways given the situation and the extremely limited resources of Ukraine's current government.  Museums in Kyiv have offered working space for those colleagues who have left the Donbass and Kyiv museums are helping to raise funds for the eventual repair of those museums damaged by the conflict.  I believe the Ministry has begun holding some disaster preparedness sessions and Blue Shield is making significant attempts to learn about the state of all endangered museums and cultural sites in Ukraine.

He ran over time, had to be interrupted by the moderator, and so there was no time for questions. As I wrote at the beginning of the post,  I wish now I had not made the decision to be a good guest, but rather that I had stepped forward with questions, despite the press of time.  To Mr. Pushkarev,  I hope next time you present facts rather than polemics.   To my Ukrainian colleagues and friends, my apologies, my support,  and the small amends of this post.

Image:  Chufut Kale, from a visit to Crimea in 2011.

Monday, September 22, 2014

When is Your Audience Ready for the Tough Stuff?

When is your audience or community ready to discuss difficult, hard topics?  At the Museums and Politics conference in St. Petersburg, a number of presenters I heard talked about topics such as the German interpretation of concentration camps, the ways Belgian museums are re-interpreting the legacy of colonialism in Africa; and American museum presentation of prisons and Native American identity. Absent though, was almost any discussion of the effects of Stalin and the Soviet past except for in one presentation by a Russian colleague who stated that the Russian people "were not ready" to address that very difficult legacy.  When asked by an audience member how Russian museums knew that, she cited audience surveys.  It is a challenging past; it is a recent past; and it is a past with a clear connection to the present and future.  

But I did find time, in St. Petersburg and Moscow, to visit three museums that are beginning that discussion; that are not afraid of opening up tough topics for conversations.  They are undertaking incredibly important work, particularly given that one such human rights museum, the Gulag Museum at Perm 36 has been closed for what seem to be political reasons.

The State Museum of Political History of Russia in St. Petersburg begins with a historical perspective, looked back at the abolishment of serfdom, the Tsar's abdication, and the ascension of Lenin, followed by Stalin. There's no question that great men loom large in this presentation, as they once did in statues found all over the Soviet Union.  I greatly appreciated the incredible objects (for instance the film canister in which Solzhynitzin's writings were smuggled out)  and well-written labels in English. Notebooks in each room provided full English documentation of everything you were seeing.  Sometimes when I visit museums in this part of the world, I feel the stories were purposely crafted to be about not a single ordinary person, but rather just this great collective.   The museum looked at not just the difficult past, but also a past where people felt united in a single purpose, so I suspect there's some nostalgia for many visitors.

One small label made me understand that collective force a bit more. In the section on the end of the Great Patriotic War and the Victory Parade in Red Square, filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko noticed that the dead barely received a mention, "It was if thirty or even forty million had vanished into the thin air...the people in the square did not kneel nor gasped for their sufferings or their spilt blood."  

There was an interesting emphasis on providing the tools for visitors to deconstruct socialist meanings.  Several large Socialist Realist paintings were hung in the center courtyard and extensive labels, "Let's Examine the Painting Together" shared both the meanings of the paintings; what symbols are embedded in those views of happy workers; and what the reality of farming actually was.   I wanted more opportunities for visitor voices and feedback, but the museum does stand at a place where the narrative of the Soviet past becomes more complex and nuanced.

In Moscow, the Museum of the House on the Embankment is just a tiny two rooms in a huge apartment complex, the place known as the House on the Embankment, built by Stalin to house top level Soviet elite in the 1930s and 1940s.  But many of those elite paid the same price as other Soviet citizens.  As Stalin turned on the people close to him, many of those who lived here, those who were "original revolutionaries," who were writers, high government officials, scientists, and even the architect of the building himself, were purged by Stalin, taken away, and most often killed.  The museum contains room like settings of original objects in first floor apartment that was once a caretaker's, I believe.  The space is evocative, but it was a group of notebooks on the table that drew our attention.  We pulled out one that said Women; and in it were simple photocopies and biographies of women who lived in this house.  Page after page of incredibly talented women, some who lived on to their '90s;  but far too many of whom had no death date, as they had been taken away, and no one ever knew the truth of what happened.  It's a place filled with great irony as these were people who believed passionately, deeply in what they were doing; but then it came home to them.  In a museum-sense, was was really interesting here was that this was no computer interactive, no fancy database.  It was a notebook, a table and chairs that we could it in.  That alone kept the two of us there for over an hour.  True stories, of real people, always matter.

And finally, the Gulag State History Museum in Moscow.  You enter, somewhat grimly, through a re-created camp corridor--but then, in a bit of surprise, you're not greeted in any of the exhibition halls or at the front desk by staff who try their best to ignore you, but rather, as you enter a gallery you're welcomed, and invited to share any questions you may have.   The permanent exhibit includes, once again, powerful individual objects and individual stories, that together create a sense, even if it's really beyond our own understanding,  of what the terror of being sent off to the camps must have been like.   But very interestingly, they also delved deeper into not just the camps, but other repressions.  A large temporary exhibit looked at the repression of Buddhism.  My favorite element in that was a propaganda film, where on one head set you could listen to what an ethnographer might say about what was seen; and on the other, what the propaganda would have been.   A set of incredibly beautiful portraits of Ingush elders told yet another unknown story to me, about their forced deportation, just as the Crimean Tatars were deported.

Again, it's the interactive of conversation that matters most. While I viewed the permanent exhibit, my friend Irina who lives in Moscow had a long chat with the guard in the room, about how she came to see the museum, about how she began to volunteer, and just the barest hint of her own personal story.  Irina vowed to return, to hear more.

I was moved by all three of these museums, and I wondered each time about the reluctance of museums in Russia to engage in such dialogue.  Such questioning is not particularly welcomed at this moment in Russia--but that does not mean it's not happening, in museums and in people's own minds.  So I'll end with two comments from the final day of the conference in St. Petersburg.  A Serbian participant said,
“Us Slavic people have problems facing our past, but we have to face it, address it in our museums. The ideologically shaped past hurts a lot, but I take with me to Serbia, that we should have memory places and we should face the hard facts. Museum play a big role in that, and I commend Germany for its work in that.”
And a Russian conference-goer passionately said, “The museum is a place for communication and to treat national trauma. And we must do that,” while one other participant said, “Making a difference needs courage! To see that we all share the same values gives us the strength to be courageous.”

I'll long remember these courageous museums and hope deeply that other Russian museums--that all history museums everywhere-- begin to join them helping community members in a deeper understanding of the past.  The longer you wait, the harder it becomes.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Non-Reflective Update: Russia

I had the best of intentions to blog regularly about my trip to this part of the world, but the long intense days have gotten the better of me so far. I also had blogging duties over at the Museums, Politics and Power blog, so please check out there for tri-lingual reporting on that tri-national conference in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.   And I will catch up on my own blogging here—in Russia I saw contemporary art in the Hermitage; a guide play the Tsar’s piano in Yekaterinburg and a few places in Moscow who begin to consider the hard legacy of the Soviet past.  My head is full of thoughts, ideas and reflections that hopefully, will make it here in some cohorent fashion.  But until then, just a few photos from the past ten days or so.  Today, I'm in Riga, Latvia, with more museums on my agenda; and then on to Ukraine on Sunday.  

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

My Bags are (almost) Packed

On September 6th, I head out for five weeks away from home, in all kinds of surprising locations, places where I expect to learn, to be challenged by new situations, to connect with old friends, to make new ones; and much, much more.  First I head to St. Petersburg and Yekaterinberg, Russia, where I'll be both presenting and doing social media for the event.  So be sure to check out the project blog, and follow me on Twitter (or the hashtag #museumspolitics) and Instagram to get the latest from conference sessions, behind the scenes tours of the Hermitage, the contemporary art exhibit Manifesta; and what I hope are conversations that really dig deep, allowing us to consider the conference theme, Museums and Politics, in the light of current events in the region. What are our responsibilities as cultural professionals and how can we, working together, take care of our cultural heritage and engage in important dialogue?

Then a few free days that, of course, include museum-going.  My friend Irina in Moscow tells me there are so many museums we can squeeze in.  Will I love the Moscow Bulgakov Museum as much as I love the Kyiv one? I've heard great things about programs and exhibits at the Tretyakov Gallery--that's on my list--and what about those new emerging museums like the Moscow Design Museum.   From Moscow, I'll head to Riga, Latvia, a European Capital of Culture this year with what look like some amazing museums. The newly opened KGB building and much more are on my list, along with a chance to appreciate one of the world's great concentrations of Art Nouveau architecture.

I wind up my visit to the region with several weeks in Ukraine. As Uncataloged readers know, this is a place very dear to me, with important friends and colleagues.  Together with several colleagues, I'll be presenting workshops on incorporating visitor voices into exhibit development so although I'll be based in Kyiv, we'll be doing lots of traveling around the country.  I'll also be learning about the Museum of Maidan project and as always, sharing perspectives on both professional and personal issues and shoehorning a couple additional presentations. The last year has been an extremely challenging one for Ukraine, to say the least, and my museum colleagues are juggling their work; their commitment to national change; and their concerns for family, friends and fellow museums.

Are you in any of these places?  As always, I'd love the chance to sit down over a cup of coffee and learn about your work.  Be in touch!