Sunday, January 25, 2009
I find I haven't yet written about the project here in Ukraine that I've spent perhaps the most time thinking and talking about--two exhibits about Chernobyl. My involvement in the project has come through the happy circumstance of my living situation here in Ukraine. As I began to look for a place to live last fall, fellow Fulbrighter and photographer Michael Forster Rothbart emailed me to say he was looking for a roommate--so luckily for both of us, we now share an apartment and a great deal of conversation about his project--which is documenting, in photographs and interviews, contemporary life in the Chernobyl area today.
Most of the world knows Chernobyl as the world's worst nuclear accident, but most don't know much else about it--I certainly didn't, and I won't attempt to explain it in detail here. Enough to say that the sheer numbers of people affected is staggering: 2393 Ukrainian villages were contaminatd by radiation and 116,000 people were relocated from their homes around Chernobyl. Chernobyl is an event with massive environmental and public health consequences but it is also an event that, for all those many thousands of people, meant an irretrievable disruption of life as they had known it.
Michael's work examines the questions about what having a nuclear accident in your backyard means almost 25 years after the fact: how has it affected families and communities? what are the prospects for change? what is it like to be one of the 4000 people who still work at the plant? How do communities survive through a crisis like this and how are new communities created? What is the role of memory and tradition? Why should we, as Americans or Ukrainian, care about these villages and the people who live there? What relevance does it have to our lives?
We're working on plans for two exhibits: one, in partnership with Sasha, a photographer currently working at the Chernobyl plant, will be limited in scope and will focus in life at the plant itself and the community of Slavutich, where most of the plant workers live. We hope to have it here in Kyiv on the anniversary of Chernobyl and then at the small museum in Slavutich. Our goal is to have it in an outdoor setting so as many people as possible can see it.
The second, larger project is a longer term plan for an exhibition both at the Chernobyl Museum here in Kyiv, in the villages, and at museums in the United States. Plans are just beginning to develop, but we've talked about a whole variety of approaches. My informal role in all this is to be an advocate for audiences, to think about ways to expand and deepen the experience and to provide some help in how museums work in thinking about traveling exhibitions. If you're interested in learning more, or feel that it might be something of interest to your museum audience, please let me know. This coming week, my students will be working with Michael and his colleague Sergii Mirnyi to brainstorm ideas from their own perspectives about the exhibition--I look forward to many minds at work!
Top to bottom:
Chernobyl liquidator Leonid Budkovsky
Chernobyl cancer survivors Lydia and Viktor Gaidak
An inactive information panel in Control Room 1 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant showed the status of all the fuel rods in the reactor pool.
An elderly woman prays during a service at the small Ukrainian church in Novo Ladizhichi village. "New Ladizhichi" was built in 1987 to house evacuees from the original village of Ladizhichi following the 1986 Chernobyl accident.
All images copyright Michael Forster Rothbart