Thursday, January 22, 2009
In this week’s class, my students and I had an interesting discussion about where trustworthy information comes from. I cited American surveys that have shown that museums are among the most trusted sources of information. For Ukrainians, that’s not so at all. In Soviet times, museums were used as tools to advance state policy. For instance, in an earlier conversation, one student said, “If the policy was against Poland, then museum exhibits were created to show that Poland was bad.”
Students (none of whom have any direct memory of the Soviet Union because they are too young), said for the Soviets, museums were a replacement for religion; that they were to be spiritual places—not for learning, and certainly not for fun. I learned this the other day when one of the babushkas (one of the old ladies who sit, watching, in every museum gallery) told a friend and I that we should not be talking so much, we would not have time to see the exhibits!
I’m beginning to understand that many museums here suffer from the same kind of public cynicism that pervades other elements of life here as well—as one of my students put it, “everybody lies.” They do believe that everyone lies, but also when asked who they trusted for information, said, “opinion leaders,” and when I asked further about who those opinion leaders might be, it wasn’t quite clear to me. It depends on what you want to know about. And one said, I suspect accurately, that the only people you can really trust for information are your friends. I hope, by the end of my time with my students, that I’ve encouraged the skills of critical thinking to enhance their broad-based knowledge.
What does this mean for Ukrainian museums moving forward? I think there’s an amazing opportunity for museums to begin to break through that cynicism by creating exhibitions that really encourage public dialogue about all sorts of issues—about public policy, about the role and importance of Ukrainian traditions in both village and city, about art, science and literature. But it will take a museum staff with vision and commitment to do so—and in any country, that’s a rare and wonderful thing. I think there are staff here interested in doing that, and unfortunately, a highly bureaucratic, top-down structure makes initiative more difficult.
Like US museums—and even more so—Ukrainian museums suffer from a lack of funds. So the work of changing perceptions is going to have to be not with a big splash, but with small but exciting changes. As my friend Anne Ackerson says, “Good ideas don’t cost money!”
Above: one of Ukraine's opinion leaders in the world of sports, soccer star Andriy Shevchenko.