Saturday, February 21, 2009

Museums and Ukrainian Law

In many conversations here with colleagues, the legal status of Ukrainian museums is often discussed so I thought I should try to explain what I've learned and what is still unclear to me.
One legacy of the Soviet system is, of course, that virtually all museums are still state-run. There are other legacies as well--Ivan Honchar, who founded the museum that bears his name in Kiev wrote in his journals about "scholars" from Moscow sent out to physically destroy museum artifacts that reflected Ukrainian culture. Museums reflected political goals: collections of icons and religious artifacts became museums of atheism (and now are museums of religion). And of course, in policies that still linger strongly today, access to information and knowledge was severely restricted.

On one level, the Soviet system ensured that most Ukrainians, in cities at least, had access to museums and culture. However, the culture available to be accessed was highly controlled and I see even in my young students the sense that certain artists or critics are "important," not necessarily because of their work, but because of their status in an earlier society.

Today there is a Ukrainian national Ministry of Culture that sets policy in a number of areas: "dramatic art, music art, circus art, cinematography of Ukraine, museums, libraries, educational institutions, research and methodical organizations, producers and providers of technical facilities and musical instruments." (from the Ukrainian government portal). But what does that mean? I can't even begin to explain the role of the ministry. Most observers, Ukrainians and others, charitably describe the current government as dysfunctional and amidst a financial crisis, museums are certainly not tops on the list.

But what have I observed and heard?

Because they are state-run, museums are not allowed to make money in any way. For instance, they may publish books, but not sell them in their gift shops. However, it appears that many museums make their temporary exhibit spaces available for artist or collector shows only tangentially connected to their mission and I'm guessing some money is exchanged in this process. Some museums also may find other ways to skirt this issue. The long-term solution is a change in the law; the short term solution is perhaps the formation of separate NGO friends groups to help raise funds for needed museum projects.

Those in higher positions may not be interested in change. Rumors abound about how museum directors enhance their income. Like other segments of Ukrainian society, the change to capitalism has meant, for some, the opportunity to enrich themselves. Why agititate for change when you have a good deal? True, not true, rumor or falsehood? Very hard to say.

Museums here are staff rich and poor in every other way. Museums have large staffs but it's not entirely clear what all of them do. The system of accountability and oversight in personnel issues is missing. With no oversight people come to work or not, or work together, or not, or work on projects that move the mission of the museum forward, or not. These, like most other jobs, have been considered lifetime jobs.

There are private museums beginning to emerge, some by oligarchs, others by less-wealthy individuals with collecting interests.
It's not clear to me whether these are regulated in any way.

Change is often considered the responsibility of someone else, higher up the ladder. Having spent the majority of my career working with small and mid-size museums, it's hard to fathom the idea of just waiting for someone else to create change.

What I haven't learned about:
  • Any standard code of ethics for museums
  • Any guidelines about accessioning or deaccessioning (although rumors of theft and sale are wide-spread)
  • Any clear understanding of how museum and library collections can be made available on the web if the state owns them
  • Any clear understanding of any strategic planning process

What I have learned:
That, despite these obstacles, I am meeting colleagues who really are working for change. They make minimal salaries, work in conditions that are hard to imagine (no heat, for instance, this week in several museum buildings I was in), work with limited resources, and sometimes with colleagues who resent hard work and enthusiasm. They care passionately about the work they do and are enthusiastic about new approaches and the opportunity to connect. Those people, one by one, are the good news for Ukrainian museums and their future.

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