Wednesday, March 25, 2009

From My Students' Perspective

My students at Kyiv-Mohyla have been a great part of my time here. We have lively discussions in class and I'm impressed at their ability to dive into a different type of class setting, very different kinds of material, and to begin to integrate that into their writing and work. And I'm in awe of their ability to write in English (as my own Russian and Ukrainian vocabularies seem to have topped out at about a dozen words).

They've had three assignments in which they've been asked to visit museums, historic sites or memorials and to write brief reflection papers (my former Hartwick students, you'll recognize this) about the museum, from a perspective that thinks about big ideas, visitors, and families. There were far too many good observations to share in full, but with their permission, I wanted to share some of their thoughts.
"Consequently we went to the Zoological Museum. The museum was not new for me but for my little son. He is looking forward to meeting his friends. There are many animals from his favorite tales and the cartoons…My story did not entirely coincide with the big idea of the museum….There were too many exhibits for me also. They just pressed down on us….Nevertheless we enjoyed the museum because we created our own idea and really realized it. We were in our own tale with good animal friends."

"I think the absence of WCs for visitors in most of Ukrainian museums talk [s] a lot about the soviet concept of museum going. I would dare to say this concept suggests visitors to become bodiless angels on the period of visiting the museum."

"Or can the space be re-organized more effectively, finally taking down some of the outdated information (like the obligatory Marx-Engels quotes, tributes to a dead era)?"

"For my family-oriented visit I chose the Museum of Natural Science. I had always been fascinated by the “hard” sciences, and one of the best memories of my childhood was this museum. I’d spent long minutes in front of the dioramas and the taxidermied animals and wondered whether I”d go into biology. Even though I’m not a biologist now, I remain in a kind of awe of the natural sciences—so I went to see whether the museum remains as inspirational to today’s children and families.

"I can admit that in spite of absence of any special children adapted information, it seems as if Liza [age 5] had better time in museum than me and double better than my mother. Probably, because of an “adult feature” to criticize what you see, meanwhile children are more ready to treat things around as trustworthy.

But as for me, one small detail could change significantly atmosphere of the museum and makes it more visitor-friendly. Base [d] on my personal experience watching the exhibition while you are very hungry, I would like the museum [to] allow eating and drinking inside. It would be useful for learning to have a small café near the ticket desk. Many people have better ability to concentrate attention when they are eating. Particularly it would help family learning in the museums, to discuss exhibits over dinner.

"The big idea of exposition in this museum, if there were such, could be stated as, “We can improve your knowledge about the history of literature in Ukraine (our precious Ukrainian literature in particular) by showing you lots of genuine artifacts and telling lots of new information about it.” These gaps [in labels] might even be intentional and probably were designed to provoke questions of the visitors. Nevertheless this is an obvious disadvantage because it makes a visitor feel dumb. Intended message of this museum can be stated as following: literature of Ukraine is great, it is our heritage, and we should estimate and honour it, which implies visiting the museum and listening and watching politely.

Unintended message is that history of literature in Ukraine is unchangeable, inert, and improving one’s knowledge of it from the official point of view implies increasing predominately quantity of information and variety of details, without concern about quality, levels of understanding, changing of understanding, etc.
Nobody wants to be a victim. Unfortunately, up to nowadays, the history of Ukrainian literature is taught in the way of presenting ever lasting tortures of Ukrainian people. "

This next entry was a reflection about the Holomodor Monument. The student proposed an alternative: a museum that first presented peasant life before Holomodor (the Stalin-created famine that killed millions of Ukrainians) and only then, entrance to an exhibition about Holomodor:

"Try to imagine: you leave wide rooms, full of light and fresh bread fragrance and get to place of darkness and sadness. In Holomodor room one could compare ordinary meal of Ukrainian peasants and disgusting stuff, created from spoiled vegetables, dry grass and sawdust that they eat not to die from starvation….but Holomodor exhibition wouldn’t be dedicated only to peasant’s life during famine—it would also show the life of people who served the Soviets—from members of Politburo to agents of NCVD (National Committee of Internal Cases) and orindary soldiers of the Red army.

To my mind, the best way to preserve memories of national tragedy in people’s hearts is to make it less pathetic and closer to feelings of ordinary people like love, hate, compassion, friendship. Only identification with victims before tragedy may provide the proper feelings like sorrow and compassion. The purpose of peasant museum is to turn nameless and unknown victims of Holomodor to real people, who had names, dreams, passions, small and funny habits. Huge and pathetic memorials prevent identification with real people. It is difficult to feel love and compassion to huge governmental machine."

"What have I learned from the exhibition? Probably I caught some kind of spirit there and dropped into my “mental visual database” new images."

"So children don’t feel comfortable in museums. It doesn’t seem for them as leisure time during which they can receive useful information, but as kind of enforcement.

Something that can shock and force to think. I believe that for children the most important is not to see the past, but to see the future."

Top to Bottom:
Nadiya and Anna
Anna, Sasha and Oksana
Miriam and Alyona

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