Saturday, April 25, 2009

Inside Chernobyl: Life Goes On

The title of this post is the title of the exhibition of photographs by Michael Forster Rothbart, supplemented by some important additions by Chernobyl staff member Alexander Kupny, that opened yesterday in Schvencko Park in Kyiv. For my Ukrainian readers--it will be up in the park for the next two weeks, so please stop by to see it.

For me, some take-away lessons and reminders from this project:

People Matter
Many Ukrainian museums present history in the abstract. This exhibition takes a different, more direct and personal approach. Michael and his colleagues focused on five families who work at Chernobyl today. So the exhibit tells the story of Slavutich, the community where they live, and the Chernobyl plant, through sharing a bit of their lives. Life does go on at Chernobyl, to the great surprise of many here in Ukraine and throughout the world. Today, more than 3800 people still work at the plant. It was wonderful that several of the families were able to make it to Kiev for the opening and to watch them take a look at themselves on the panels in the park. Very pleased, I think.

People Matter Part 2
Any exhibit project is never done by a single person. With financial support from the US Embassy and the Chernobyl Shelter project--and of course the Fulbright Program that made it possible for both Mike and I to be here--Michael worked with a loosely formed collective that ranged from Oleh, a graphic designer in Kharkhiv; to Vasily, whose attention to detail --and those many small nuances--made the production of banners and stands a success; to volunteers Irina, who undertook complicated and sometimes endless seeming negotiations for the site and a million other issues and Natasha, who coordinated the publicity and put together a great group of other young volunteers to help out; Anna, who worked on complex translations, and many others, including staff from the US Embassy, who provided critical assistance. And of course, a fruitful day of brainstorming by my students at Kyiv-Mohyla helped jump start our thinking in new directions. In any project, I always learn lessons about working with people--this was no exception. (My apologies for first names only--I need to check last name spelling, the bane of my existence here, of all the team.)

People Matter Part 3
This project was a great example of why I love doing exhibit projects. It's not for me, or for the museum--but for the audience. Even before we put all the panels up, passersby were stopping by to read--really read--the text and look at the images. People stopped and talked to us about the exhibit and talked to each other. Watching people engage with the stories of Slavutich residents (Slavutichians?) was wonderful--exactly what I hoped for, when, back on a dark January day, I said, "Michael, wouldn't it be fun to have it outdoors?" It is fun.

People Matter Part 4
It's rare for museums here to do any sort of exhibit evaluation. We really wanted to know what people think about this project, so volunteers are conducting survey interviews over the next two weeks. I'll post more about the results when I get some of the feedback and I'll have some of the information for my Idea Lounge session next week at AAM (Friday, 8:00 AM).

And, People Matter Part 5
It's always important to take time to be proud of finishing an exhibit--it's the time when all those bumps along the way begin to recede. We were very pleased that the US Ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, the mayor of Slavutich, and other dignitaries joined us to celebrate the exhibit's opening.

Top to Bottom:
Viewing the exhibit panel about Slavutich
Michael thanking Irina Leonenko
Crowd views the exhibit
Surveyors at work
Michael and dignitaries

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