Friday, May 29, 2009

What I Learned in Ukraine 3: Let the Light In

Transparency is something I take for granted--particularly now with the web. I can look up non-profits' financial information on Guidestar; I can search collections databases at many museums, I can learn about the provenance of Nazi-era art or information on Native American collections that have been or will be repatriated. Museum associations like the Museum Association of New York and the American Association of Museums keep me informed about legislation affecting museums. Outside of museums I can find information on my state legislators and their pet projects, read (increasingly online) journalists uncovering all sorts of scandals and corruption at every level of government and business. I'm not naive enough to think that everything is available and accessible, but my American experience makes me think that, given enough time and effort, I could uncover information on almost anything.

Not so much in Ukraine. In Soviet times, information was closely guarded and that legacy continues today on many levels. My students were surprised to learn that archival collections, like the Library of Congress, had millions of items online, available for free, to all comers, without registration. Many scholars still closely guard their information and it's fairly rare for colleagues from different museums to work together, sharing information and ideas. At several workshops, we worked on proposal writing and the chance to openly share and discuss drafts was new to participants.

One experiment in American museum transparency that's gotten a great deal of attention recently is the Indianapolis Museum of Art's dashboard. On the dashboard today, I learned that the museum has 13 works of art on loan to other organizations, that it uses 59,713 KWH of energy per day, and that 28, 899 students have participated in school tours or programs--and much more information about the museum's collections and operations. I imagine big scrambles to get good numbers at the IMA, but I think the result is fascinating and will lead other museums towards the same amount of fluid, real time, transparency.

But the lack of transparency isn't just in museums. Although my direct contact with corruption was pretty limited, Ukrainians assume that corruption exists in every part of life--the country ranks 118th out of 179 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index for 2007 (the last one I could find). I heard stories of directors selling museum collections for personal profit; saw restaurants built on protected parkland, and experienced minor public employees seeking payments. Politics, on every level, is considered by most Ukrainians to be a corrupt process, with a corrosive sense of cynicism about elected officials.

There's lots of funding and lots of effort from the US and Western Europe devoted to addressing issues of corruption in Ukraine. Having only the snapshot of my four months there, I can't say how it's working. However, it seems clear that eradicating corruption is a long haul, and it could be years before real, system-wide change happens, and trickles down to every aspect of society. As a result, museums will continue to suffer. Even a strong director has a hard time fending off dishonesty from above and below. Ukraine's museums--and its citizens-- deserve better.

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