Saturday, February 28, 2009

Is it Ill-Bred to Have Fun in Museums?

When I show the above photo, that I took at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, here in Ukraine, there's always a small buzz in the audience. Surprising to me until I really started observing museum visitors here. Museum visiting is a very serious experience here. You would never sit on the floor, never hold a lively conversation with family, almost never participate in interactives (because there aren't any).

Interestingly, I was interviewed by the mass media (as the press is referred to here) when I was in Zaporizhia this past week. When I was asked by a reporter how museums were different, I mentioned the fact that in the US, and in many Western European countries as well, that museum-going was thought of as a fun activity. (In fact, I just read that Barack Obama took Michelle to a museum on their first date!) The reporter gave me quite a stern look and said, "perhaps we Ukrainians are too well-bred for that." A bit taken aback, I replied that it was not considered ill-bred in the United States to have fun, to talk, to enjoy oneself at a museum.

I see this "well-bredness" in my workshops as well. Educational experiences here, whether in school or professional settings, tend to be the one-way delivery of information from a lectern. It takes a little bit for my Ukrainian colleagues to try a different approach, but once they do, I've found many of them lively participants with many great ideas. I don't want to be disrespectful of cultural norms in any way, but I do think making museums fun rather than a chore is a good thing--and critical to museums' survival in societies where so many other options for leisure time are available.

I'd love to see highly interactive exhibits here, to see how Ukrainians would react to the chance to behave as they wish in a museum. My guess is that it would take visitors a bit to let lose, but then, given the good humor I've found here, they would have a great time. And so to inspire fun, a video from a 2007 project at the Brooklyn Museum that invited visitors to share their videos on You Tube about the museum's First Friday events. Enjoy!

(And more soon about my time in Zaporizhia--special thanks to my colleagues at the Khortytsia National Preserve for arranging such a productive, interesting time and taking such good care of me--and as always, to Ihor Poshvailo of the Ivan Honchar Museum who has made so much of my time here useful and interesting.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"We Must Cut Off Our Beards!"

The Ukrainian and Russian languages have a host of proverbs and sayings that are still used today but relate to much earlier times. So in the same way that my mom says, "fish or cut bait," or described us as looking like "the last rose of summer," when we were sick, I've heard many proverbs here. There's the one about Ukrainians being slow to saddle the horse, but once they get going, they get going!

But the other day I heard a second-hand reaction to one of my workshops that used a historical allusion. The participant had enjoyed the workshop, but saw how much there was to accomplish, how much change was needed, so she said, "We must cut off our beards!" I looked very puzzled until I got the explanation. It was a reference to Russia's Peter the Great (1672-1725) who looked to western Europe for ideas and inspiration, coming home and commanding all in his court to cut off their beards as a way of demonstrating change (and, like all the Tzars, demonstrating iron-fisted control as well).

I don't think Ukrainians should figuratively cut off all their beards, doing away with all their traditions, but I wouldn't be sad to see the old white beards of the Soviet era shaved clean, with museum colleagues of all ages and interests, embracing those new ideas. So I was very pleased that one participant was ready for change--I'm far from Peter the Great, so my work here is one person, one conversation, one idea, at a time.

And some other great Ukrainian proverbs from
A head is not only for putting your hat on.
A crow will never be a falcon.
Wisdom is in the head, not in the beard.
To see a friend no road is too long.
A dream is sweeter than honey.

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.

A Quick Trip to Lviv

I'm just back from a two day trip to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine to give workshops there to museum colleagues (or museum workers, as they're always referred to here). It's a beautiful city with an unusual history. Lviv has been a part of many nations and has had many names. It was established in the early 1200s by the Ruthenian King Danylo; subsequently it became a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland, Nazi Germany and then, with the relocation of Poland's borders after World War II, a part of the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became a part of a newly independent Ukraine. So it's been called Lviv, Lwow, Lemburg, Lvov...

But what's fascinating about Lviv is several different things. First, the architecture. It's a gem of a city, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Buildings were not damaged during World War II and the presence of Soviet-era buildings in the center is almost non-existent.

After I returned, I found a great site to learn more about Lviv. The Center for the Urban History of East Central Europe has interactive maps, digital photos and film about Lviv and other communities. I was particularly impressed by their mission:

In all its activities, be they academic or cultural, the Center strives to adhere to principles of openness (toward what is new), tolerance (with regard to difference and diversity) and responsibility (for the future).

As an institute of historical scholarship, we seek to offer fresh intellectual impulses and help abandon dated questions and preconceived answers. By information and open discussion, we try to help prevent history from being abused for political ends. Through conferences, seminars and exhibitions we hope to promote scholarly and cultural exchange.

We offer young researchers additional opportunities to do advanced, internationally recognized work in their own country, seeking to reduce the "brain drain" emigration of qualified scholars.

We strive to be a part of contemporary Lviv's urban society and public, open to diverse communities and in productive cooperation with public and cultural institutions.
As an institute that not only researches the city of the past, but also lives and works in the city of the present, we want to go beyond academic activity and support cultural and other public initiatives, which we see as both valuable and seminal.

We want to contribute to Lviv becoming a central site for intellectual, academic and cultural life not only in Ukraine but in Europe.

This sort of community-focused, future-oriented mission statement is a rare thing-- in any country! So it was particularly nice to read it here and to see so many results of their work on their website.

The other interesting thing about Lviv? Despite its connection with many nations, it is a center of both Ukrainian nationalism and language. Russian is rarely spoken here, and other Ukrainians mentioned that Russian-speaking Ukrainians are often reprimanded by Lviv residents for not speaking Ukrainian.

It was great to learn more about a different part of Ukraine, and I look forward to returning to Lviv to learn more.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Khanenko Museum

A very nice afternoon visit to the Khanenko Museum here in Kyiv. In terms of visitor services, one of the best places I've visited so far. The museum is in the former home of Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko, whose collecting interests were broad and wide-ranging, including a stunning collection of Asian art and a European art collection with works by Velasquez, Breughel, Rubens and others. My favorite visitor in a Ukrainian museum is the little girl above, who looked at every piece with such deep concentration and interest. In general, Ukrainian museum visitors are very serious--very little conversation and close looking at the works.

Aside from the collection, which made the visit a delight, what made it fun to visit? Friendly staff, even with my very limited ability to communicate. English labels and in every room, laminated guides to the objects in the room provided in Ukrainian, Russian and English. An audio tour and a guided tour were both available in English, although I did not take either--and a sign at the front desk, in English, noting such.

In particular, it looked like the Asian art galleries had been recently redone. The lighting and display techniques were excellent. Each room was a different jewel tone and effective track lighting highlighted objects.

There was even a small gift shop. The museum's website is still under development, but it does list a page for Friends of the Museum. As I understand it, Ukrainian museums are in a very difficult situation financially. The level of government support continues to drop, but museums, by law, are forbidden from income-generating activities. A friends group, a rare thing here, is one way to address that issue and help museums seek out the funds they need. It looks like I'll have an upcoming opportunity to learn more about legal issues and museums here, and to share standard practices from the United States.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Web Tools for Ukrainian Museums/ Інтернет-інструменти для українських музеїв

A brief detour into the practical. As promised at this week's workshop, I'm posting a list of resources and examples of free web tools that can be used in museums. As I've discovered, for many Ukrainian museums, the time and effort required to build a full institutional website is substantial and many museums here have no website, or a very minimal one. As Google Analytics has taught me from analyzing readers on this blog, the web provides you with a worldwide audience--so the effective use of the web can help build interest in your museum. All these tools are free and provide great ways to engage both local and more far-reaching audiences.

You're here, so you're reading at least one blog.
There are several different blog software available: Blogger, Wordpress and Live Journal. I understand from my students that Live Journal is most used here in Ukraine.

To find a wide variety of museum blogs, click here. Some examples of museum blogs, large and small, include:

Alice News from the Alice Miner Museum
The MassMOCA blog
Art Matters, from the Art Gallery of Ontario
Brooklyn Museum

There are also a number of museum professionals who blog about different museum issues. Blogs I read regularly include:

Leading by Design, by museum management consultant Anne Ackerson
Museum 2.0 by Nina Simon about museums and social technology
Museum Audience Insight by Susie Wilkenning and her colleagues at Reach Advisors, about audience research

Simply put, podcasts are just audio download files.
A wide selection of fine art podcasts (also available on your cell phone) can be found at the Walker Art Center's site. And don't forget to explore the entire site for every kind of web and media you can imagine. For podcasts done by a small history museum, check out the podcasts at the Holland Land Office Museum.

For many more podcasts, visit Museum Pods.

If you use a Mac computer, podcasts can be recorded and edited using Garage Band. If you're not a Mac user, you can use the free editing software Audacity.

YouTube/Video Sharing
YouTube is a video sharing site and museums seem to use primarily in two different ways. First, a YouTube video can be linked directly from your site, providing an easy way to share video. See this example from the Philip Johnson Glass House (scroll down to interviews and click through). Second, you can invite and encourage visitors to create their and share their own videos about your museum on YouTube. Here's two examples from the Brooklyn Museum: Mr. Cool and Art Thief.

Flickr/Image Sharing
Flickr is a site to share photos. You can tag photos, assemble them in sets, or otherwise provide the photos to a worldwide community. They can be images from your collection. A number of organizations with photo collections from around the world have joined together as The Commons on Flickr. See the collections here.

Voice Thread/Image Sharing and Comments
A tool for having online conversations about media: photos, video, documents or more. Responses can be recorded by webcam, microphone, text, drawing or file upload.


Museums have used Facebook, a social networking site, in a number of ways. For instance, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has a page with tens of thousands of followers . Don't forget, if you begin using Facebook, to join the Museums in Ukraine page (just search within Facebook).

Collective Access
This is an open source, open access program that allows you to catalog your collections on line.

And one more link:
Cultural and Heritage Tourism resources as downloads in Russian are available here from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

I'd love to hear from other colleagues about additional useful web tools.

And one more addition: Google Translate will translate web pages or text. The translation is not necessarily perfect, but generally gives a sense of the text.

І ще одне доповнення: Перекладач Google буде перекладати веб-сторінки або тексту. Переклад не завжди ідеально, але в цілому дає уявлення про тексті.

Top to bottom: Side show at the Vermont State Fair, 1941, Jack Delano, photographer. FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress
Children singing, Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940, Russell Lee, photographer, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress

Monday, February 9, 2009

Inside Chernobyl

Just an update to my last post. I struggled to convey my thoughts as I merely looked at images of the accident. Imagine what it must be like to be inside the damaged areas of the plant itself. My friend and colleague Michael Forster Rothbart, the photographer working on documenting Chernobyl affected communities has just written a thoughtful and compelling post (with pictures) about his visit inside the power plant and the trip inside the now-abandoned Control Room 4. Read the entire post on his blog.

Understanding Chernobyl

I remember much talk at one point in among American museums about collecting the 20th century: Barbie dolls, Tupperware, and more. Those objects--and those conversations-- seem simple in comparison with my experience today. I visited a place that's charged with interpreting an incredibly complex event of the 20th century---the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The interpreting is done by the Information Center of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Slavutich, about 150 miles outside of Kiev--I suppose, a sort of industrial history museum, operated by the power plant itself. There's a Chernobyl Museum here in Kiev, which I haven't visited yet, but Slavutich is the new town, constructed after the accident, to house people from the contaminated city of Priypat, now totally abandoned. 3800 Slavutich residents still work at the Chernobyl plant. So the history here is not a theoretical one, but one that affected every single resident of Slavutich and continues to affect them in many ways.

The exhibit starts as many industrial history exhibits do, with the construction of the plant which opened in 1971; after several years of exceptional performance, they were awarded a special certificate--a sort of naming of the plant connected to Lenin. But then, literally, time stops as the accident occurs--something represented by a large stopped clock and date at the end of the room--on April 26, 1926, at 1:23 AM, during a safety test, a power surge overheated reactor 4 which then exploded, sending massive amounts of radiation into the air, crossing international borders. It's hard to imagine, in these days of twitter, cell phone photos and the Internet, how much the Soviets controlled information. The residents of Priypat, the nearest town, where radiation was incredibly high, were only informed that there had been an accident, mostly contained.

We were shown around the museum by Sergei Kasyanchuk, director of the museum, who has made it his life's work to document and collect material about the plant, the accident and the aftermath. Along with first photo taken of the burned out reactor after the explosion, taken from the air, there are photos of workers in hardly any protective clothing, funerals, and a guest book from the small museum in Pripyat, the last entry from the day before the accident.

Three sections of the exhibition will stay with me a long time--one is that large image of the burned out reactor with the stopped clock. The second is the memorial room, a red circular space featuring images of the men and women who were workers at the plant the night of the accident and died immediately or soon thereafter. Many died in Moscow, where they had been evacuated to for treatment, and are buried there as well, quietly, with no ceremony, in lead coffins. Without any text other than names, the space invites contemplation.

The last was perhaps the most surprising. The rest of the plant, 3 other reactors, was not shut down until December 2000, by Leonid Kuchma, then president of a newly independent Ukraine. A panel in the exhibit shows the ceremonies of the plant workers. At a place where many were frightened, others killed, and whose very name has become a synonym for disaster, these workers commemorated the final charted records and placed carnations on top of the reactor, the place that had been their work home for years.

Sergei continues to work and collect information about the accident. The end of the Soviet Union (hastened, some say, by Chernobyl and the aftermath), has made his research easier, but his dedication helped to remind me how important the work of museums can be in commemorating, sharing and documenting difficult stories.

Top to bottom:
Sergei Kasyanchuk at the large mural
Memorial Room
Plant closing Panel

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Why Do We Collect?

Soviet Realist paintings?
Rushnyky? Old postcards? Medals? Small china figurines? This weekend I went with a group of Fulbrighters to an indoor antique/flea market across the river here in Kyiv. In a way, it was just like any similar place in the United States--long rows of tables, bored looking dealers, and piles of merchandise.

But the merchandise was both the same and different--old photos, china figurines, yes; but other items shared hints of a more complex history--one familiar to Ukrainians and not to me. One painting showed a school girl reciting her lessons underneath the watchful eye of a bust of Stalin; another showed members of a communal farm listening to one of their members make a speech; an album of photos showed real photo postcard images of Russian soldiers in the trenches and field hospitals of World War II; many, many medals for sale. It seemed to me that there were far fewer items from the 1950s-1970s, items almost always now found in American antique markets and I suspect it may be because many Ukrainians are still using those items. Or maybe another reason I'm not imagining.

Why do people collect? I've worked on a couple projects where we talked with kids about collecting. Many kids in the US collect something: rocks, bird feathers, little toy trucks, bottle caps. They begin collecting as young as 6 or 7 and the elements of collecting include a display of sorts and an organization of the collection in some way--and of course, the urge to acquire more--more of the same thing, more slightly different things, bigger things, smaller things. Are kids here the same? I haven't discovered that one way or another, but suspect that my students can enlighten me.

That same collecting impulse seems to work for adults as well. I'm guessing that most of the people there today were looking for something specific: a particular medal from the Great Patriotic War (World War II to Americans) or a postcard of a particular place. But my museum career has lessened my urge to be a real collector, to organize, to know in complete detail, to be surrounded by multiples of the same thing--and of course finances rarely allow owning the very best of anything.

I find the collecting impulse on display in museums here. Objects and art are often presented without the context that allows us to fully understand their importance, but arrayed in ways that embrace the collecting mindset. It sometimes seems enough just that the museum possesses the item; displays it in a row with other similar items, and expects that we will be able to understand the meaning of those items. Of course, many Ukrainians do, but as fewer and fewer Ukrainians live in villages and hold a connection to traditional life, that knowledge will disappear as well and museums will be the places to find those connections and meaning.

So what did I buy? Two rushnyky (an all purpose word meaning towel, but now often with ritual importance)--one, an old one with a great red design and several mends, making it affordable; and two wood block prints from the 1970s. All because I liked and enjoyed them, the best reason to collect.

Above: my new rushnycky

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Russian, Ukrainian, English: A Tangle of Words

I've just completed another Russian lesson, with the patient Vika, who makes house calls in a valiant attempt to teach me a bit of Russian while I'm here. For my non-Ukrainian readers, you may or may not be fully aware that both Ukrainian and Russian are in use here in Ukraine. Ukrainian, is of course, the official language and spoken most widely in the west of Ukraine. Russia was, also of course, the official language in Soviet times, and is spoken most widely in the east of Ukraine. So why am I attempting to learn Russian? For me, it seemed the language that would have the broadest use in future travel, however I respect and admire Ukrainians' desire to more fully root their own language in every aspect of life here.

Learning a new language--with a new alphabet and new sounds--is a challenge. I feel victorious when I recognize and pick out a word in the stream of conversation, or painstakingly spell out, and perhaps pronounce correctly--a word I see on a sign.

What does this have to do with museums? I've worked on two bi-lingual projects at home in the US as part of a commitment to make museums accessible and interesting for as many people as possible. That's been reinforced for me here, where my lack of language makes my understanding of any given museum experience pretty limited. Most museum information here is conveyed through minimal labels in Russian and/or Ukrainian, and more extensive information through a guided tour--which is often available in English but you need to know how to ask for it in Russian or Ukrainian.

Today, at the Kyiv Museum of Russian Art I had a chance to review their English language audio tour which hopefully, will soon be available for English language visitors. (and English language visitors include not only Americans and Britons, but many others for whom English is a second language). I had visited the museum before, and had been a bit interested in the collection, displayed in a very traditional sense, but had not been able to put it into context. The audio tour, presented on an iPod, was great. I learned about St. George and his eventual adoption as a symbol of Imperial Russia; about portrait painting in the 18th century; and about the 19th century work that reflected more democratic changes in Russian society.

I also came away with an ongoing appreciation for the complexities of language and translation. For instance, I learned that the act of painting and the act of writing are the same word in Russian, so in the English translation, it emerged as an artist writing this work, when discussing a painting. I was pleased to be offered the opportunity to comment on the tour by Tanya Kochubinska of the museum and I look forward to working with her to make a few small corrections, provide ideas from my colleagues in the US on how to manage the rental of the iPods, and then, a successful debut of audio tours at the museum.

Above: poster outside the Kyiv Museum of Russian Art Tanya Kochubinska of the Museum of Russian Art A school group at the Museum of Russian Art

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Cold Economic Winds Blow

The cold economic winds seem to blowing on both sides of the world. I hear regular updates from US colleagues about layoffs, cutbacks and funding uncertainty. The same thing is happening here. Not surprisingly, museum workers are not paid well here, and economic issues, are having a chilling effect on museum staff--as they are on all Ukrainians. Unpaid leaves, pay postponed for months, and layoffs are just part of the picture for Ukrainian museum professionals. Housing, transportation and food here are all becoming more expensive as Ukrainians have less money, so a one month furlough presents severe hardships.

We talked today with a small group about regular get-togethers to discuss museum issues and whether it was worth doing in such tough and discouraging times. I encouraged my colleagues here to undertake such endeavors nonetheless. For two reasons--first, it's always good to have support and contacts during difficult times, and second, that more than ever, this is the time for ideas to come to the fore. New ways of doing things, even on a small scale, can make a big difference.

Next week, I present my first workshops here in Kyiv--with the help of Ihor Poshvailo of the Honchar Museum, we've framed a two day workshop around the idea of making change with only a little change in your pocket. I've found that my work with small museums in the US is very helpful in both understanding the sometimes slow pace of change here and the ways in which financial resources (or the lack thereof) can hinder an organization's development. But, I'm always hopeful that it doesn't serve as an excuse for new thinking, conversation and professional development.

Cold winds, Vienna, Austria, 2007
Trent Stroh, via Flickr

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Silence as an Interpretive Strategy

Are there times when just silence is the best interpretive strategy? Last year when I facilitated an AAM Conference Idea Lounge session called, "Why are Historic House Tours so Boring?" one participant reminded us that sometimes silence is the best thing--just providing visitors with a chance to appreciate the space and the art. I was reminded of that comment yesterday when I went, just as a tourist, to St. Sophia's Cathedral here in Kyiv.

St. Sophia is on UNESCO's World Heritage List, the first such site listed in Ukraine. It was built in the 11th century, though its exterior dates from a later period. It has a complex and complicated history, and it operates now as a museum, not as a working place of worship.

But yesterday was a cold January day, with only a weak bit of sun--enough to get me outdoors to see some of Kyiv's sights. It proved a great time to see St. Sophia. The sanctuary of the Cathedral itself is incredibly beautiful, with both mosaics and paintings in these deep, rich, incredible colors. The labeling was minimal, but thankfully in English, Russian and German, and there were very few people there. It was an opportunity to just be in this space, with centuries of history, and surrounded by such beauty--well, for once, I didn't really need any interpretation, I just immersed myself in it.

And outside it felt the same--enclosed from the outside world on the grounds, you could just wander, with the small number of other visitors, and look closely at details--the lock on a green door, the gold on a dome, a copper downspout. It felt like everything extraneous was pared away, leaving you to appreciate the place itself.

Too Intelligent to be Fooled

A brief foray back into the US museum world. In the past week or so, incredible attention in the media and in the blogosphere has focused on Brandeis University's proposal to close the Rose Art Museum and sell the entire collection.

My friend Claire, a freshman at Brandeis, sent me an essay written by Julia Sferlazzo, a senior student arts major at Brandeis and posted on the student blog, Innermost Parts. I won't repeat the full essay, but as I read it, I was struck by the parallels with some of my work here in Ukraine.

Julia writes,

Our school is in a dire economic situation right now, but the loss of the Rose is one that will damage our history, legacy, and standing in the public view forever. While it is certain that changes need to be made and programs may be cut, we must urge the Administration and the Board of Trustees to have confidence that the students can be trusted to take part in these hard decisions. They should know that this institution has made us too intelligent to be fooled by press releases and evasive answers. We have each been taught to inquire and debate. We have learned never to accept an answer without proof. Our voice on this issue and our unity in demanding transparency is a testament to the very motto of this university, "truth even unto its innermost parts." I ask the administration to honor that motto, to give us the hard answers to some very hard questions, and to trust that our time at Brandeis has educated us to understand. If the administration makes the situation clear, we will not feel as if they are doing something to us, but as if we are all working together to solve an incredibly difficult situation. We must each attempt to understand another perspective and examine what is best both now and for the future.

The sense of questioning and transparency is still less than one generation old in Ukraine. But in my work here, I can see, as at Brandeis, that young people committed to such thoughtful inquiry are genies that cannot be put back in the bottle--that such change, if nurtured, will become permanent.

Window at St. Sophia's, Kyiv