Friday, April 30, 2010
I Miss History
I realized the other day that I miss history--which seems a very funny thing to happen when I'm living in a place like Kyiv (above, in 1918) with such a long and complex history. So I decided to think about why that is, and what I might do about it.
There's several different reasons why I miss history here.
The language barrier
My Ukrainian continues to be very limited, and even to read and sound out Cyrillic letters takes me a while (for instance, the other day, I was trying to read the list of stops on a mashrutka--a bus--and it took me so long that the bus had pulled up, loaded and unloaded passengers and pulled away before I realized that yes, that was the bus I wanted!). So where there is information to be gained, such as the many plaques denoting who lived or worked somewhere, I'm not easily able to gain that information. Living here has immensely increased my understanding of the challenges that new immigrants to the US (or anywhere) face in terms of language--negotiating everyday life is a challenge. Imagine what then going to a museum is like.
What to say about history?
The decades of Soviet rule, with its singular approach to history have left a vacuum here. I think Ukraine as a nation has not yet come to terms with its complex 20th century history, and hence, does not know quite what to say about it--in museums, in memorials, in outdoor signage. There is still no considered value in the idea of multiple perspectives and voices.
How do I connect the architecture to history?
Architectural forms here are different, not surprisingly, than those in the United States and Western Europe. So any knowledge I might have about building eras, or construction, or design, are not as useful here. I can pick out those ugly new buildings, for sure, but am just beginning to understand the differences between Stalin-era and Kruschchev era buildings.
Where are those everyday people?
As far as I can tell, the presentation of history and folklife here still operates in a generic way. Poets, writers, and artists get their individual due (and political leaders never do) but the kind of everyday story that is a regular part of my museum work in the States is not in evidence here. I like that in my life at home I meet the railroad workers of Sayre, PA, Lucy Rosen and her theremin, and the Wckyoff family of Brooklyn. (Above, a house where the poet Anna Akmetova lived for a time.)
Local history in the US uses the particular, the stories of individual people, to explore broader stories. Here, I rarely meet those individual people--those many stories--in museum settings. Have their stories been lost? been suppressed? not considered important by scholars? As one museum colleague said to me the other day, "We do not want to remember here."
Not Easy to Access Archives
I wouldn't start by going to an archives by looking at history, but I would certainly look at popular publications based on archival materials. Archives here are still considered to be only the province of scholars and the enthusiastic avocational historians do not exist; and hence archival material is rarely shared with the public.
What can I do?
First, I went out and found a guidebook of walks around Kyiv, The Streets of Kyiv: Five Walks in the Center by Galina Savchuk. Although published more than a decade ago, it provides a great deal of help in beginning to understand the center city and its changes over time--and led me to the most eccentric house. Below, is the House of Chimeras, built by Vladislav Gorodestky in 1902 to demonstrate the wonderful possibilities of concrete!
Second, I think I need to ask more questions of people I meet. Tell me about your family, about where you live, about what you remember about the changes in Kyiv. Those stories will begin to at least flesh out my small mental map of the city I live in right now.
And finally, I'd love to encourage museums or other organizations here to undertake new ways of sharing these individual stories of their city. As inspiration: Place Matters, a project of City Lore and the Municipal Art Society that invites New York City residents to share their stories; and to blow my own horn a bit, a project I worked on, Montgomery Connections in Montgomery County, Maryland, which uses banners, bus stop and print ads, a website, and cell phone audio to introduce, in three languages, the county's residents to its rich history (below photo courtesy the Montgomery County Historical Society).