Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What a Difference A Decade (or Two) Makes

Last week, I went to Prague, a city I had last visited in 1992,  when it was still emerging from decades of Communist rule.  Now, I found a city greatly changed.  Our last visit was in December, so it was cold and gray--virtually no hotels (we rented a room in someone's apartment),  not much English anywhere,  but beautifully,  it seemed as if we heard classical music streaming forth from many windows as we walked along.

Prague today is a thoroughly European city and you can see evidence of the vast influx of European funds into the city--which combined with the efforts of the Czechs themselves, have created  a city that is friendly and easy for visitors.  And there are many, many, visitors.  I remember wandering Prague Castle almost alone, just the three of us.  And on Friday, in the pouring rain, hordes of tourists from around the world were on tour there.   

New museums have opened with private funds:  Lobkowicz Palace, the Kafka Museum, and the Kampe Museum--all new (more posts to come).  Exhibit panels and labels are done in Czech and English, at a minimum, but also often available in German, Russian, French, Japanese and Spanish, reflecting the city's lure to visitors from all over.  But of course, you walk two steps off the main tourist areas and you can immediately be on a beautiful, quiet street,  a place to think about Prague, not about souvenirs or pizza (or the great cheap beer!)

What does this mean for cultural tourism in Ukraine?  There are several important lessons, I believe.

Government involvement does matter.  For instance, the Lobkowicz Collection was returned to its owners through an agreement with Vaclev Havel's first government.  Clearly the government continues to invest in culture and tourism, and encourages others to invest.

If government-run museums do not become forward thinking and active,  private museums (whether NGOs or not) will spring up and make those government museums irrelevant to both visitors and the community.  The result will also be declining financial support, both governmental and from the private sector.

Making materials available in multiple languages is a key way to make visitors welcome--and perhaps on some level, the least expensive to create.  At one castle we visited,  the English speaking guide was not available,  but an English language handout was.  And at the tiny, tiny,  Antonin Dvorak Museum in a village,  they had a simply typed English language brochure and had added number keys to the exhibits and panels.  Otherwise, I would have never appreciated the pen that he wrote with!   I often feel badly when I tell people that materials should be in English, rather than other languages, but many, if not most, western European travelers speak English well--so it's not just for native English speakers.

Collaboration makes a difference.  Whether you're partnering with the city government to produce a river extravaganza or with another gallery or museum to mount a joint show,  these collaborative efforts draw more attention and make resources go further.

Outdoor contemporary art installations become attractions in themselves.  All over Prague, contemporary art makes you look, sometimes makes you laugh, but creates a lively, active sense of the city.  Such efforts, I assume, require extensive collaborations between artist, funder and the city.

Care for the beautiful place you live.  The center of Prague felt like a place people cared about.  Architecture is preserved, and the spaces are made for people (although there is a huge amount of graffiti that tempers this statement a bit)  Here in Kyiv, now, cars rule.  They park on the sidewalk;  you walk underground while they travel unimpeded.  In Prague, it felt like a walker's city.   I'll assume also that this has to do with less corruption in terms of land deals as well as other policies.

Just as I was telling Irina about my memory of music,  we walked by a conservatory, and sure enough, a young singer's voice sprang forth from an upper floor--a brief snatch of song, followed by an instructor's comments, and the singer began again.   For me, a memory of a long ago visit made real again.  Despite the many tourists,  Prague still remains a beautiful place particularly when, like last week,  all the chestnuts were in bloom.

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