That phrase, “That is not for our people” is one I have heard more than once at workshops here and always find it incredibly frustrating. What is not for Ukrainians, say some? A whole host of things they say—visitor-friendly museums, engaging exhibits, transparency in collections and museum operations. To me it represents the worst of the old-style Soviet thinking—a one size fits all mentality combined with a sense that someone in charge makes the decision about what is best for “our people.”
Yesterday, after the end of my workshop with Kharkiv museums, I saw the best illustration I could imagine about why people who say that are wrong. During the day, the participants had done a great job creating some interactives prototypes which were laid out on big pieces of brown paper at the contemporary art space where we met. The 11 year-old daughter of one of the staff members is a regular visitor. She came in and was instantly drawn to the group's work. She tried each one, and then, on her own initiative, became their guide to other visitors, including adults, who came into the gallery. She encouraged them to try each interactive, explaining how it worked and what it meant, rewarding everyone with a brilliant smile for their participation.
These elements that engage museum visitors—they are for Ukrainians. And, just as we left the workshop and walked through the park, I saw something else that some in power want to say is not for their people-- a group of students and others assembled in protest. As I understood it, they had gathered to draw attention to the general failure of the police to do their jobs, to enforce the laws.
Young people, from that pig-tailed girl exploring new ideas in a gallery space to my museum colleague who dashed off yesterday to join friends protesting the wholesale cutting of trees for development and personal gain, continue to serve notice that the old ideas and ways of thinking are no longer for “our people."
Hopeful signs during a troubling time for Ukraine.