I’ve written before about the Bulgakov Museum in Kyiv, one of my favorite museums in Ukraine Just recently, I’ve been in two other museums devoted to writing and writers that made me consider why it is that museums about words are so good at using ideas, not just words, to convey their story.
First, the Franz Kafka Museum in Prague. A new museum, located right on the river, it’s a highly theatrical presentation of Kafka’s life and work in Prague. Like most people, I know of Kafka, but am not terribly familiar with his work. The exhibits do a great job of integrating his life, his work, and the city of Prague. The museum is mostly in shades of gray, black and white, and uses several theatrical devices to connect the story. A curled scrim shows a ghostly rotating view of Yiddish theater; a section about a circular life includes materials installed in flat circular cases, lit from above. The women in Kafka’s life are highlighted in individual cases that are transparent from front to back, giving a sense of his complicated personal life. At one point, you enter a dark narrow space filled with the reflective glass fronts of file cabinets and dotted with ringing phones. You pick up the phones and someone is speaking. The sense of futility, of no way out, is palpable. It’s a pretty great installation when you leave wanting to read Kafka, as I did (but haven’t yet).
The Kafka Museum in Prague appears to have substantial resources but this week I visited another exhibit in a much smaller museum, with much more limited resources: the Literature Museum in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The museum was founded after the end of the Soviet Union and it is a great testament to that fact that ideas don’t cost money.Their permanent exhibit explores Ukrainian writers in the 20th century. The exhibit carries a strong conception of the narrative of those writers and the changes brought both the advent and decline of the Soviet Union, and that conceptual strength is assisted by the inventive efforts of design students.
This could have been an opportunity to see an exhibit that was just a big line-up of books. But instead, enormous photographs and a timeline line the full exhibit. Each room looks at a different time period, and the extended text labels about the books shown are not installed directly with the book, but contained in folders for browsing.
The last three rooms were the most memorable to me. Ukrainians (and I believe I have this right) have a phrase describing those who go into themselves, going into a “blue world.” In this “blue world,’ photographs with blanks for faces show the writers who were imprisoned or killed. In the next room, the Soviet story is in full sway: Soviet leaders hover over a giant tower of Soviet books. Around the walls of the room, the top shelves show those the works of writers who prospered during the Soviet Union; a lower shelf, those who accommodated; and the very bottom shelf, the works of those who resisted. But there’s a double meaning: not only does that bottom shelf represent the suppressed writers, but said the exhibit's co-curator, “it’s a little sign of respect as we bow down to look at them.”
The final room is dedicated to the post-Soviet period. Hand-designed wall-paper includes images of today’s Ukrainian writers; a suggestion of a coffeehouse, with notepaper replacing napkins in their ever-present holder and a television with books inside, all provide a way to consider the new world that independence has brought.
The world of ideas, the world inside a writer’s mind, is made real in all these exhibitions. We had a lively discussion, in a café, about whether this was because writer’s museums are about ideas and other museums are just about objects—what do you think?