There's lots of discussion right now about how museums can be social places, places to gather, to come together, to enjoy each other's company. And amidst all the talk, I'd forgotten how nice an event that just brings people together can be--and this weekend, I got a beautiful reminder in the town of Opishne, in the Poltava region of Ukraine. It's a bit unusual for a museum with national status to be located in a town the size of Opishne, but the National Museum of Ceramics, run by an energetic director, Oles Poshyvailo, is. So it's a national museum, but with a distinctly local flare and connection to this town, the traditional home of many potters. For the past two weeks, there's been a ceramics festival, culminating in Saturday's National Potters' Day.
So what happened during these two weeks? A unique combination of events:
- A scholarly symposium about Ukrainian traditional ceramics
- A two week artists' residency where 12 contemporary ceramic artists from 5 countries came to live and work, producing three works each for a juried show--and as side results, many new connections and ideas for collaborations among them
- The juried show, a juried show of traditional ceramics and a juried show of photos about ceramics
- The presentation of a new publication on Opishne ceramics in a Moscow museum
- Special exhibits in the museum's several buildings
- Master classes and demonstrations
and finally on Friday and Saturday, a fair held in the center of town--and that's the event that reminded me that museums, particularly local museums, can be these community centers. It's particularly compelling here, where the event was held on the grounds of the former House of Culture, built by the Soviets to replace the traditional gathering places in communities. But here, the event had the feel of a small-town event anywhere. Local dignitaries (and not so local, including me) made opening speeches, traditional musicians performed, young and old alike got to get their hands dirty trying a potter's wheel, slip decoration and straw braiding. Hayrides, the sale of traditional pottery and a benefit auction and nicely out back, away from the main event, a bouncy castle and the junk food I associate with a county fair.
And who attended this event? Lots of people from the town--arriving by foot, bikes, scooter and car. The contemporary artists, jurors and scholars, people from the larger community of Poltava. Young people, old people, in between people.
The ceramics museum is, I suspect, the major employer in town and its employees worked incredibly hard during the two weeks to make the event a success. Their success resonates beyond the museum however as it also served as a bit of an economic generator. Artists and others were put up in local homes, a restaurant served lunch every day, I bought ceramics from local potters: all those things make a difference in the local economy, no matter where you are.
I've planned fairs and festivals myself, and I know how much work they are (and how lucky one is to get a beautiful day like Saturday) and sometimes I groaned at keeping them fresh and new. But in fact, the opportunity to see friends and neighbors, to enjoy music, to enjoy the work of potters and other craftspeople--and perhaps bring a piece home. These things are the things that can make local museums important social places.
Ukrainian museums lean towards the scientific--it often seems as if it is not acceptable to have fun in a museum setting. In Opishne, I found wonderful proof that the two can be combined.