Although back in the Catskills, I continue to think about my experiences with Ukrainian museums. I never wrote much about corruption while I was there, but corruption is a constant fog in the country. Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index ranked 146th out of 180 countries in 2008, (And as an aside, New Zealand ranks #1 and the United States #19).
Corruption is a fact of everyday life in Ukraine and it exists on every level of government and business from the police who stop speeders and take traffic in cash to bribes to enter universities up to incredible amounts of money for government officials. Museums are not exempt. Museums are governmental entities and their staff salaries are very low--one factor which leads some to take advantage of a museum's resources. What does that mean? I rarely heard a definitive story about museum corruption, but rather I heard many sideways allusions. Was a bribe being taken so that a businessman could build on museum territory? Perhaps. Were collections loaned to individuals and copies returned? Perhaps. Did income from renting space for changing exhibits go directly into a director's pocket? Perhaps.
I found it surprising that I was rarely shown collections storage area on my museum visits. In the U.S., it's often one of the first things that a museum colleague shares--either to show off or commiserate. There's no question that one factor is that generally collections storage is very poor in Ukraine, in substandard spaces in substandard buildings, due to lack of adequate funding over a long period of time. But then one colleague made a startling observation when I mentioned it. "Maybe they don't want to show you because nothing is there," she said, implying that the collections had been sold off and only the paperwork remained.
At the end of my workshops I tried to ensure that there was some time to answer questions about any aspect of American museums. Some of those questions referred obliquely to corruption. "If a painting is stolen by a museum worker are they prosecuted?" (For one such American example, see here.) was one such question. It was heartbreaking to sense that museum workers who came into their jobs with some sense of idealism now see people above them as cynical exploiters of the situation. It puts a nation's cultural heritage at risk. When a manager skims off money for building repairs, it means the historic building and the collections suffer. When collections are sold under the table for individual profit, it means that part of the nation's heritage is lost to the public forever.
I can't pretend to know how this will change in Ukrainian society. It will take a long time, and it will not be done by outsiders. Like other parts of civil society, dealing with corruption must be, as one colleague said, "built here, by Ukrainians." But I'll end this post with one small but encouraging example. The National Art Museum of Ukraine installed a project earlier this year by a group of independent artists that included the insertion small windows into providing views from galleries into spaces used for storage. It provided a surprising view behind the scenes for visitors and as I understand it, will remain, providing a clear view.