Monday, July 26, 2010

Through a Clouded Glass

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.


Anonymous said...

There are too many thoughts I'd like to share on that account.
Comment 1. My Dad is a "People's artist" of Ukraine.Few month ago a friend of mine proposed me to buy my father's painting from late 70-ies.When I saw the photo I was shocked, 'cause that was the work my Dad officialy turned over to one of the State museums in 80-ies on the request of Ministry of Culture.I tried to find out what had happened, but realized that such an investigation could harm me a lot. So the only positive result was that my friend returned the work to it's former owner appealing to the shady provenance.While investigating and analyzing the facts, I was glad to know that my story had been rather accidental then a consistent pattern.
Comment 2. There could be two more reasons why my Ukrainian colleagues failed to share the collections storage area of their museums with you.
The first reason is that in Soviet union that particular space was under "hundreds of seals" as they say, - classified, uncharted. Though the things had changed, the present museum custodians belong to the "Soviet" generation, and some stereotypes, patterns are hard to overcome.Sometimes the primitive contraposition "insider-outsider" takes over the Slavonian hospitality and professional code of ethics.
And the second reason could be that my colleagues and I often feel awkward and inferior when showing our storage area, because the conditions we store our artifacts in are from the middle of XX c., mould everywhere,moist etc., with no chance to find resources and change the state of things.
I feel deeply depressed when I see all that equipment for storage, conservation and restoration even small european museums possess!While working at a State museum I helped our chief custodian to clean the rare manuscripts with a Soviet vacuum cleaner,page by page,trying hard not to damage a single piece of it.We had no idea that such a thing as Book Cleaning Machine exists.Fortunately for us, because it would break our hearts knowing our museum can't afford it.
Ukrainian museum staff are mostly desperate romantics and devotees,who don't care about their salaries and would die protecting their collections.I know some examples of the latter which I could share in case you're interested.
My quess is people were embarassed to reveal the storage area because of it's technical condition.
Ukrainian plague of corruption does exist, but our museums are sort of a cist were professionals bury themselves alive and little air comes from the outside, so there's small risk to get infected.

Linda Norris said...

Milena--Thanks for such thoughtful comments. The story about your father's work reflects some others I had heard. And on your second comment, I appreciate the reminder of how the old Soviet ways hang on, far longer than most of us would like. And of course, I hope overall my blog reflects my deep appreciation for the generosity of my colleagues in Ukraine--but I did feel remiss not to mention the corruption, which does seem to be an issue that hinders so much in Ukraine.I heard incredible stories about people protecting collections during the Great Patriotic War, and know that many people working in museums work there out of a deep love and affection for their work. That's why it's so sad to hear these other stories. Those who care, who work hard, and the people of Ukraine, deserve better.

Anonymous said...

They sure do, Ms.Norris, they sure do...