Sunday, July 18, 2010
What Do You Like Best?
In Ukraine, I found asking the question, "What's your favorite...?" or "What do you like best?" often generated a surprised look, a shake of the head, and a shy answer. And upon reflection, it struck me as a major difference between the way Americans think about museums (and about life in general) and the way Ukrainians do. In the Soviet system, individual thought was never encouraged. You did not have favorites, you were taught to believe that the "approved" writer or artist or building or object was the only one to like; that experts had determined it was the best. Americans are considerably more comfortable with holding--and voicing--their own opinions about almost everything.
As my time in Ukraine continued, I asked these questions more and more. One reason is because I was genuinely curious about what people liked but I was also curious about people's reactions. I liked their initial look of surprise, and then the careful consideration some gave to their answers. It felt a small honor to have someone share an opinion with me.
And it also deepened my experience in museums. In Opishne, I visited a newly opened memorial museum--it had been the home of a local man who went on to become an artist, scientist, and collector of pottery from this community of potters. The house was interesting and I enjoyed the visit--but as we reached the last room, I asked the guide if she had a favorite piece of pottery in the house. She looked surprised, but led us back through two rooms and pointed to a jug on top of a cabinet--something I had absolutely missed before. "This is my favorite," she said, "It was made by my grandfather."
All of a sudden this museum--and this town--was not just a memorial-- it became a living place, a place where the traditions of pottery, despite the collectivization of the Soviets, continued to hold a place of importance and honor to the people who live there.
Top to bottom: Pottery at the new memorial museum; guide showing me her favorite piece, and at another memorial museum in Opishne, a small tribute to a woman potter.