Friday, May 28, 2010

Returning #2: Crimean Tatars

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Crimea, a very different part of Ukraine (and in fact, it only became a part of Ukraine—then a Soviet Republic—in 1954). A peninsula on the Black Sea, Crimea’s strategic location has attracted seafarers, explorers and others for centuries—from Genoa to today’s Russia. So many people have come to Crimea, but one group’s story is about return as well. That group, Crimean Tatars, have had an experience that is so strongly about the combination of place and identity; about the ability to retain one’s culture under pressures most of us could hardly imagine; and about returning to a place once thought lost.

Beginning in the 13th century, Crimea became an important hub of Islamic civilization; today, such historic sites as the Khan’s Palace in Bakhchisaray (detail above) testify to their power and influence. Russian annexed the Crimean Khanate in 1783, beginning a wave of Tatar immigration to the Ottoman Empire. (that’s a very short history of a very long, complex story) On a single day in 1944, May 18, every single Crimean Tatar--hundreds of thousands-- were deported, by order of Joseph Stalin, who perceived them as a threat, to Uzbekistan and other far-removed Soviet provinces. More than half of those deported died along the way.

But perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union meant that deportation was not the end of the story of Crimean Tatars in Crimea. Today, more than 250,000 Crimean Tatars have returned to their homeland, leaving homes and livelihoods back in Uzbekistan. Some are returning to a homeland they never knew except from the stories of their parents and grandparents. Deportation Day, May 18, is commemorated every year with a rally in the main square in Simferopol and several projects are underway to document the Crimean Tatar experience and their rich traditional culture.  Here's one such project: No Other Home,  which has been exhibited at the Ukrainian Museum in New York City.

What will I remember about my introduction to Crimean Tatars in Crimea? First, in Bakhchisary, the workshop of a 85 year old master jeweler (top) who showed us his intricate filigree work while his young apprentices worked diligently, without lifting their heads, at this beautiful tradition, as the master spoke with us. Second was walking home at twilight in Ak-Mechet, a Tatar settlement outside of Simferopol where my friend a Peace Corps volunteer lives—as we walk, we pass the new mosque, lit up for services. Third, that great Crimean Tatar food. 

But fourth, and most memorable, is the conversation with my friend's neighbor across the street in Ak-Mechet, who, after hearing what I did for a living, asked if there was any way I could help recover Crimean Tatar cultural materials from museums and archives in Moscow. His request speaks volumes about the power of objects, of cultural materials, that contain the stories and memories of a vibrant culture.  Sitting in a friendly kitchen, drinking tea and eating sweets,  the museum world's sometimes theoretical discussions about repatriation became intensely personal for me.  I was very sorry to tell him that I only could wish I could be of help to his community.    The Crimean Tatars' story of return is far from over.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


The past couple weeks I've learned about several different situations that involve return:  return to a homeland, return of collections, return or reclaiming of identity.  I'm currently in Crimea and will write more soon about the Crimean Tatars,  but wanted to share a bit about the Lobkowicz Collection in Prague, a quite amazing and complicated story about nationalism, pride, and return.   The Lobkowicz family were one of the richest and most powerful families in Bohemia, and by extension, in Central Europe for more than 300 hundred years.  They were art collectors (Brueghel and Canaletto, to name just two artists), and patrons of music (Beethoven and Hayden, to name just two composers).   Hereditary titles were abolished in 1918, with the founding of the Czech Republic,  so there were no more Prince Lobkowiczs.  However,  the last prince was active in the Czech national movement and served as an ambassador to Great Britain for the Czech government in exile during World War II.  The Nazis confiscated the family's vast collections and many castles, including the palace at Prague Castle.   After the war, the buildings and palaces were returned, but all too soon,  the family fled to American with nothing after the Communist take-over of Czechoslovakia in 1948.

But the 20th century wasn't quite done dealing the Lobkowicz family surprises.  The Velvet Revolution of 1989 included legislation to return assets taken more than 40 years before.  So, finally, the family, now fully settled in the United States, receives back more than a dozen castles and vast archival and object collections of immeasurable value. One reason for the return was (very interesting to me as I see Ukraine) rapid re-investment and revitalization of the country.   Those more than a dozen castles were too many to restore, so most were sold and the family has concentrated their efforts in the Palace at Prague Castle and at Nelahozeves,  a chateau in the country, both of which I had a chance to visit.  In addition, David Krol, Deputy Director of Visitor Services was good enough to spend time over coffee chatting with me about the projects underway.

The audio tour at the Palace is narrated by family members, including William, now living in Prague full time with his family and running what is not an NGO, but a private enterprise (but the objects were returned under an agreement with the Czech government that forbids their sale).   The audio tour, available in multiple languages, is free with your admission.   I loved hearing the family story--but absolutely the most touching part to me,  is the sole room of narration by  the family member (sorry, my notes fail me here) who remembers the palace depicted in the paintings as a child and talks about how he, now in his 80s,  never could have imagined that he would ever return, ever be able to walk those halls again.   In some ways, it's hard to imagine being the family who commissions Beethoven sonatas and purchases Canalettos,  but that one voice made the entire family seem human;  made it a story not only about Princely Collections, but a touching one about place, family, loss, and return.

Nelahozeves (above)  is different--the Palace at Prague Castle is installed as galleries;  but Nelahozeves is a series of period rooms.  I'm not a huge decorative arts fan, and we took the tour with a Czech speaking guide and an English handout,  but I loved visiting.   I'm unclear about the process used to recreate the period rooms, but they seemed lively in a way rooms often do not,  due both to the great collections, but also to a creative curatorial hand.  In Prague, you met the family through their art and patronage,  at Nelahozeves you met the family through their more domestic lives--their library, a true cabinet of curiousities,  a small family chapel, and a quite amazing gun room and hallway.

Needless to say,  all this work is an expensive undertaking.  There's a beautiful gift shop, a lively cafe, spaces are rented for events,  a daily concert outsourced to others, a small but growing membership program, a US based non-profit, and of course admissions to help support the project.  Interesting to me though, is the fact that this is a family enterprise.  In one way,  it makes me wonder about the future--what if the next generation of Lobkowiczs doesn't have the same commitment to the nation, and the collections?  But at the same time, a committed, passionate ownership, supplemented by a very small staff, gives the museums considerably more flexibility and agility than many museums, including those non-profit ones and particularly, the governmental ones that I see here in Ukraine.

This, and several other museums in Prague made me wonder about the future of the often hide-bound and stiflingly bureaucratic museums in post-Soviet nations.  Will those government museums become less and less important as they are unable to change, to respond to change, and reach out to audiences?  Will private museums (also springing up here)  become the places that visitors go to and funders support?  Does that lead to a downward spiral for museums that can't adapt and survive?   What kinds of legislation would help governmental museums compete with private museums?  In a society where corruption remains a significant issue, like Ukraine, would private museums be more or less liable to corruption?  What questions does it raise for you?

So although part of the Lobkowicz story is about the past;  the return of what once was, it is equally about the story about the future, of both the family and the Czech Republic.  It strikes me that looking forward, in a democratic society, might make the very aristocratic Max Lobkowicz (below via the museum's website),  the last prince and Czech patriot, very proud.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What a Difference A Decade (or Two) Makes

Last week, I went to Prague, a city I had last visited in 1992,  when it was still emerging from decades of Communist rule.  Now, I found a city greatly changed.  Our last visit was in December, so it was cold and gray--virtually no hotels (we rented a room in someone's apartment),  not much English anywhere,  but beautifully,  it seemed as if we heard classical music streaming forth from many windows as we walked along.

Prague today is a thoroughly European city and you can see evidence of the vast influx of European funds into the city--which combined with the efforts of the Czechs themselves, have created  a city that is friendly and easy for visitors.  And there are many, many, visitors.  I remember wandering Prague Castle almost alone, just the three of us.  And on Friday, in the pouring rain, hordes of tourists from around the world were on tour there.   

New museums have opened with private funds:  Lobkowicz Palace, the Kafka Museum, and the Kampe Museum--all new (more posts to come).  Exhibit panels and labels are done in Czech and English, at a minimum, but also often available in German, Russian, French, Japanese and Spanish, reflecting the city's lure to visitors from all over.  But of course, you walk two steps off the main tourist areas and you can immediately be on a beautiful, quiet street,  a place to think about Prague, not about souvenirs or pizza (or the great cheap beer!)

What does this mean for cultural tourism in Ukraine?  There are several important lessons, I believe.

Government involvement does matter.  For instance, the Lobkowicz Collection was returned to its owners through an agreement with Vaclev Havel's first government.  Clearly the government continues to invest in culture and tourism, and encourages others to invest.

If government-run museums do not become forward thinking and active,  private museums (whether NGOs or not) will spring up and make those government museums irrelevant to both visitors and the community.  The result will also be declining financial support, both governmental and from the private sector.

Making materials available in multiple languages is a key way to make visitors welcome--and perhaps on some level, the least expensive to create.  At one castle we visited,  the English speaking guide was not available,  but an English language handout was.  And at the tiny, tiny,  Antonin Dvorak Museum in a village,  they had a simply typed English language brochure and had added number keys to the exhibits and panels.  Otherwise, I would have never appreciated the pen that he wrote with!   I often feel badly when I tell people that materials should be in English, rather than other languages, but many, if not most, western European travelers speak English well--so it's not just for native English speakers.

Collaboration makes a difference.  Whether you're partnering with the city government to produce a river extravaganza or with another gallery or museum to mount a joint show,  these collaborative efforts draw more attention and make resources go further.

Outdoor contemporary art installations become attractions in themselves.  All over Prague, contemporary art makes you look, sometimes makes you laugh, but creates a lively, active sense of the city.  Such efforts, I assume, require extensive collaborations between artist, funder and the city.

Care for the beautiful place you live.  The center of Prague felt like a place people cared about.  Architecture is preserved, and the spaces are made for people (although there is a huge amount of graffiti that tempers this statement a bit)  Here in Kyiv, now, cars rule.  They park on the sidewalk;  you walk underground while they travel unimpeded.  In Prague, it felt like a walker's city.   I'll assume also that this has to do with less corruption in terms of land deals as well as other policies.

Just as I was telling Irina about my memory of music,  we walked by a conservatory, and sure enough, a young singer's voice sprang forth from an upper floor--a brief snatch of song, followed by an instructor's comments, and the singer began again.   For me, a memory of a long ago visit made real again.  Despite the many tourists,  Prague still remains a beautiful place particularly when, like last week,  all the chestnuts were in bloom.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

What's the Fight About?

In this past winter's presidential election here in Ukraine, much was made of the divisions between East and West, between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers.  And the fight above, of course, was last month's egg-throwing, smoke bomb letting melee in the Parliament here about extending Russia's lease on naval bases in the Crimea.

This year, I've found political conversations almost everywhere I've gone.   It's a difficult realization that sometimes a democratic vote brings you a leader you don't want.  And the run-up to today's Victory Day celebrations (more on that to come) have brought conversations even more to the fore.  

But I was struck by an observation from a Ukrainian colleague this week.  She's an ardent Ukrainian nationalist,  someone committed to the Ukrainian language and to the idea of an independent Ukraine.   To paraphrase, she said that she used to think the fight for Ukraine was between East and West,  or between Russian and Ukrainian speakers.   But she says she now believes that the fight is not between those groups,  but is between those people who long for a return to the time of the Soviet Union and those who long for an independent, free Ukraine.  That's a big change for me to hear--the change from identity politics,  defining you by where you were born or what language you speak;  to defining the debate about Ukraine's future as one of different political beliefs, a belief in different political systems.

On a day when the sounds of the  gigantic old Soviet-style military parade come in through my spring window,  it seems something worth remembering.

Top:  Parliament photo by Sergie Supinsky/AFP
Bottom:  Rehearsals for Victory Day parade

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How Sticky Can A Workshop Be?

I've been thinking about professional development recently--last week I did a two day workshop for museums here in Kyiv and at the same time, I've been working with colleagues to develop new curricula modules for the American Association of State and Local History's StEPs Program.   And the same question always surfaces for me--how can I help ensure that whatever the topic, that it sticks and takes root in an organization.

We've all been to workshops or seminars where we left, filled with energy and great intentions, only to sink rapidly back to the details of everyday life only to think about that new idea or project as we shift the workshop folder from one pile to another.   And I've also seen my share of workshop regulars, who attend every workshop and never actually implement anything.  So as a trainer and presenter, and someone who cares deeply about new ideas percolating out into everyday practice, how can I make new ideas, concepts and practices stickier?   I'm sure there's an entire body of research about how to do this...but this post is based on my own experiences both in Ukraine and in the United States.  More reminders and questions than revelations.

So, some Sticky Enhancers (followed by some Unstickers):
  • Building a community of learners 
With my colleague Anne Ackerson, I developed and ran the Museum Institute at Sagamore for nine years.  Each year, the institute brought a small group of museum professionals together for an intensive four day retreat at an isolated location in the Adirondacks.  The connections forged over that four days--over campfires, meals and training-- provided support as participants returned home to try and implement change.  Here in Ukraine, programs funded by MATRA Program of the Dutch government for both cultural professionals in L'viv and museum professionals throughout the country,  gave very silo-ed professions a new network of colleagues to lean on and draw from.   A post-workshop conversation last week was about beginning a museum roundtable here in Kyiv, to meet and share ideas on a regular basis.
  • Meeting participants where they begin
This seems in even higher relief here in Ukraine, where outside specialists often come in for a limited term workshop, with a limited understanding of the needs and knowledge of the audience, and present materials that may or may not helpful in any way.   I felt my workshop last week went better than most I presented here last year, and that's perhaps because I had already developed some small understanding of this complicated place and issues facing museum professionals here.

  • Making it fun
I'm a firm believer that fun sticks more than not-fun.   Here in Ukraine,  the straightforward lecture is perhaps still the most common method of delivering information to an audience.  So having fun in a workshop is relatively new--some view it as not serious, but I'll guarantee that it provides a memorable experience--which then can hopefully be put to work.
  • Start small
I think this is important on so many levels--I've found it much easier to make an impact on 20 people in a workshop than twice that number.  But I've also found that changes are easier to implement when the workshop provides participants with the tools and encouragement to start with small changes.  It is like pushing a rock uphill to make changes at institutions, particularly when you're not the person in charge.  So I think workshops should always be clear that all change starts with a single step.
  • Follow-Up
Duh.  This goes without saying, but because of time and money, never happens quite as often as we would like.  For an upcoming workshop here in Ukraine we're building in time for me to visit the museums several weeks after the workshop to work directly on implementing ways to make the museum more visitor-friendly.  This, we hope, will give participants a chance to integrate the knowledge into their own practice, and provide a subsequent opportunity to work directly on  their own museum issues.

Learning Unstickers
  • Boring
Another Duh.  No matter who we are, we learn better when we're engaged by the presenter.
  • No Expectations
I think if a presenter goes into a presentation without an expectation of change from his or her audience, then no change will happen.  Someone told me the other day that he had a "canned" presentation he could use.   That seems a surefire way to unstick your audience from your ideas.   I think often the Western European or American short-term presenters here come without any real expectation of creating change, just exposing colleagues here to the work of museums in other places.  A fine idea, but not one likely to create change.
  • No Follow-Up, No Connections
One we've all been guilty of.  I'm increasing interested in considering how social media can help us in this regard.  Can Facebook groups,  blogs, tweets or other elements keep workshop participants in touch--with each other and presenters?   Can presenters afford to connect with each and everyone of those people they present to?   I love that Nina Simon, among many others,  consistently posts her slide presentations for not only workshop participants, but others to learn from.  A great way to continue to the learning.
  • No Willingness to Change
I'm continually baffled by the people, in any country, who attend workshops with no expectation that they will learn anything new ("but we've always done it that way," they say when confronted with something new) or commit to working towards a change.  Why do those kinds of people come to professional development opportunities?

So, as a presenter or as a participant, what are your sticky enhancers and your unstickers?

Top, from Tiago Ribero on Flickr
Center:  Kyiv workshop participants (serious faces, but fun I believe)