Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What's Next, Donetsk?


It seems hard to believe that spring was just arriving in In late April, when my Hungarian friend and colleague Gyorgyi Nemeth and I spent just over a week in Donetsk, Ukraine, under the auspices of a Cultural Manager Residency with Eko-Art, a local NGO.  Now, as full summer has arrived here in the Catskills, I've finally found some time to share our thoughts on the visit.

Our goal was to learn as much as we could about the industrial heritage of the city, to share some ideas about how it might be presented, and to meet with as many interested people as possible.  You can read more about our experiences in previous blog posts (here and here) but we wanted to share widely our observations about potential opportunities and next steps.  This post will focus on the more intangible aspects of heritage and possible presentations; a following post by Gyorgyi will focus on the built environment.
What's Happening Now
The industrial heritage of Donetsk is amazing—pure and simple.  It represents a substantial opportunity for a Ukrainian city to take on aspects of history that currently do not receive much focus in other cities.  There are a number of  individuals and organizations working to preserve and share the history and heritage of industrialization in different ways:
  • Izolyatsia is in a former insulation plant and has made a name for itself by working with both international and Ukrainian artists to create site-specific works.  Their 2011 exhibit by Cai Guo-Qiang was one of the most memorable experiences I’d had in a long time.  The creative staff has begun working to collect oral histories of the plant as time permits and the site and city continue to provide fertile ground for site-specific work.
  • The Regional Museum has a chronological exhibition, done in the 1980s,  of the history of the region, including the industrial history.  The industrial exhibition is a bit dated but contains some intriguing objects and archival materials.  The collections and education staff at the museum were very generous with their time and very interested in hearing about other industrial history projects, asking us to share our perspectives on the museum and future possibilities.  2013 marks the second year of the Night of Industrial History in Donetsk, an evening that brings a number of organizations together to create events focused on the history and the Regional Museum is a key participant. 
  • The Metallurgical Museum is located in a building just outside the gates of the metallurgy plant itself.  We understood from the director that there are plans for a new, expanded museum.  As currently composed, the Museum is a static, old-fashioned exhibition.
  • While we were in Donetsk, the city government announced that they would be restoring the John Hughes' (Welsh founder of the metallurgical plant and the city) house (currently in private hands) for use as a museum, but no details were announced as to what the museum would be about or what it would contain.
  • Journalist Yevgeny Yasenov is the primary author of http://www.donjetsk.com/.  Here he encourages the sharing of photographs and memories,  wanders into and documents the current state of historic spaces.  Yevgeny was kind enough to sit down with us for a bit in the Park of Forged Figures for a wide-ranging conversation (and thanks go, as for our entire Donetsk experience, for interpretation by Anya Kuzina).  We covered lots of ground, but of particular importance was the fact that, as everywhere in the former Soviet Union, there is no history and little motivation for communities to work together to preserve their own history.  In that way,  this and other online efforts, including one by Daniel Lapin who showed us Hughes house,  represent a way to reclaim history from scientists and scholars, many of whom still embrace an older way of thinking. 
  • We found it challenging to find much scholarship about industrial history in Ukraine—artist Paul Chaney shared some information he’d found from UK historians and museums, focusing on John Hughes.
  • And of course, Eko-Art, our sponsor for the visit, now has an expanded interest in the ways that industrial heritage can build a sense of community.
Industrial History is Everyone's Story
When we began working with students at the Lyceum, several people doubted that those particular students, headed towards university, would have any direct connections to mining or metallurgy.  But they did—every one had a family member or neighbor who had worked in the mines.  This reinforced to us that industrial history is everyone’s history in Donetsk.   In the student projects, they shared photographs, memories, archival materials and objects that together, can help to create a nuanced, multi-faceted understanding of the community’s past and help to inspire conversation about the future.

So What’s Next?
The opportunities are limitless and we hope that organizations work together to increase an understanding.  Gyorgyi will talk in a later post about what can be done to preserve the built industrial heritage, but here are just a few suggestions to begin preserving and sharing the city’s history .
  • Involve young people in the process of collecting oral histories.  By training students to conduct oral histories, it expands the range of workers for inclusion and helps to build a broader understanding of the changing nature of industrial work in the city.  These individual stories help move the history from “the workers”  in a generic sense to a more complex, nuanced understanding that includes many voices and perspectives.  It shares the authority of telling that history, moving it from a single perspective to a broad, complex view.
  • Begin a process of collecting material culture related to industrial work over the last fifty years (generally, not much is represented from 1960 on in museums).  Collect workers’ clothing, documents,  material from social clubs, and more.
  • Develop outdoor exhibits and signage that draws attention to the history.  Students suggested posters on trams to attract an older generation (because they go so much slower than marshrutkas they are less crowded and people have time to read).   Interpretive panels could be on bus stops or pop-up exhibits in the city’s many well-kept parks.
  • Building on the current web presence, expand the work of museums and local avocational historians on the web, in Russian, Ukrainian and English .
  • Develop walking tours (either guided or with downloadable audio guides) that highlight the city’s industrial heritage.
  • As Izolyatsia is already doing, continue to embrace ways in which contemporary art can lead to deeper explorations of the region's history.
  • Work with the local tourism agency to establish industrial heritage as an asset.  Consider establishing an industrial history working group to share ideas and approaches within the city.
  • Continue to expand international connections such as those already developed by Izolyatsia and the Regional Museum.   Consider partnering with Donetsk's sister cities including Pittsburgh, PA and Sheffield, England.  There’s no question that industrial historians and enthusiasts worldwide view Donetsk’s history as something of enormous interest.
And finally, citizens of Donetsk, embrace your industrial history the same way you embrace your football team!

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