Saturday, April 25, 2015

Who's Your Hero? Where's the Power?

This past week, in Kyiv, Ukraine, I had the opportunity to walk through two quite incredible exhibits at the National Art Museum of Ukraine, with deputy director Yuliya Vaganova.  I'll combine the two into this one post but both deserve deep attention on their own.

Heroes:  An Inventory is a project that began several years ago, supported by the Goethe Institute of Germany, with the curatorial staff at the museum working with German curator Michael Fehr.  The project began in the simplest of ways:  the staff took an inventory, in every department, of every piece of art that was classified as "hero."  More than 650 works had some identification as “hero”, “saint”, “martyr”, or “heroic deeds."  180 of those works were selected for the exhibition.   Although this project was begun before the Maidan protests began; the revolution, annexation of Crimea and the war in the East, have made heroes a topic of significant conversation again.  The exhibition's thoughtful text labels (hooray, in English as well!) encourage that conversation.  In part, the introductory label says,
For us, therefore, this exhibition is much more than a self-reflection; it is an experiment which results will have a significant impact on the reorganization of the permanent collection and also might push the community to reflection.

The exhibit begins with a gigantic, non-removable marble statue of Lenin, hidden behind a wall for the decades since independence.  Organized in a number of different categories, from heroes of labor to a room full of Stalin and Lenin (displayed as in a storehouse, in the top picture); to heroes of war; traditional Ukrainian heroes like Cossack Mamai; cultural heroes (the smallest group represented in the collection, Yuliya told me);  religious heroes or saints; of course, poet and writing Taras Shevchenko.   Each gallery included an interpretive text panel as well as an enlarged quote on the topic. The exhibition ends in a three-part way.  The first is the most recent portrait of a hero in the collection:  a Chernobyl liquidator.  Then, a room that's used for programs and conversations--diving deeper into both scholarly and emotional aspects of heroism, and finally, a small wall featuring individual stories of personal heroes (and not surprisingly, moms and dads are important.)

Yuliya shared several important points about the exhibition development process that I think hold lessons for us all.  First, that this was really a collaborative process, working across all the disciplines and collections of the museum, from ancient art to today.  Second, that the collaboration with Michael Fehr was, as she said, the first international project that was not a colonial one, but really a partnership.    Third, in comparison to the way most people visit museums in Ukraine, these were galleries of conversation.  Everyone was talking to their family or friends as they went through the exhibit.   And lastly, that the director of museum education said that it was the first exhibition that the museum had done that really didn't need an excursion with an expert to understand.  That visitors, all visitor, could make their own meaning from the creative, thoughtful text, object selection and installation.

The second exhibition, Spetsfond, curated by Yuliya Lytvynets is a fascinating look at our own profession, within the context of the Soviet Union.  To quote the museum,
In the National Art Museum of Ukraine (then the State Ukrainian Museum) Special secret storage was formed in 1937-1939. It contained works from Kharkiv, Odesa, Kyiv, Poltava and from special storages of Ukrainian art exhibition created by so called enemies of the people. They were formalists, nationalists, those who, according to party ideologists, "distorted reality" and threatened the existence of the "new society". Most of the names and artworks were forgotten for a long time in the history of Ukrainian art. Thus, the works of Oleksandra Ekster, Oleksandr Bohomazov, Davyd Burliuk, Viktor Palmov, Oleksa Hryshchenko, Onufrii Biziukov, Neonila Hrytsenko, Semen Yoffe, and lots of others were transferred to the Special storage of the NAMU.

This special storage was open only to the director and the KGB.  The works were removed from their frames and rolled away.  The exhibition includes not only the works (some of which are head-shakingly normal) but also the records.  Because after all, we are recordkeepers.   A collections book noted the works that were to be stored away; it sometimes noted the fate of their creators ("artist arrested").  Also in the exhibit are some of the paperwork about the "trials" of the artists and the "reasons" for the works censorship.   Interestingly, at one point, a passionate and courageous staff hit upon a solution of classifying the works with a prefix of 0, denoting that the works had no significant artistic merit--which then meant that nobody bothered to look at them to decide if they should be destroyed.  And so they survived.

During my time in Ukraine these last weeks, I had many conversations with my colleagues about the new de-communisation laws passed by the Parliament. The laws are so vague as to be unclear about the impact on museums but they do ban Nazi and Communist symbols and, as I understand, define new heroes for Ukraine's history. As I walked through both exhibits I was incredibly moved and heartened by a museum who, though literally on the frontline of the Revolution last year, continues to build new ways of thinking about the past. History museums could--and should--take a lesson from this art museum's work.

Fundamentally, I realized that these exhibits are both about power.  On the one hand, they both share the horrible power seized and exercised by the Soviet state; a legacy that continues to shape this entire region.  But on the other hand, I see other, more hopeful uses of power here as well:
  • the power of collaboration
  • the power of storytelling
  • the power of visitors, making their own choices and having their own conversations
  • the power of documentation
  • the power of objects
  • the power of museum staff
  • and most importantly,  the power of museums to be centers of civic engagement.  
We only need to decide to take the power in our own hands.

Monday, April 20, 2015

More of the Same? Different? Deeper? What Should a Museum Do?

On Easter Sunday, I visited the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life in L'viv.  It's in a city park, just a short tram ride from the center.  And once there, I found an audience that any of your museums would love to have.  Who did I see?

  • Young teenagers on their own
  • Older teenagers, hanging out and playing the guitar
  • Families
  • Older couples
  • Hipsters

Many of these people, as you can see from the photographs, were wearing some version of traditional Ukrainian dress, as is customary on holidays here (and to me, on some increase since the Revolution of 2014).

And what were all these people doing?  That's the interesting part.  Very few of them were doing what we think museum visitors "should" be doing--that is to say, looking at objects and learning about the past.  They were listening to music, making music, dancing, strolling around (it's a beautiful area), playing games, picnicking, talking, enjoying.   If I were categorizing them in terms of Falk and Dierking's visitor identities I would say I saw all of these:

  • Explorers
  • Facilitators
  • Experience Seekers
  • Professionals/Hobbyists 
  • Rechargers 
  • Cultural Affinity
I think the largest categories were facilitators (parents and grandparents), rechargers and cultural affinity.   The museum is a huge success by attendance measures:  over the three day Easter weekend, more than 25,000 people visited, a large percentage of their 125,000 annual visitation.  I loved watching the people, but I found myself on this visit frustrated (probably the only one) by wanting to know more and not getting it.  My good friend and colleague Eugene Chervony, deputy director of the museum,  and I talked about the challenge of balancing the kind of social visitor wants and needs that we can see, with the opportunity to dive a bit deeper into a more complex understanding of western Ukrainian traditional culture.  The conversation sent me back to Nina Simon's posts on the event-driven museum--her museum's process of becoming a place where people come because something is happening.  Are successful events self-fulfilling beasts, always consuming--and providing--more?  How can we deepen experiences at this kind of event, or encourage visitors to return another time for a different kind of experience?

The Museum of Folk Architecture and Life has incredible collections, and they will soon begin digitizing them and putting them on the web.  That's one way for someone like me to dive deeper. But the experience of walking into historic spaces and having conversations with interpreters is something that rarely happens here (except for this great breadmaker, below).   Eugene is beginning the process of visitor surveys to learn more to inform this process, and we both suspect that the answer is not necessarily technologically driven, but rather ways for visitors to access information through human resources (although technological solutions are surely possible).

So I hope the next time I visit (or the time after that) that I still see all of the same enjoyment that was so evident on Easter but also that learners like me and this curious girl below, who very carefully was checking out a list of objects and matching them with the object itself, can go a bit deeper.

More of the Same?  Different?  Deeper?  Perhaps all of the above.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Building Social Capital One Cup at a Time

I’ve been thinking about social capital a great deal lately.  Students in my online Museums and Community Engagement course for Johns Hopkins have been reading and puzzling about how museums, institutions, can build social capital and at the same time, I’m midway through a month in L’viv, Ukraine as a Fulbright Specialist, working with the museum studies program at L'viv Polytechnical University.

It’s funny, the word networking has sort of slightly sleazy air, like you’re always on the make for the next connection and are about acquiring connections for the sake of connections.  But social capital recognizes that those networks, and a culture of reciprocity from those networks has distinct value.  My time here in L’viv is definitely proving that.  L’viv is in western Ukraine, and was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at one point, so a strong coffee and cake culture persists.  And that’s how my social capital is built here, over coffee, over cake,  over a beer, over dinner.   Ukraine is a country that doesn’t have much capital at the moment, but I’m finding social capital in abundance.
In addition to my time at L’viv Polytechnic thinking about the museum studies program and getting to know my colleagues there, I have:
  • Attended an informational meeting about a new proposed Museum of Terror; and from that made connections with the cultural department at City Hall; the Center for Urban History; those working on the museum itself, and an oral history organization; all followed up with separate conversations, with of course, coffee or tea.
  • Caught up with a young Crimean Tatar friend, moved here to finish dental school after the occupation of Crimea by Russia; brainstormed an exhibit idea together, connected him with a museum colleague; and begun to move the idea forward with more meetings.
  • Spoken at another university and relied upon that new connection to help me find a translator for some of my lectures and also began to think about finding arts management experts in the US who might be interested in working with them as a Fulbright Specialist.
What are the takeaways here?  For me it is that you always need to be open to that next new connection. You need to find the time to continue building that social capital.  And you need to think about new connections in non-hierarchal ways.  As Rainey and I wrote about in Creativity in Museum Practice, looking widely is one tool in building more creative museums.  And although many L’viv museums have a long way to go in building social capital with their audiences, I can see that the events of the past year in Ukraine have demonstrated for many, the necessity of social capital in building civic society. 

And a special shout-out in this post to two colleagues here:   to my longtime friend and colleague Eugene Chervony:  museum thinker, translator of complicated meetings for me, beer drinking partner, and social capital builder;  and Polina Verbytska, head of the museum studies department at L’viv Polytechnic, whose vision and enthusiasm for her program brought me here to think about how to train a future generation of Ukrainian museum professionals.