Friday, January 30, 2009

What Do We Hunger For?

This week I had the opportunity to meet with Eckhard Schneider, Director, and Peter Doroshenko, Art Director, of the Pinchuk Art Centre here in Kyiv. The Pinchuk is a contemporary art centre, showing work by artists from the larger global world of contemporary art. It's unlike any other museum or gallery I've visited here in Ukraine--and most intriguing to me is the fact that, every day, lines of people wait to get in the door (admission is free) to see interesting, pretty challenging, contemporary art. First, I should note that the Pinchuk is open every night until 9:00, and we talked about how pleased they were to have made that decision right from the start, as opposed to having hours that are just business hours.

Why do they have lines out the door? Several reasons, I think, based on my conversations both at the Pinchuk and with others. It's a place that has great buzz--many of the visitors are young people, and it's the thing to do. In a discussion with my students, some felt, in a similar vein, that it was about sensation--the shock of the new.

I was most intrigued by the the director's perspective. He felt that contemporary art allowed Ukrainians something they had not been allowed to have--the chance to make their own judgment about something--and that that was something audiences here hungered for. In more traditional fine art and folk art, during Soviet times, there was a prescribed way to appreciate and think about art. But in new contemporary art, it's a chance to make a judgment--perhaps even a snap judgment, on your own. For me then, it gets back to the idea of individual meaning-making. We all bring different eyes, different minds, and different hearts every time we go to a museum. And at Pinchuk, not yet a full fledged museum but serving the same purpose, they provide the buzz of the new, but also something very old, the chance to use art as a way to look inside yourself and at the world around you.

Above: View of "Sigh," by Sam Taylor-Wood at the Pinchuk Art Centre, copyright 2008. Photo by Sergei Illin

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Conceptualizing Exhibits Part 2

Yesterday, Michael Forster Rothbart, Sergii Mirnyi and Irina Leonenko joined my class to discuss how to conceptualize an exhibit of Michael and Sergii's work documenting communities affected by Chernobyl. Sergii gave an overview of the disaster within the context of other disasters; Michael then shared photos of his work. We gave the students, working in small groups, the tasks of developing a big idea for the exhibit (and now I noticed my students, when speaking in Russian or Ukrainian, use the English phrase, Big Idea--perhaps my contribution equivalent to Internet or mobile phone). They also had to edit a group of about 50 photos into a the big idea, think of 2-3 subthemes, and develop one interactive for their theme. We then discussed the exhibits using a simplified form of the Excellent Judges exhibit framework.

They did an amazing job! Four different, thoughtful ideas all surfaced.

My Last Day at ChAes (the Chernobyl plant): Oksana. Alexander, Nadya
This group chose a group of photos to personify a worker on his last day working at the plant. They used a set of photos to take him through the day, with the soundtrack by Kraftwerk, "Radio Activity," which one student managed to download on their cell and play during their presentation. Most interestingly, they ended the exhibition with a computer station linked to the most popular job-hunting website here, and a poster with tear-offs with the "hero" of our story looking for a job. Unemployment is a critical issue here, and they effectively tied the story of one man's time at Chernobyl to a broader contemporary issue.

Chernobyl: A Wave to Life: Anna, Katia, Anna, Maria and Katerina
This presentation used different levels of layering. On one level, it used a time line to explore the effects of radiation and the accident--from an older person with cancer to a young person just beginning her life now. At the same time, they layered it in concentric circles, as radiation spread out from the site itself. And a wave to life? A nod to waves of radiation, and to hopefulness. One class member questioned the time line within the context of Michael's photos--because they are all taken within the last year, rather from the last twenty-plus years. But others felt the photos were appropriate because they showed the consequences and the future within the time span.

Chernobyl: Not What You Think
: Anna, Miriam, and Katerina
This group, who also had a sound track (which I can't remember the name of) took a compare and contrast approach. Beginning with a photo of Michael's showing tourists posing on an excursion to Chernobyl, the first section was Tourists' View, with photos and words saying radiation, threat, tragedy, forgotton cities, abandoned homes. For the Residents' View, they used the photos that showed village life; the everyday life of people who live and work in the Chernobyl region. Interestingly, they used markers to embellish these photos, in a way, using highly simplified versions of motifs found in Ukrainian folk arts.

Dead Zone Alive: Yana, Julia, Irina, Alyona
This team also used the concentric circle (which Sergii had drawn on the board for his presentation) but started with a foggy picture of a house at the center--which they described as far, at at the same time, near. Theirs was not necessarily a circle of radiation, but rather a way to show that those affected by Chernobyl were tied together, but at the same time spread out. They used the first person for their presentation, making labels for the photos that included, "We want to move on," "We laugh and love," "We care about our health," "We can be happy," and "We have annoying guests," (those tourists again). The interactive idea: tour guides in the exhibit dressed and presenting as actual villagers.

What were the take-aways for our exhibit team from my students' great work? One, that the story works best when it is personally compelling, rather than just a broad narrative. We all can connect to human stories of both tragedy and everyday life.

Second, that there is a difference between the way Ukrainians view Chernobyl and the way outsiders do, and that exhibits here and in the US might be very different. Michael had one photo of a Holomodor observance and asked the class if they thought it should be included. Holomodor, for those like me, who had never heard of it before beginning to learn about Ukraine, is the Great Hunger of 1932-33. A famine, but not just any famine, but a famine created and enforced by Stalin, intentionally starving millions of Ukrainians. One student thought it should not be included, but another strongly felt that it should, because both Chernobyl and Holomodor represent two tragedies caused by the Soviets. In the US, that's alot of explaining to do (there have been Holomodor exhibits at at least one Ukrainian museum in the US in the past year but I still think it is unfamiliar to most).

And third, that a big idea is always a tough thing to write and that it's work best done in a group process, using the skills and ideas of many. Special thanks to all my students for their creative, passionate, enthusiastic work in a process new to them.

Class photos by Irina Leonenko

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chernobyl Today

I find I haven't yet written about the project here in Ukraine that I've spent perhaps the most time thinking and talking about--two exhibits about Chernobyl. My involvement in the project has come through the happy circumstance of my living situation here in Ukraine. As I began to look for a place to live last fall, fellow Fulbrighter and photographer Michael Forster Rothbart emailed me to say he was looking for a roommate--so luckily for both of us, we now share an apartment and a great deal of conversation about his project--which is documenting, in photographs and interviews, contemporary life in the Chernobyl area today.

Most of the world knows Chernobyl as the world's worst nuclear accident, but most don't know much else about it--I certainly didn't, and I won't attempt to explain it in detail here. Enough to say that the sheer numbers of people affected is staggering: 2393 Ukrainian villages were contaminatd by radiation and 116,000 people were relocated from their homes around Chernobyl. Chernobyl is an event with massive environmental and public health consequences but it is also an event that, for all those many thousands of people, meant an irretrievable disruption of life as they had known it.

Michael's work examines the questions about what having a nuclear accident in your backyard means almost 25 years after the fact: how has it affected families and communities? what are the prospects for change? what is it like to be one of the 4000 people who still work at the plant? How do communities survive through a crisis like this and how are new communities created? What is the role of memory and tradition? Why should we, as Americans or Ukrainian, care about these villages and the people who live there? What relevance does it have to our lives?

We're working on plans for two exhibits: one, in partnership with Sasha, a photographer currently working at the Chernobyl plant, will be limited in scope and will focus in life at the plant itself and the community of Slavutich, where most of the plant workers live. We hope to have it here in Kyiv on the anniversary of Chernobyl and then at the small museum in Slavutich. Our goal is to have it in an outdoor setting so as many people as possible can see it.

The second, larger project is a longer term plan for an exhibition both at the Chernobyl Museum here in Kyiv, in the villages, and at museums in the United States. Plans are just beginning to develop, but we've talked about a whole variety of approaches. My informal role in all this is to be an advocate for audiences, to think about ways to expand and deepen the experience and to provide some help in how museums work in thinking about traveling exhibitions. If you're interested in learning more, or feel that it might be something of interest to your museum audience, please let me know. This coming week, my students will be working with Michael and his colleague Sergii Mirnyi to brainstorm ideas from their own perspectives about the exhibition--I look forward to many minds at work!

Top to bottom:
Chernobyl liquidator Leonid Budkovsky
Chernobyl cancer survivors Lydia and Viktor Gaidak
An inactive information panel in Control Room 1 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant showed the status of all the fuel rods in the reactor pool.
An elderly woman prays during a service at the small Ukrainian church in Novo Ladizhichi village. "New Ladizhichi" was built in 1987 to house evacuees from the original village of Ladizhichi following the 1986 Chernobyl accident.
All images copyright Michael Forster Rothbart

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Conceptualizing Exhibits

I've often had conversations with colleagues about whether the conceptual work of exhibit development can be taught, or whether it's something that is creative and intuitive, and hence difficult to actually teach. I'm a big fan of Beverly Serrell's book Exhibit Labels as a helpful way to think about what exhibits do and how you develop them. But sometimes I think the best exhibits come out of a sort of creative dreaming, inspired by objects or events--and I heard an interesting example of this yesterday.

I met with (thanks again to the wonderful Irina) Tanya Kochubynska of the Research and Development dept. at the Kyiv Museum of Russian Art. She's a young museum professional and is in the stages of developing an exhibition for 2010 about Russian fairy tales and art. But what was so interesting, and so great, was that she had, pretty much working by herself, with I believe no formal training in thinking about exhibits, developed a thoughtful approach to a well-sequenced exhibit. When completed, the visitor will be able to learn about fairy tales in opera and theater, and even in Soviet animation; the use of fairy tales in paintings; the ways in which heroes and animals play roles in fairy tales; and the ways in which Soviet era fairy tale images and stories had, as did earlier tales, quite specific messages to convey to the listener or reader.

She shared some of the images from their collection and elsewhere--and they were incredible. The Soviet cartoon of a fairy tale, which we watched, was really beautiful, and very different than American animation, making great use of traditional design motifs. Paintings, watercolor illustrations for books, set designs, engravings and more will make this an exhibit interesting to both children and adults.

So how did Tanya come up with the idea which is very different from any other exhibit at the museum? She said she was closing up the museum one day, and in the room with decorative arts, noticed an object with a fairy tale illustration. I'd been in that room a few days before on a visit and I had only thought about how dull the long glass cases of glass and ceramics were.

But Tatiana's imagination and continued observation led her to think about fairy tales, and about what in their collection was relevant. A little collection digging with her colleagues, and then inquiries to other museums about their collections, has set her well on the road to the exhibit. I also noticed that she was very much a visual thinker, and so her understanding of the work was not only scholarly, but very much also about the visual connections. So I think that her learning style, and a sort of openness to ideas, wherever they come, guided her approach to the project.

I think the challenge for many of the museums I've seen here is how to take that deep curatorial knowledge and enthusiasm and develop ways to translate it into an exhibition format that doesn't require the visitor to take a guided tour to gain the full understanding. (Because, by the way, virtually all of these young museum professionals also have a responsibility for giving guided tours which are a standard feature of all museums here and really the way to gain information.)

Just great to see imagination at work in any museum!

Three Princesses of the Underground by Viktor Vasnetsov from the Kyiv Museum of Russian Art Collection
Illustration by Ivan Bilbin of a Russian fairy tale

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Change is Coming!

Everyone in Ukraine says change will take time, it might take generations, it is hard to change the old Soviet way of doing things. But yesterday, I got to see that change is coming, that it is possible to change the old ways of doing things, and that Ukrainian museums, despite difficult financial times, have people working in them with the power and energy to make them new places, connected to their audiences.

I met Tatiana and Anya, staff members at the National Art Museum of Ukraine. The first thing I saw as we entered the museum is a feedback board, asking visitors to share their opinions on how to make the museum their favorite museum. A simple thing, but very unusual here.

And then, just off the main entrance, was an entire room devoted to children--it contained an exhibit about understanding color. The exhibit had contemporary art work from the collections, interactive computer games, and a couple hands-on activities for children. Anya and Tatiana were justifiedly very proud of their work--it was engaging and exciting.

They also do family programs and the technology and software for their computer interactives were developed and contributed by a father of one of their regular young visitors. Their enthusiasm was infectious and I'll be spending a future day with them brainstorming and prototyping some additional interactives. Anya said that one of the hardest things was that she'd been to several different trainings and had heard people talk about interactives and other family activities, but had not been to see them in European or American museums. So hopefully by playing around with some prototypes and some sample family activity materials I brought with me, they can continue the development of new ideas in their museum.

And at the Ivan Honchar Museum, we met again in a planning process for an exhibit on Ukrainian kalitki, or doors. My colleagues there and I will be starting a blog, I believe a first for a Ukrainian museum, that documents our planning process, in both Ukrainian and English. We hope it will serve as a model for other exhibition projects. Our plans include fieldwork in several regions of Ukraine and an exhibition in their newly refurbished exhibition hall, to open this fall. I'll post the blog address when it's up and running.

From top to bottom:
Anya, Tatiana and I in the interactive space at the National Art Museum of Ukraine, photo by Irina Leonenko
Anya and Tatiana with their talkboard board
The planning team at the Honchar Museum in the new exhibit space
A modern day kalitki

Opinion Leaders

In this week’s class, my students and I had an interesting discussion about where trustworthy information comes from. I cited American surveys that have shown that museums are among the most trusted sources of information. For Ukrainians, that’s not so at all. In Soviet times, museums were used as tools to advance state policy. For instance, in an earlier conversation, one student said, “If the policy was against Poland, then museum exhibits were created to show that Poland was bad.”

Students (none of whom have any direct memory of the Soviet Union because they are too young), said for the Soviets, museums were a replacement for religion; that they were to be spiritual places—not for learning, and certainly not for fun. I learned this the other day when one of the babushkas (one of the old ladies who sit, watching, in every museum gallery) told a friend and I that we should not be talking so much, we would not have time to see the exhibits!

I’m beginning to understand that many museums here suffer from the same kind of public cynicism that pervades other elements of life here as well—as one of my students put it, “everybody lies.” They do believe that everyone lies, but also when asked who they trusted for information, said, “opinion leaders,” and when I asked further about who those opinion leaders might be, it wasn’t quite clear to me. It depends on what you want to know about. And one said, I suspect accurately, that the only people you can really trust for information are your friends. I hope, by the end of my time with my students, that I’ve encouraged the skills of critical thinking to enhance their broad-based knowledge.

What does this mean for Ukrainian museums moving forward? I think there’s an amazing opportunity for museums to begin to break through that cynicism by creating exhibitions that really encourage public dialogue about all sorts of issues—about public policy, about the role and importance of Ukrainian traditions in both village and city, about art, science and literature. But it will take a museum staff with vision and commitment to do so—and in any country, that’s a rare and wonderful thing. I think there are staff here interested in doing that, and unfortunately, a highly bureaucratic, top-down structure makes initiative more difficult.

Like US museums—and even more so—Ukrainian museums suffer from a lack of funds. So the work of changing perceptions is going to have to be not with a big splash, but with small but exciting changes. As my friend Anne Ackerson says, “Good ideas don’t cost money!”

Above: one of Ukraine's opinion leaders in the world of sports, soccer star Andriy Shevchenko.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Nice Day to be an American

Not much to say, other than it was important and meaningful and memorable to sit with other Fulbrighters, on an dark cold night in Kyiv, watching a jerky, sometimes not quite there live feed of the inauguration. Today in class, my students expressed some cynicism: not much difference between American political parties, the electoral college is not a democratic system, etc. but I find the hopefulness as we face hard challenges ahead to be a compelling part of the American spirit. I felt connected to a whole community--millions of people--who hoped and worked for change. I can't remember any other inauguration, but will remember this one for sure.

Nostalgia, Soviet Style

This weekend, my colleague and friend Irina Leonenko took me to a fascinating restaurant. Not much populated by locals, the place is furnished like a Soviet kommunal'naya kvartica of the 1960s-1970s--a big communal apartment. So in a way, it's like a historic house museum, but one where you can come in, sit down, and touch everything. Irina recognizes furniture and decoration just like in her grandmother's house. I suppose, in a way, it's the Russian/Ukrainian equivalent of Johnny Rocket's or some other kind of '50s diner or malt shop.

As I sat there, I thought about how useful a shift in perspectives is. From my original, too American-centric perspective, I made assumptions t that most people must have been happy to leave this communal life behind; that the end of the Soviet system was a good thing. But Irina (wise beyond her years) reminded me that a place like this is about nostalgia; that for whole generations, this was where your grandparents lived, where you celebrated New Years and other holidays; that this was home. In the same way, when Americans visit a '50s diner, we don't think about McCarthyism and segregation; people here probably don't think about their country and the time's problems either.

It seemed to be as well-furnished as a historic house museum might be, but the experience of actually sitting in the space, reading the newspaper and having tea made it much more meaningful than just a historic house tour. With all the debate in the US about historic houses and their declining attendance, it certainly encouraged me to think about other alternatives.

For a fascinating look at Soviet style communal living, check out this great website: Communal Living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Everyday Life, produced, believe it or not, by professors at Colgate University in upstate New York.

Images from the restaurant; at top, Irina must look as her grandmother did!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Contemporary Art in Kyiv

On Friday night, a totally different view of Ukraine. Thanks to Myron Stachiw, director of the Fulbright office here, I attended an opening at the Pinchuk Art Centre , one of Kyiv’s most popular places. The Art Center is right downtown in a very contemporary art space on several floors with a top floor cafĂ© with a great view of the city. The opening, which was invitation only, was packed, and packed particularly with young people.

For me, the art was interesting, but the experience even more so. Great people watching of all sorts—mostly all in black, as befits all contemporary art openings. Several of the artists were there and lots of conversation everywhere. I had two favorite art pieces, both video installations, and favorites because of they way they engaged audiences.

In one, in a long narrow room, a row of large cardboard boxes were stacked and open. As you looked down into them, each one had a different little video piece of people doing different things—I think maybe all on beds. What was fun is that you couldn’t see what people were looking at, and their expressions ranged from laughter to quizzical. Because people gathered around the boxes, you gained the opportunity to share the moment with friends, and perhaps even with strangers, something that seems not much a part of Ukrainian life.

I met the director of the Pinchuk Foundation who said that, as soon as the exhibit opens to the public, there will be queues outside waiting to get in as they are for every show, it almost doesn’t matter the content—they’ve had 400,000 visitors in two years. I’m guessing that far outstrips other Ukrainian museums. It’s a great argument for free admission. They do several shows a year and are very clearly a part of the larger contemporary art world—their next show is Damien Hurst. I hope, while I’m here, to get more of a chance to learn more about the Pinchuk Center and its work

They are an art center, not a museum, and I found myself wishing for a bit more interpretive material—but that’s no surprise, I usually do when I see highly conceptual contemporary work. Mass MOCA’s interpretation strikes me as a great solution. In each space, you can pick up a little rack card about the piece—it’s not obtrusive, but provides people like me with some background about the artist and his or her intent.

How does all this happen? Victor Pinchuk is one of Ukraine’s very richest men and his foundation is one of the largest and most active here. His foundation undertakes a broad range of activities including scholarships, work on HIV/AIDS, the Art Center and more. Without the constraints of the government, or an entrenched staff, or the endless struggle for funds, he is able to create the Art Center that interests him—but clearly interests everyone else as well.

What’s also intriguing to me is what we take for granted at home but is perhaps new here. All these different ideas about museums and culture are what creates a vibrant cultural life for a place: folk music in a concert hall, Maria Prymashenko’s paintings, complex video installations in an all white space; and even the rock band playing at the subway entrance as I made my way home on a snowy evening. There’s room for all of it.

Opening at the Pinchuk Art Center, January 16, 2009

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Music and Art

Yesterday was a day filled with music and art. I began the day with a meeting at the Ivan Honchar Museum to discuss ideas about an exhibit about kalitka--Ukrainian doorways, as shown in a Russian example below, that will be the subject of an exhibition there this fall. It was great to begin working with Ukrainian colleagues and to learn from them about their work and as well, I hope, begin to share some ideas from American museums. We have much to learn from each other. The plans include actually going out to some villages in March to collect these doors and I hope to be able to join the team on at least one fieldwork trip.

After the meeting, Irina and I visited the Decorative Arts Museum, all part of the same complex. Incredible textiles and costumes, but I was blown away by the work of Maria Prymachenko--one of her works is at the top of this entry. She was an untrained artist from a small village, but it was great to see, in an exhibit, how her work changed over time and she became bolder and bolder in her approach. Her 100th anniversary is this year and there are many exhibitions --this was just one. The museum owns more than 650 works and I'd say perhaps 75 were in the show. I'd love to see more.

That evening, thanks to the generosity of Ihor Poshvailo at the Honchar museum, Irina and I went to a concert of the National Men's Choir at the National Philharmonic. Appearing with the choir was Nina Matvienko, one of Ukraine's most famous singers. The music was all acapella, and everyone had the most beautiful voices. After a long day of listening and thinking, it really was transporting to just sit in the balcony and listen. I was intrigued by the mix of people--young and old, there, although few children. The concert was a formal one, with bouquets presented to singers, shouts of "bravo," and as always I'm finding in Ukraine, enthusiastic singing when given the chance to join in. It was a Christmas concert (yesterday was Old New Year), so I think it finally signals the end of the holidays for me!

Top to Bottom: Maria Prymachenko painting
Performance at the Philharmonic

My First Day of School

I remember those first days of school in elementary school: with nervous anticipation, we'd get up, put on our new school clothes, and get ready for whatever the school year would bring. My dad would always line us up to take our pictures on the front porch before we walked to school. Tuesday was my first day at school here in Ukraine, and in some ways, was much the same. Except in this case, walking to school also involved the Metro, and school was not a little tiny elementary school, but the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and most importantly, that I was not longer the student but the teacher. Plenty of nervous anticipation still.

I'm very lucky to be teaching at Kyiv-Mohyla, considered to be Ukraine's premier university. It has a long and distinguished history, founded in 1615. It closed, for a complicated set of reasons having to do with Russian rule, in the 18th century. After Ukrainian independence, in 1991, the school was reborn. My classroom is in the main building, with its beautiful classical curved front and unlike US college classrooms, big wooden desks that are shared by students, rather than your basic plastic chair with armrest.

After filling out forms for various things and getting a brief introduction to the Department of Cultural Studies, grading and the like, it was time for class. I have 21 students, all of whom are in the final semester for their master's degree. Mostly women (just like museum studies classes in the US), and all bright, smart and articulate. The focus of their studies was incredibly diverse: reality shows, Soviet cinema, magicians, Russian literature, Jewish studies, sleeping areas (suburbs to us), horror and Soviet immigration, to name a few.

We had a wide-ranging first discussion, talking about mission and vision, but also about the structure of American museums, and museums that they had visited and found compelling in some way. Many of them have traveled and those compelling museums ranged from a Holocaust Museum in Australia to the Tate to the Museum of Sex in New York, along with a selection of museums here in Kyiv. But we talked the most about why they think most people think that museums are boring, why they are, as one student said, "a necropolis," and the fact that here in Ukraine, visiting museums is seen as something one does in school, as a child, and never again. But the funny part they said, is that the experience for those children is so often lacking in interest or engagement. (and, of course, not so different than some museums in the US—in working on history museums I've had many a community member say, "well, I visited in fourth grade!)

When I asked why they had taken this course, I learned that every final semester masters level student had to take one of a selection of a very few courses for completion—electives, I suppose, and I've ended up with the students who were really looking for something different than the usual. One said, "perhaps we are the troublemakers." Perfect! I thought—I've luckily got a group of students much like me. I'm looking forward to a fascinating semester as I suspect I'll learn as much from them as they learn from me.

And First Day at Home

After lots of apartment hunting, we have a place to live. We've found an apartment on the 9th floor of a Khruschev era apartment building in Pechersk, a neighborhood of Kyiv. It's about a five minute walk to the Metro, across the street from the War Veterans Hospital, and in a lively, busy neighborhood. It'll be nice to begin to settling in.

Top: My students at Kyiv-Mohyla
Bottom: View of the War Veterans Hospital from our apartment

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Preserving Traditional Culture

I suspect a great many of my posts during the next several months will deal with issues of preserving traditional culture. This week I visited, for the first of what I hope will be many visits, the Ivan Honchar Museum. Honchar was both a working artist and collector of traditional Ukrainian folk arts. His collection was housed privately during the Soviet era, but with Ukrainian independence it has become a state museum with a deep and comprehensive collection of folk art.

I went to both meet the deputy director, Ihor Poshvailo, who I had already corresponded with, and to see, at his invitation, a children's performance. Parents are no different anywhere--I sat in an audience filled with parents, grandparents, cameras and video cameras--as a wonderful group of young people both sang and performed a traditional Christmas play. After the conclusion of this performance, we then went off to a university to see another performance by college students of the same Christmas play, this time based on ethnographic field work 100 or so years ago. These performances, which I had also seen a version of on Christmas Day, was fascinating for several reasons. First, I think Ukrainians are singers--it often feels, in the US, as if audiences--and sometimes performers--sort of drag through songs (picture what it's like when we sing the Star-Spangled Banner). Here, in every situation I've been in so far (admittedly not too many), the audience joins enthusiastically and beautifully in the songs. The story also had scarier elements than those I was familiar with--as I understand it, Herod and his henchman are taken to hell by the devil. At the college performance, they used quite amazing masks, I think of wood, for a number of the parts.

The Christmas play is a variant of the Christmas pageant familiar to me from my childhood--but it's amazing to think that, because such performances were banned in Soviet times, that there's a whole generation of Ukrainians learning this anew, going back to ethnographic work and more distant memories to recreate a cherished part of life and community here. As I thought about it, it reminded me of both the ways in which Native Americans have had to reclaim their own language and traditions, and the ways in which Ireland, particularly in Gaeltacht's like Connemara, have also worked to maintain--and keep alive--the Gaelic language and traditions. It's interesting to see how much the desire for connection and community, for a way to make sense of the world, cuts across many different cultures.

And a brief note as I continue to learn: errors or assumptions about Ukrainian life, culture and history of this complicated place are entirely mine.

Young performers at the Ivan Honchar Museum

Friday, January 9, 2009

Country Mouse in the City

For me, my trip to Ukraine is not only a switch to an entirely different country (and two totally unknown languages) but it's also a big switch from my life in a small village in upstate New York to Kiev, a city of millions. So it's the switch from getting in my car and driving somewhere (the feature of all parts of upstate life) to the metro and the bus. I've been able to build my subway, bus and marshrutka (a privately owned bus or mini-bus) skills this week, during the holidays, when fewer people are out and commuting.

I like the metro. Several of the stations have great decorative tiles although paid advertising has overtaken a great deal of space. Long, long escalators lead down to the stations, built to also serve as fall-out shelters during the Cold War. But best of all, of course, is the people-watching.

The other big switch is walking in general. When my daughter Anna spent a year in the Netherlands as an exchange student, she came home a bike rider. I think my time here will bring me home more ready to walk in any kind of weather. It's cold here, for sure, but everyone just bundles up and walks--so I do too!

City life also means an apartment. I've been staying as a sublet in an apartment of a Fulbrighter who's home for the holidays, and have spent, with my roommate-to-be, a fair amount of time this past week looking for a suitable place. It's challenging in any city, but I think particularly here, with a rapidly changing economy. We're hopeful that we find a place in the next couple days, as Michael makes many, many phone calls and undertakes negotiations with both owners and agents.

View down Khelminitsky Street on Christmas morning
Walking in the city center

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Christmas at Pyrogovo

Thanks to Irina Leonenko and her fiance' Bas, I spent a cold snowy--but fascinating-- Christmas day (today is Christmas here) at the traditional Christmas celebrations at Pyrogovo, an outdoor museum village near Kyiv. Pyrogovo consists of village buildings from all over Ukraine, assembled at a single place and arranged on the landscape as if looking at a map of Ukraine (so western Ukrainian buildings are to the west, etc.). The museum is open all year, but only a few buildings were open today.

We arrived early, just as church services began in the wooden church with its incredible painted altar. Attending the service were an interesting mix of Ukrainians, traditional musicians there to sing and perform, and some tourists, including other Americans.

The service, which you attend standing, lasted almost two hours, so we listened to part of it, including singing, and then left for a quick mid-morning meal at a shynok (thanks, Irina for the correct spelling) on the museum grounds. It's a traditional tavern, with food and drink. Evidently there were several on the grounds, and the one Irina liked best wasn't yet open, but we visited another, and had tea and borscht--and took a chance to warm up on this near zero degree day.

Afterwards, we took a try at something none of us had ever seen, and which the picture above illustrates. The person standing pushes, and the sledder gets going pretty fast. That's Bas pushing Irina. Back to the church for the end of the service--with beautiful a capella music, and then outside, a small Christmas pageant. Although I couldn't understand the language, the angels, the Three Kings, Joseph and Mary were all easily recognizable. At this point, with pretty cold toes, we decided to head home. One last look at another group of singers performing for TV cameras only.

As we waited for the cab home, many more people were arriving. This was clearly a family day, with wooden sleds, picnics and food, and a sense of holiday. Most interesting to me as a museum person? No visible interpreters on site, no labels, but a museum providing city dwellers with a place to remember their family and village traditions. This is a place where meaning-making was at work. Irina says that for a long time, Ukrainian traditions were out of fashion, but now they are coming back a bit, as the country begins to define itself as a nation. So for the visitors today, it was partly about that, but also, I suspect, about making each family's own traditions of a trip to Pyrogovo on Christmas Day, to sled, to eat and drink, and to enjoy being together. What better way to celebrate the holiday? and how nice that a museum could play a role in that.

Top to bottom:
The church at Pyrogovo
Borscht and tea
Bas pushing Irina on the sled
Lighting candles in the church
More pictures to come!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

My Life in Ukraine, Chapter 1

I won't take time to write much here, other than to say that I've arrived, I'm snuggled in at a temporary apartment in downtown Kiev, and, thanks to my Fulbright colleague Michael Forster Rothbart, I've learned how to ride the subway, shop in a grocery store, apartment hunt, and much, much more. Tomorrow I'm off to a Christmas day celebration at an outdoor museum, and I begin teaching next week. Stay tuned for more!

Above: One of my first sights on my first walk: the Natural History Museum.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year, New Adventures

I leave early tomorrow morning for the start of my Fulbright in Kyiv, Ukraine. Four months learning about a culture and a country--teaching graduate students and working with museums. I'll continue to post here about my adventures in both Ukrainian life and museums. Stay tuned!

Above: View of Kyiv, from StuckinCustoms on Flickr