Saturday, March 28, 2009

Monumental and Personal

Kyiv is a city of monuments located in a country of monuments. Some cities, like Zaporizha or Donetsk, still retain their large monuments to Lenin. But here in Kyiv, some of the Soviet monuments stand, a bit uneasily, with new monuments from the last twenty years. The monuments here are, well, monumental. The Motherland statue dominates the skyline, and just down the way, the new Holomodor memorial and the monument to the Great Patriotic War stand next to each other. Today, on a nice spring day, the park with these monuments was full of people.

The most curious to Westerners--the bridal parties. It's a tradition here in Kyiv that you and your wedding party, often now in a white stretch limo, go from monument to monument posing for pictures. Evidently this is a post World War II phenomenon, that began, thought one of my students, as a way of honoring those who had sacrificed their lives for the country. Even on the coldest days, you see a bundled up bride, in a big white dress, trailed by the wedding party and accompanied by her groom, off to make the rounds of sights in the city for pictures.

Although I find the monuments solemn and more than a little intimidating, Ukrainians seem not to. They watch their children ride a tricycle nearby, promenade with a date, and bring a small picnic. Rather than an overly solemn place, it's just a nice green, relaxing place in the city to come. I imagine on particular memorial days, it has a much different feel as Ukrainians do feel a deep connection to the past and to the sacrifices of those who came before.

It's a rare thing to see certain statues without any flowers or wreaths placed on it. Fairly regularly, I pass by a small Holomodor monument near St. Michaels, and also by a statue to veterans of the war in Afghanistan near Pechersk Lavra. They always have wreaths or flowers placed on them.

But this past week I got a chance to experience an entirely different kind of culture far different from the massive governmental monuments. Irina took Christi Anne Hofland, a fellow Fulbrighter, and me to a performance at the Dakh Contemporary Art Center. It's in an old Soviet-style apartment building, several stops out on the Metro, and is an unofficial, non-state theater founded in 1994 and succeeding, as their website says, "using the methods of probes and mistakes." We saw a difficult-to-describe Richard III. The performance used no words, only music, dance, movement and masks, and was one of the most compelling things I'd seen in a long time.

In a tiny simple theater space seating only about 40 people on wooden benches, the performers and musicians combined Ukrainian traditions--music, rshynky and more--with Shakespeare in a way I'll long remember. So much of Ukrainian traditional culture is presented either as a sort of kitsch, available for purchase by tourists, or as something embedded in amber, unchanging, in museum exhibitions. I very much liked how this energetic thoughtful group of performers, headed by director and founder Vladyslav Troitskyi took their own traditions and created something entirely new. And the Shakespearean themes of family intrigue, death, and the lust for power resonate must, I suspect, resonate deeply here.

Top and bottom images: from Dakh Contemporary Art Center
Motherland and Afghan statues in Kyiv, from Wikipedia

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

From My Students' Perspective

My students at Kyiv-Mohyla have been a great part of my time here. We have lively discussions in class and I'm impressed at their ability to dive into a different type of class setting, very different kinds of material, and to begin to integrate that into their writing and work. And I'm in awe of their ability to write in English (as my own Russian and Ukrainian vocabularies seem to have topped out at about a dozen words).

They've had three assignments in which they've been asked to visit museums, historic sites or memorials and to write brief reflection papers (my former Hartwick students, you'll recognize this) about the museum, from a perspective that thinks about big ideas, visitors, and families. There were far too many good observations to share in full, but with their permission, I wanted to share some of their thoughts.
"Consequently we went to the Zoological Museum. The museum was not new for me but for my little son. He is looking forward to meeting his friends. There are many animals from his favorite tales and the cartoons…My story did not entirely coincide with the big idea of the museum….There were too many exhibits for me also. They just pressed down on us….Nevertheless we enjoyed the museum because we created our own idea and really realized it. We were in our own tale with good animal friends."

"I think the absence of WCs for visitors in most of Ukrainian museums talk [s] a lot about the soviet concept of museum going. I would dare to say this concept suggests visitors to become bodiless angels on the period of visiting the museum."

"Or can the space be re-organized more effectively, finally taking down some of the outdated information (like the obligatory Marx-Engels quotes, tributes to a dead era)?"

"For my family-oriented visit I chose the Museum of Natural Science. I had always been fascinated by the “hard” sciences, and one of the best memories of my childhood was this museum. I’d spent long minutes in front of the dioramas and the taxidermied animals and wondered whether I”d go into biology. Even though I’m not a biologist now, I remain in a kind of awe of the natural sciences—so I went to see whether the museum remains as inspirational to today’s children and families.

"I can admit that in spite of absence of any special children adapted information, it seems as if Liza [age 5] had better time in museum than me and double better than my mother. Probably, because of an “adult feature” to criticize what you see, meanwhile children are more ready to treat things around as trustworthy.

But as for me, one small detail could change significantly atmosphere of the museum and makes it more visitor-friendly. Base [d] on my personal experience watching the exhibition while you are very hungry, I would like the museum [to] allow eating and drinking inside. It would be useful for learning to have a small café near the ticket desk. Many people have better ability to concentrate attention when they are eating. Particularly it would help family learning in the museums, to discuss exhibits over dinner.

"The big idea of exposition in this museum, if there were such, could be stated as, “We can improve your knowledge about the history of literature in Ukraine (our precious Ukrainian literature in particular) by showing you lots of genuine artifacts and telling lots of new information about it.” These gaps [in labels] might even be intentional and probably were designed to provoke questions of the visitors. Nevertheless this is an obvious disadvantage because it makes a visitor feel dumb. Intended message of this museum can be stated as following: literature of Ukraine is great, it is our heritage, and we should estimate and honour it, which implies visiting the museum and listening and watching politely.

Unintended message is that history of literature in Ukraine is unchangeable, inert, and improving one’s knowledge of it from the official point of view implies increasing predominately quantity of information and variety of details, without concern about quality, levels of understanding, changing of understanding, etc.
Nobody wants to be a victim. Unfortunately, up to nowadays, the history of Ukrainian literature is taught in the way of presenting ever lasting tortures of Ukrainian people. "

This next entry was a reflection about the Holomodor Monument. The student proposed an alternative: a museum that first presented peasant life before Holomodor (the Stalin-created famine that killed millions of Ukrainians) and only then, entrance to an exhibition about Holomodor:

"Try to imagine: you leave wide rooms, full of light and fresh bread fragrance and get to place of darkness and sadness. In Holomodor room one could compare ordinary meal of Ukrainian peasants and disgusting stuff, created from spoiled vegetables, dry grass and sawdust that they eat not to die from starvation….but Holomodor exhibition wouldn’t be dedicated only to peasant’s life during famine—it would also show the life of people who served the Soviets—from members of Politburo to agents of NCVD (National Committee of Internal Cases) and orindary soldiers of the Red army.

To my mind, the best way to preserve memories of national tragedy in people’s hearts is to make it less pathetic and closer to feelings of ordinary people like love, hate, compassion, friendship. Only identification with victims before tragedy may provide the proper feelings like sorrow and compassion. The purpose of peasant museum is to turn nameless and unknown victims of Holomodor to real people, who had names, dreams, passions, small and funny habits. Huge and pathetic memorials prevent identification with real people. It is difficult to feel love and compassion to huge governmental machine."

"What have I learned from the exhibition? Probably I caught some kind of spirit there and dropped into my “mental visual database” new images."

"So children don’t feel comfortable in museums. It doesn’t seem for them as leisure time during which they can receive useful information, but as kind of enforcement.

Something that can shock and force to think. I believe that for children the most important is not to see the past, but to see the future."

Top to Bottom:
Nadiya and Anna
Anna, Sasha and Oksana
Miriam and Alyona

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Productive Exchange of Experiences

I haven't written about the professional development workshops I've presented here, but they have been an important focus of my work here. I've done lots of training in my time, but have continued to learn about Ukraine, about museums and about myself throughout this process. I've done four general workshops about Learning in Museums--in Kyiv, Lviv, Zaporizha and Donetsk, with one to go in Poltava. These have been two-day workshops, usually with a large audience the first day and a smaller one the second because many people cannot take two days away.

Not surprisingly, professional development is very different here than in the US. The majority of traditional training here seems to consist of someone standing up and reading a paper, with little or no audience feedback. The theoretical is stressed here, but I am very much a practitioner. And it seems like the audiences consist of people with widely varying interests, backgrounds, job titles and expertise. So it takes me a bit of time each time to gain my footing with the audience, and it takes them a bit of time to become familiar with my significantly more informal style of discussion--but in every case there have also been several English speakers in the audience who help out as needed. I think the translators get the biggest workout during a session as there's no daydreaming and translating two ways is an enormous task for which I'm forever grateful.

At the most in a two-day workshop, I can give a broad overview of ideas and some concrete examples. I've found a quiz based on Howard Gardner's work with multiple intelligences useful, as it brings forth the idea of different kinds of learners as they learn about themselves. I've used a Power Point presentation with an ever-changing group of images to talk about interactives, visitor feedback and more. Thanks to Flickr, this includes not just work I'm familiar with, but much more--keep posting those museum visits! The sort of interactive, small group work that is so much a part of my presenting in the US hasn't really worked here, though I keep trying to find a framework and approach that will be effective.

For me, it's also very challenging to think in terms of one-time workshops. I think the most effective training happens with mentors, or a chance to begin implementing ideas and then coming back together. MATRA, a Dutch partnership here, has spent three years providing training for museum staff here, including developing Ukrainian trainers. Many of the most active learners I've seen in workshops have been either participants in MATRA or in workshops sponsored by the US-based Fund for Arts and Culture. Now, I think the next steps are really to begin to put those ideas into practice at a wide variety of organizations here, establishing best practices here for museums and making resources for learning available in Ukrainian.

The whole shift to a visitor-centered focus is perhaps the most difficult, but but important concept that I strive to convey. The priority in Soviet-era museums was what is called, "scientific work," the research part of museum work, and whether anyone ever came was hardly a concern. Staff received their salaries and all was well in museums, all of which were part of the state system. The past twenty years have brought many changes, but at many places, senior staff were trained under the old system. However, the financial crisis of the last few months is drastically affecting museums. Many had limited heat this winter, and I've heard about already underpaid staffs who do not receive paychecks (but in a contrast to museums in the US, they still come to work, hoping to receive back pay at some point).

I'd say most museum workers here believe that the government will continue to support museums and that they will be able to continue their work relatively uninterrupted. It's the only way of museum work they've ever known. However, I approach this with much more skepticism. Ukraine's financial resources are strained, and the needs of this country are many. Unless museums begin to make a better case for their place in a civil society, I fear they will become increasing irrelevant and underfunded.

Needless to say, the financial crisis has heightened interest in grant-writing and corporate sponsorship. A handout based on Sarah Brophy's Is Your Museum Grant-Ready? and a downloadable Russian language PDF on proposal-writing from the Foundation Center have been extremely helpful. As the result of a workshop on grant-writing, I've been working with a small group of museum staff here in Kyiv on writing grant proposals and two grants are almost ready for submission to sponsors--a big step!

Another finance-related hit has been a presentation on free tools on the web. Technology (or lack of access to it) is a huge issue here for museums. So understanding blogs, Flickr, YouTube and more can be a great help. Ukraine has a huge diaspora, with immigrants and their descendants around the globe, and a web presence can help bring attention to many institutions.
Thanks to all my museum colleagues who place material on blogs and in other locations--I love showing some visitor-generated YouTube video from the Brooklyn Museum.

At any given workshop, I also find myself explaining a host of other issues in response to questions. What is federalism and how does it work? How many museums are there in the US and where does their money come from? (thanks AAM and MANY for the great stats) Why is Warren Buffett giving all his money away? How does any governmental budget process work? (and why, I ask myself, do I only know about dysfunctional New York State?) What is volunteering? Who actually owns museum objects? Is Barack Obama clever? Who makes decisions about museum budgets? Is YouTube really free? What, exactly are museum boards of directors and why would you want them?

And at every workshop, I look around the room and see a few people, madly scribbling notes, taking it all in. They come up after the presentation to copy my PowerPoints onto their jump drives, they ask questions, and they're just hungry for more information and ideas. Each one of them is the reason I take a deep breath and plunge right in each time I begin.

Top to Bottom:
Poster for my workshop at the Ivan Honchar Museum, Kyiv
Workshop participants view galleries at the Donetsk Regional Art Museum
Workshop participants in Zaporizha
Brainstorming ideas for interactives in the permanent exhibit at the Khortisa National Preserve
A very cold, but very beautiful room for the workshop in Lviv

Donetsk: Roses, Soccer and Coal

This week I spent several days in Donetsk, in the far eastern part of Ukraine--about a 12 hour train ride from Kiev. Not many westerners or Americans end up in Donetsk, despite it being founded by an Welshman. The city was originally known as Yuzovka, after John Hughes, who constructed a steel plant and coal mines in the region. It was later named Stalino, and then during "de-Stalinization," under Nikita Krushchev (who was from a coal mining family here) it was renamed Donetsk.

Coal mining is central to the city's identity. A giant statue of a miner holding a lump of coal greets you as you enter the city, the city's emblem is a mining hammer, and their beloved soccer team are the Shaktars (the Miners). Coal mines and the enormous steel factory are still in operation, and coal mining remains a dirty, very dangerous occupation, now considerably less well-paying than in Soviet times. To see a photo essay on the region's miners, check out this site by photographer Youry Bilak.

The city, along with much of the east, still leans towards Russia--a statue of Lenin still stands in the main square, and this is the region that most opposes entry into the European Union and the country's current president. I can't pretend to understand the complex nature of Ukrainian politics, oligarchism, and corruption, but needless to say, Donetsk, like most cities in Ukraine, has plenty of all three.

Perhaps that's why, before I went, many people (both westerners and Ukrainians) said, "why are you going to Donetsk? It's horrible there!" Very far from horrible. I'm fascinated by industrial history, so the chance to catch a glimpse of a city with its industrial history still relevant and visible, was great.

Slag heaps, now covered in shrub growth, abound in and around the city--but on the flat steppes of eastern Ukraine, they count as hills. Rail lines are still incredibly important, and the factory built by John Hughes, now greatly expanded, still operates in the city itself. It's an example of an industrial past now almost wholly gone from American cities. And in the future, could present opportunities for rebirth, the same way cities like Pittsburgh or Manchester, England, have found new life by using their industrial past. I suspect here in Donetsk, like anywhere with an industrial past, the environmental legacies are harsh and difficult.

But the city isn't just about industry. It used to be called the City of Roses, and a new program is underway attempting to replant a million rose bushes in the city's parks. Almost totally destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, the re-built city has a pleasant central park-like boulevard (although marred by the private restaurants now built on park land), and interesting museums. Donetsk will get much more attention in 2012, when some of the Euro Cup soccer games (football to everyone but us Americans) are played in the new stadium currently being built by oligarch Rinet Akmetov, one of Ukraine's richest men, who is from Donetsk.

Donetsk is one of the most diverse places in Ukraine, with one statistic I read showing that only half of the population in the region are ethnic Ukrainians. In addition to Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Tatars, Jews and others have long and continuing histories in the region. I presented a 2 day workshop at the Regional Fine Art Museum, whose director, Chumak Galina Vladimirovna, is a lively, hardworking woman from the Greek community. Her warmth and organizational skills were a tremendous help in making the workshop a success--she even brought special Greek food for lunch for us!

I visited the local history museum, the Donetsk Region History Museum. Glubokaya Elena Borisovna, the Head of the Education and Research Department and other staff members took great pride in showing me their exhibits and the ways in which they involve young people at the museum. Museum theater, treasure hunts, and other activities are unusual for museums here, but this staff, who really seem to embrace the idea of teamwork (which seems almost unknown here in Ukraine), work together to create learning opportunities for their community. The exhibitions run the gamut, from the pre-historic history of the region, natural history, rich archaelogical collections (and ongoing fieldwork), to the founding of the city by John Hughes, the development of the factories, coal mining, World War II, and the Soviet Era--and an exhibit about current industrial and agricultural production in the region.

The museum visit reminded me why much of my work is in local and regional history. To me, these are places that can really connect with communities--they can tell the stories of individual people and places, to both visitors, but particularly to their own communities. I was fascinated by the exhibitions on coal mining and the Soviet times--tremendous artifacts and photos and I wanted to know much more.

This museum was a place where the diversity of the region's residents was integrated into the exhibitions. So a room about religious traditions included not only Orthodox icons, but also Greek icons and a Torah; the section about World War II included information about the Jewish community and concentration camps. One of Ukraine's sort of intellectual and cultural struggles is about what story is the Ukrainian story--and in many museums I've been in, the story has been about ethnic Ukrainians (however that might be defined). My American roots make me appreciate a region and a museum that begin to include, in some way, the stories of the many different groups that make up Ukraine. And I particularly appreciated that these were integrated into overall presentations.

I stayed in a unique location--on the top floor of the theater in an apartment reserved for visiting directors and producers. And I also got to see a preview production in the theater itself that provided me with a different glimpse of the city. It was a musical that looked back at Donetsk in the 1960s and '70s--sort of "Grease" for Donetsk.
Popular songs, projected images of the city and more brought back many memories for the audience. For the opening next week, the theater has arranged to have cars from the period parked out front and to sell special "Eskimos" ice cream and sausages from the period. That period, much like the '50s in the United States, is a time of nostalgia for many--the "good old days." And just like the US, the good old days is only part of a complex story, but it was fun for an evening, to watch an audience enjoy their past together.

For the entire trip, my special thanks go to my friend and colleague, Irina Leonenko. She was raised in Donetsk, made all the arrangements, accompanied me on the trip, shared her family with me, and served as my translator (and I am challenging to translate!) Her passion and affection for her city, even though she lives there no longer, and her country, have made both this trip and my entire time here not only understandable but imbued with meaning that I would have otherwise never gained. Plus, we really have fun!

Top to Bottom:
Historic photo, train station, Donetsk, Wikipedia Commons
Coal miner's statue, slag heap and park, all via Flickr
Galina, director of the Art Museum, always moves too fast to photograph, even while sharing Greek food.
Life-size coal mining diorama and installation at the Donetsk Region History Museum
Donetsk Theater, my overnight location
Slide show of musical
(Slide show and last three photos by Irina Leonenko

Saturday, March 14, 2009

From Cossacks to Theater

I've been a bit remiss in writing about some of my museum visits here, so a quick update on some of the interesting places I've been.

A couple weeks ago I went to Zaporizha, an industrial city of about a million people, an overnight train ride away on the Dniper River. My destination was the National Preserve of Khortysa (transliterated variously as Horitza or Khortisa), on a large island in the middle of the river.

Khortysa was the summer home, a fortified military camp, or Sich, of Zaporizhan Cossacks. The site includes a museum, the re-created Sich, and, at the end of the island, an ongoing marine archaelogy project to restore 18th century ships lifted from the river bottom. The preserve attracts 100,000 visitors per year, and although in winter it was hard to fully appreciate the re-created Sich, still in process, it did give a bit of a feel of the Cossack times. The preserve (sort of a national park) has extensive plans for ongoing restoration and development, now put on hold by the financial crisis here.

I was particularly fascinated by the work being done to restore the ships. It's clearly a labor of love for the three men working there, all of whom developed a love for boats as children. One boat has been under restoration for ten years, and the museum just provided their first public tours. The goal is someday to have a museum on the island devoted to marine archaelogy and evidently this section of the Dnieper, with its dangerous rapids, is a rich location for such information.

This past week I visited two more museums here in Kyiv, both housed in Pechersk-Lavra. The National Museum of Theater, Music and Cinema covers the entire range of theatrical and film performance, beginning with puppet shows and village theater up through the movies. It was, not surprisingly, one of the most theatrical museums I'd visited, with each room almost like a stage set from the period. I enjoyed the inventive way the rooms were developed, and was particularly interested in the designs for stage and movie sets and their large collection of folk instruments--many of them new to me.

The National Museum of Books and Printing is housed in the building originally used for printing at the Lavra, a monastery and includes a wide collection of books printed in Ukrainian. I saw beautiful bindings, illuminated manuscripts, books printed in Slavonic, and an engaging temporary exhibit of schoolbooks, including one from the original Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (where I now teach) from the 18th century.

At all three of these museums, as at many others I've visited, the staff has a great passion for their work and a deep knowledge of content--the challenge seems to be in developing innovative ways to share that passion with visitors.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Museum of the Foreigner

I had written a draft of this post with a different title, but the title above is from my students. We spent some time in class doing an artifact analysis of items pulled from my purse, and then had to imagine how to interpret my apartment here, based on those items, ranging from my handy carry bag to a hand-drawn map showing me how to find the train to the plane. One of their suggestions was that my apartment could be, "The Museum of The Foreigner," and another, "The Museum of the Great Change from Homeland to Fatherland." So in that spirit, here's how I manage!

I've had many Ukrainians and Americans here say, "How do you get around if you don't speak Russian or Ukrainian?" so I thought I should share my tips on navigating a city of almost 3 million people when you don't speak the language. Because, almost every day, I go somewhere I haven't been before, attempt to purchase an item I don't know the name of, or meet new people.

The Metro
Kyiv's Metro is clean, fast, and goes close to almost everywhere I need to go. Once I learned to recognize the word of my home subway stop, the stop where I teach, where the transfer stations are, and a few stops in between, I was set. I could get at least close to any location. Funnily enough, I was always getting directions to meet someone outside the metro at the McDonalds and for a long time I thought those directions were just for me--but no, everyone uses that as a meeting place.

Young People speak English
In Ukraine, English is mandatory in school at a very early age. So most older people speak or remember small bits of English, but almost all young people are eager to practice and learn more. So when I'm lost, or need directions, I approach young people. Even on the overnight train to Zaporizha, my compartment-mates remembered a bit of their school English--enough to ask me what I thought of President Yushencko.

My students in particular have been great guides into different aspects of Ukrainian life. They're smart, their English is excellent, and they have lively senses of humor. We discuss politics, family life, Soviet times and more.

Great Maps
I don't mean my city map or my Metro map, which are both useful, but my collection of hand-drawn maps by friends and colleagues that get me where I need to go. Need to go out to the suburbs to buy a printer? Michael draws me a map. Need to go to the train station? Ihor draws me a map.

Cell Phones
I'm not much of a cell phone user at home, as (hard as it is to believe for many here in Kyiv) I live somewhere where I don't get reception. What are cell phones good for? Well, first to call when you're lost and you're late. Second, sometimes to even recruit a translator over the phone. When I had to send a package to my apartment-mate Michael in Slavutich, I make my way to the bus station, find the bus that says Slavutich (which is totally not how you would spell it in Russian or Ukrainian), call Michael, who speaks Russian, to explain that he'll meet the bus and pick up the package (and by the way, this is just one of Ukraine's great informal systems to make things work. Lots of things don't work, but lots of things do).

Learning the Context
Although I'm only up to a few words of Russian, I do understand certain questions people ask me in certain situations and know enough to answer. "Do I want a bag?" asks the check-out girl; "Are you getting off?" asks the person standing behind me in the subway car; "Please," to pass your money forward to the mashrutka driver. So, pretty much, I know the appropriate yes or no answer. And, there's always something to be said for the puzzled, quizzical look from me, which usually draws some pity and occassional annoyance.

Great Translators
For my workshops, I've worked with a translator--different ones each time, and in every case (and many thanks to Ihor, Olha, Irina, Sasha, Olisa and Tanya--I think that's everyone) they've brought great good humor and enthusiasm for the job. They've translated difficult concepts on the fly, helped me understand Ukrainian ways of thinking, and generally, have made my life so much better! Above, Olisa and Tanya from Hortiza.

As I slowly learn the Cyrillic alphabet, I'm actually able to sound out some words and have found many connections to English. So a word that looks like Pectopah, really is, once you know the alphabet, Restaurant, and sounded out phonetically actually does sound like that.

Friends and Colleagues
Finally, better-than-great friends and colleagues. In particular, my apartment-mate Michael, my newly arrived from home apartment-mate (and Michael's wife) Amy and my friend Irina have helped me navigate almost everything. And at many of the museums I visit, I've discovered that, although we start with translations, as people become more comfortable with me and with conversation, that the conversations become a mix of languages. Unfortunately, I only operate in English--many people understand English but are nervous speaking it, because there aren't necessarily many opportunities to converse with a native English speaker. So I think, once they discover I'm a friendly person, interesting in learning about their museum and their work, the conversations fly!

Friday, March 6, 2009

My New Favorite Historic House

I've written before on this blog about boring historic houses--of which there seem to be many more than fascinating historic houses, but I'm always hopeful. This week, here in Kiev, I had an enthralling historic house visit to the Memorial Flat of Mikhail Bulgakov. I didn't really know of Bulgakov before I came to Ukraine, but to those who know Russian literature, he's an icon--believe it or not, he has more than 10,000 friends on Facebook. He's best known for the Master and Margarita, a fantasy satirical novel not published until decades after his death and his difficult relationship with the Soviet state is an important part of his story.

But his home in Kiev focuses on his early life and combines it in a fascinating way with the story of the Turbin family in his novel The White Guard, set during the Russian Civil War, in Kiev, on the same street where he lived and the museum now is.

What makes this place so different? In developing the museum, which has been open only 20 plus years, the decision was made to create a theatrical experience that merges the story of the fictional Turbin family with the real story of Bulgakov and his family. At the same time, the decision was made to paint all the non-original objects in the museum pure white, so the original objects from Bulgakov's family, stand in stark contrast. The restoration is based on historic photographs from the house itself.

The story is narrated by the guide, and Irina, who gave me a my terrific guided tour, also stood out in stark contrast to many guided tours here. Through voice and gesture, she created a sense of suspense and of adventure as I learned both the story of the novel and of the author himself. The relatively simple theatrical lighting and clever use of mirrors, doorways, and even a step through a wardrobe (but not to Narnia!) all turned it into an adventurous tour. It really did transport you to another world. I could imagine the White Army outside in the street.

I arrived when school group tours were in progress, so I began my tour with the place where most visitors end--the small cafe that is a part of the museum. It's a simple, very pleasant room, where you order tea and jam. It's free--but they just ask for a contribution. The cafe provides the sort of amenity that is rarely found in Ukrainian museums, a legacy of the Soviet past. The staff tells me that they received funds to develop the cafe, and that, because this, like virtually all museums here, is a governmental museum, that there is a separate charity set up to receive financial support. They work with a lawyer and an accountant to assure the charity's integrity (a significant issue given Ukraine's record on corruption).

It was the first time I'd seen an evidence of ongoing fundraising in a Ukrainian museum--they had wanted to purchase a piano for musical evenings and did so by having supporters "purchase" a key, or a leg, or another piano part. A sign near the new piano checked off their successes and then included a list of supporters. The museum's musical evenings are evidently very successful and I look forward to attending one later this month. The staff also mentioned that all their work--special exhibitions and programs in particular--is tied to mission, which is not always the case in Ukrainian museums.

This visit reminded me that our work, the work of museums, is creative work. We're not just in the storage and warehouse business, but in the business of creating compelling, memorable experiences that stay with the visitor. And we all want our visitors to learn more--and in this way, the Bulgakov Museum is wholly a success--I'm scouring Kiev for an English language version of The White Guard.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

My Day as a Disaster Tourist: Visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Voyeur, witness to history, curiousity-seeker, tourist, intruder, and guest: I felt like I was some part of all these when I visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone last weekend. It's a visitor experience like no other I can remember, to a historic site that is like no other. It's interesting--I live close to New York City, but have never visited the site of the Twin Towers since 9/11. But I did take the opportunity to visit the site of the world's worst nuclear accident.

The trip was organized by, an international NGO founded by a group who had lived in Pripyat as children. What's Pripyat? It's the city that was built to house the workers at the Chernobyl plant--both the plant and the city were built in the 1970s. Just 2 km from the plant, the city housed 50,000 people and was designed as an exemplary town by the Soviets. But then the accident at the Chernobyl plant happened, spewing radiation into the air across Europe and of course contaminating nearby Pripyat. The Soviet government's decision: without telling the residents full details of the accident, they were evacuated within a 24 hour period shortly after the accident--and the city was abandoned, most residents leaving with only what they could carry of their lives. The initial goal of was to provide a place for former residents of the town to connect with neighbors and share information--it's now grown to be a major center for information about Chernobyl and the region.

What did we visit?

Leaving Kyiv early in the morning, a bus full of mostly young people, almost all Ukrainians and Russians, headed towards Chernobyl, stopping at check points at the 30 km border of the Zone and then the 10 km border. We then stopped at Chernobyl town, a town that existed before the nuclear plant and is now half-abandoned, half still lived in by workers at the plant. After a brief orientation, the bus headed off through scrub forest and, as we rounded a curve, the curved cooling tower came into view, followed by the never -completed reactors 5 and 6, with their construction cranes still in the air, unmoving for almost 25 years. Next is the site of the accident itself: Block 4, where the explosion and fire happened. This block is now covered by a sarcophagus, that is about to undergo a multi-billion dollar replacement process. In effect, the sarcophagus is the right name-- just was a way to bury the problem.

It's a very strange thing to stop, get out, and be with other tourists taking pictures of the plant, posed in front of the memorial. I found it particularly unusual that people wanted to take pictures of their friends posing in front of the plant. Why would you want that picture? To demonstrate that you were there? But I did, admit, take pictures as well. As I looked at the plant, though, tears did come to my eyes. It just represented, not the safety or danger of nuclear power, but a real sense of folly, and a sense of how little the Soviet Union cared for its own people. In addition to those living near the plant, more than 800,000 clean-up workers called liquidators were ordered to help clean up the disaster and their health problems remain a critical concern.

From there we went to Pripyat--and got out of the bus to spend 3 hours on foot exploring a totally abandoned city. Somehow the work I do has led me to many abandoned places from factories to resorts, but this was different. First, it was just the scale of it--50,o00 is alot of people and even though this Soviet city had less of some things than Western cities of the same size, there are still living spaces for 50,000, stores, post office, a sports palace and a house of culture, schools, and more. And every space, just abandoned. Some places are full of objects--the kindergarten building, for instance, but in others, looters have removed much of what is there over the last several decades.

I was struck by the resilience of nature. It is slowly taking over--trees and shrubs growing up, and we were told that wolves had been spotted. There's considerable debate about the effects of the accident on the natural world here--some people advocate that removing humans was good for the environment, others are continuing to study the effects of radiation on species of all kinds.

And it was quiet--imagine being in a place where there are no sounds: no traffic, no people, no sort of any of the sounds that now make up our daily lives, almost wherever we live. Just the wind. You expect to be in the country with these sounds, not surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings.

In talking about historic sites with my colleagues, we've often spoken about places that have a feel of the former residents. In ways that are hard to determine, the spirit of a house's residents often linger. Sometimes it's the objects that remain, but somehow it seems less definable than just that. And here in Pripyat, the spirit did linger. You could imagine swimming at the pool, living in your little Soviet apartment with the padded entry door (as I do now), walking the streets with your child. It is now a place of only memories, and for former residents, the memories are not solely those of the accident, but of a place and a time that they called home. is working on getting the site declared a national park (that's not quite the term here, but the concept is the same) and to convert the site to a museum. I don't quite know how that would work-- I think many people should see it, but at the same time many people seeing it would unalterably change the power of the experience.

The decades of Soviet rule here in Ukraine has meant that information is still, in many ways, carefully guarded. Scholars are reluctant to share their work; museums worry about digitizing collections online, and the idea of opening up museums to other voices and other perspectives is a new approach. And at Chernobyl, it was a two full weeks after the accident that the government even admitted something more significant than a fire had happened at the site. For me, the trip reinforced my conviction that we are all best served by an open society and a free press. Some argue that the accident and the aftermath hastened the end of the Soviet Union.

So although the visual memories of the site will long stay with me, I'm particularly impressed by's desire and commitment to create a place on the web that connects people and invites a full sharing of memories and information. Their work can serve as a collaborative model for sharing other aspects of Ukraine's history.

And yes, when you leave the zone you go through two different radiation checks. In general, the radiation you receive is less than you get on a flight to London from here.