Wednesday, April 29, 2009

From Kyiv to Philadelphia

I'm back from Kyiv, and headed for AAM tomorrow. My Idea Lounge session on Chernobyl and issues related to exhibition development is scheduled for Friday, 8:00 AM. And, a bit more, when I get minute, follow-up blogs from Ukraine.

And, when you're in Philly, don't miss Reading Market. Here's a post I wrote late last year that will enable you to consider it work when you're skipping a session and enjoying this great place:

Why Can't Museums Be More Like City Markets?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Thank You for Your Enthusiasm!

I'm packed and ready to head for home after my four months here in Ukraine. As I've made my rounds, saying good-byes and distributing all the museum books I brought and in teaching my last classes, I've been surprised that people have particularly thanked me for my enthusiasm. I think I've always looked a bit startled, because that's such an easy thing for me to bring to my work with museums. A bit more on that later--but this post is to thank someone else for their enthusiasm.

Via a colleague in the US, I made contact with Irina Leonenko before I arrived--and within two days of my arrival she made sure I experienced a Ukrainian Christmas celebration---by taking me to Pirogivo, the outdoor museum, on a very cold crisp January day. And ever since then, it's been a rare day that we haven't gone to a meeting together, emailed, talked by phone or (in my case very slowly) texted.

Many, many people have made my time here an amazing one, but Irina has been a constant. She has translated (and really translated the unsaid parts I didn't get), brainstormed ideas for projects, nudged museum workers into action, made appointments, photographed me doing all kinds of things, been dragged into my roommate's project and became invaluable, made sure I met all kinds of interesting people, made me laugh and laughed at me, shared her passion for her country and her home town of Donetsk, and, over many many cups of coffee and tea, been an enthusiastic partner in all sorts of conversations about museums, Ukraine, and life in general. She was the first Ukrainian I met here, and the last I had tea with tonight before I headed home to finish packing. And all this despite a busy schedule including planning her wedding in May, with guests arriving from all over the world to celebrate with her and Bas.

So Irina, there's no way I could thank you enough for your unending enthusiasm!

Irina photographing at the Chernobyl exhibit opening
Irina at the opening of Damien Hirst's exhibt at the PinchukArtCentre (that's former heavyweight champ and former mayoral candidate Vitali Klitschko being interviewed in the background)
Irina's feet (and the rest of her) at a workshop at the National Art Gallery

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Inside Chernobyl: Life Goes On

The title of this post is the title of the exhibition of photographs by Michael Forster Rothbart, supplemented by some important additions by Chernobyl staff member Alexander Kupny, that opened yesterday in Schvencko Park in Kyiv. For my Ukrainian readers--it will be up in the park for the next two weeks, so please stop by to see it.

For me, some take-away lessons and reminders from this project:

People Matter
Many Ukrainian museums present history in the abstract. This exhibition takes a different, more direct and personal approach. Michael and his colleagues focused on five families who work at Chernobyl today. So the exhibit tells the story of Slavutich, the community where they live, and the Chernobyl plant, through sharing a bit of their lives. Life does go on at Chernobyl, to the great surprise of many here in Ukraine and throughout the world. Today, more than 3800 people still work at the plant. It was wonderful that several of the families were able to make it to Kiev for the opening and to watch them take a look at themselves on the panels in the park. Very pleased, I think.

People Matter Part 2
Any exhibit project is never done by a single person. With financial support from the US Embassy and the Chernobyl Shelter project--and of course the Fulbright Program that made it possible for both Mike and I to be here--Michael worked with a loosely formed collective that ranged from Oleh, a graphic designer in Kharkhiv; to Vasily, whose attention to detail --and those many small nuances--made the production of banners and stands a success; to volunteers Irina, who undertook complicated and sometimes endless seeming negotiations for the site and a million other issues and Natasha, who coordinated the publicity and put together a great group of other young volunteers to help out; Anna, who worked on complex translations, and many others, including staff from the US Embassy, who provided critical assistance. And of course, a fruitful day of brainstorming by my students at Kyiv-Mohyla helped jump start our thinking in new directions. In any project, I always learn lessons about working with people--this was no exception. (My apologies for first names only--I need to check last name spelling, the bane of my existence here, of all the team.)

People Matter Part 3
This project was a great example of why I love doing exhibit projects. It's not for me, or for the museum--but for the audience. Even before we put all the panels up, passersby were stopping by to read--really read--the text and look at the images. People stopped and talked to us about the exhibit and talked to each other. Watching people engage with the stories of Slavutich residents (Slavutichians?) was wonderful--exactly what I hoped for, when, back on a dark January day, I said, "Michael, wouldn't it be fun to have it outdoors?" It is fun.

People Matter Part 4
It's rare for museums here to do any sort of exhibit evaluation. We really wanted to know what people think about this project, so volunteers are conducting survey interviews over the next two weeks. I'll post more about the results when I get some of the feedback and I'll have some of the information for my Idea Lounge session next week at AAM (Friday, 8:00 AM).

And, People Matter Part 5
It's always important to take time to be proud of finishing an exhibit--it's the time when all those bumps along the way begin to recede. We were very pleased that the US Ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, the mayor of Slavutich, and other dignitaries joined us to celebrate the exhibit's opening.

Top to Bottom:
Viewing the exhibit panel about Slavutich
Michael thanking Irina Leonenko
Crowd views the exhibit
Surveyors at work
Michael and dignitaries

Friday, April 24, 2009

We Have an Exhibit!

An unexpected part of my work here turned out to be working with fellow Fulbrighter Michael Forster Rothbart to develop an exhibit based on his work documenting Chernobyl. Many ups, downs, city officials, complications, designs, re-designs, meetings, script re-writes, and dedicated work by a whole group of people later, we have an exhibit that will be opened today by the United States Ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor.

The exhibit is an outdoor one, in beautiful Schevencko Park, in the center of Kiev. More photos and thoughts later, but for now, just a few quick shots of the installation process.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Red Kerchiefs, Soviet Ambitions, and Cheburaska

I wanted to share some of the ideas from my students. Their final project was to develop a concept for an exhibition about any aspect of Soviet life. They had to come up with a concept, find images or artifacts, express some design ideas, suggest two interactives, consider audience and think about how to evaluate. It was a big challenge that most met admirably. Their ideas and concepts were more creative than the exhibitions at many museums here, and integrated art, history, pop culture and more.

Just a few selections, with a few illustrations. (and thanks to my students for allowing me to share their ideas).

Red Kerchiefs
A small exhibition examining the way in which women were depicted in Soviet posters of the 1920s and '30s, distinguished by the red head scarf. And by the way, the poster above talks about revolutionary women being freed from "kitchen slavery."

Designed to be installed in a long narrow hallway, with interactives including museum staff leaping out of doorways and attempting to jump the line. Real queues, virtual queues, and the reasons for queueing, from vodka to apartments.

The Myth of the All-Around Man: Amateur Soviet Art
This exhibit focused on the many kinds of amateur art encouraged by the Soviet system--from ship-building clubs (above) to crochet, dramatics, and origami. Anna did a great job in sharing her ideas for the exhibit--she brought hand-made objects from home and had us all make a paper boat and sing.

Soviet Ambitions
This took a broad based look at Soviet ambitions: from conquering the world, to conquering space, sports and nature--with an examination of what those ambitions meant for citizens.

The Pioneers
Who's this? If you grew up in the Soviet Union you know--it's Cheburaska, a beloved cartoon character. Ira developed an exhibit that looked at Soviet Youth Groups--the Pioneers and Komosomol, but she took a unique approach, using a cartoon where Cheburaska joins a group to serve as the frame for today's young visitors to explore the group's activities, place in society, and place in current nostalgia.

I'll post more of their concepts in the next couple days.

Almost to My Last Drop of Tea

I'm almost to the end of my time here in Ukraine, and this week am making the rounds saying goodbye to various museum colleagues. Here, as everywhere, change is hard--as one friend at a large museum here said, "sometimes I feel it's like moving a very big rock!" Today, I had the gratifying chance to see two small rocks moved by creative museum workers.

At the Museum of the Book, where I had helped plan a paper and bookmaking workshop for children it was wonderful to hear that the staff now offers the workshop every Saturday--and that they've really made it their own, developing a linoleum block print (instead of from my left over foam meat trays), and putting a 19th century press into service. And how does it pay off? The word of mouth has been great, and tomorrow a big Kiev TV station is coming to cover it. I've really tried to convey the message that marketing isn't everything, that providing a product or service (in a museum sense) that the community wants will attract both press coverage and an audience. Great evidence that it does.

And then to the Bulgakov Museum. Irina and I have been working with a staff member on the development of a blog for the house. The museum, relatively small for here in Ukraine, didn't really have a website, so a free blog presents a great alternative--particularly because Mikhail Bulgakov is known worldwide (take a look--he's got 10,000 friends on Facebook). So, take another look--one of Kyiv's first museum blogs is here: Bulgakov Museum in Kyiv (sorry, not yet in English--it's coming!)

And of course, it's a cliche, but moving all those small rocks eventually does move mountains.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"The Great Day" (at Night)

When I wished someone Happy Easter on Friday, and asked what it was in Russian or Ukrainian, they looked a bit puzzled, but decided that the correct response was something like, "The Great Day!" In the US, Easter has not only a religious connotation, but for many, it's primarily a time of Easter bunnies and jelly beans. Here, it's, in general, a more serious holiday--spiritual but also tied to the spring and rebirth.

Last night, we went to Pechersk Lavra at about 1:30 AM to see a part of the Easter service. The Lavra was founded as a caves monastery in 1015 and is a World Heritage Site. I've been inside the Lavra territory often, as a number of museums are located there, but attending the Easter mass was entirely a different experience.

As we walked over in the dark, we passed people carrying willow Easter baskets, filled with food and covered with an special embroidered cloth. There was both a sense of excitement and a sense of quiet.

We enter the Lavra and suddenly the cathedral is lit up in front of us and we join thousands of Ukrainians in craning our necks to see the priests dressed in glittering red vestments in front of the cathedral. Songs and chants soar through the night over the newly blossoming cherry trees. It's dark, but the churches and bell tower, along with the stage are brilliantly lit. The crowd is informal, but faithful and attentive. As we observe lots of security, a hum runs through the crowd as Victor Yuschenko, President of Ukraine, emerges to take his place near the stage and the crowd waits with their baskets, which will be blessed at the end of the service.

As it's breezy and cold, we don't stay for the entire service, but head back. As I fall asleep, I hear the peal of church bells ringing out through the city. A lasting memory as my time here begins to draw to a close.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Public, Private and Personal Space

In my life in the US, my personal space is pretty well-defined. I live in a largish house, I get from place to place in my own car, and the lines at the grocery store usually aren't that long. The areas between public space--such as a park--and private space--my yard--are clearly defined as well. Here in Kyiv, both as a result of the big cityness of my life here--and I think as a result of Soviet times--and then a new, mostly undefined system of use, space and property, those demarcations are much less clear.

What do I mean?

Ukrainians have mastered the art of having very little personal space in certain situations, but almost total avoidance of eye contact. As five more people squeeze into the subway car when I thought it was full already or when you share a tiny train compartment with three total strangers, you're together with all those people, but not really. But at the same time, a shared interest holds. On the mashrutkas, the small private buses that run everywhere, the standard system is to just pass your fare forward. It's a funny sight to see bills from the back of the bus make their way forward, with a gentle tap on each shoulder, and then, if change is needed, it makes its way slowly back. Seats are always offered to older people and women with children on the bus or metro and gratefully accepted. Kiev--and all of Ukraine--are exceptionally difficult--if not almost impossible--to navigate with strollers, wheelchairs or canes.

Because Easter is tomorrow, there has been a great deal of sprucing up going on. And that's made me notice the unusual nature of private and public space in park-like areas. At one public park, I saw a number of small, homemade bird feeders hung on trees. My building faces a courtyard with trees, playground and what seemed, all winter long, like a no-man's land. But with warmer weather, it's far from it. One day, it looked like women working for the city (wearing city work vests) were out digging around trees, but I think most of the work in this shared courtyard area is done by those who live here--particularly older women. I now see plants in newly white-washed planters, a simply constructed arbor, and a carefully fenced off and planted garden. There are all sorts of new little trees planted in the courtyard.

It's a bit funny, because the common area in my apartment building, like almost every apartment building I've been in, is dingy and unattractive. So what makes my neighbors care about the outside public spaces but not the interior ones? And how does this connect to the crowded subway? My students' final project assignment was to develop an exhibition about some aspect of Soviet life. Their presentations have been fascinating and provide some clues...more in future posts!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Old Traditions Reborn

My time here in Ukraine has been bookended by two holidays: I arrived just before Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas on January 6 and I'll depart soon after Ukrainian Orthodox Easter, coming up this weekend. Religion has a very different place here than it does in the US. Because the Soviets repressed religion for decades, it now appears that the country is going through an immense religious revival.

I see new Orthodox churches being built everywhere, in small towns and in big cities. Old churches that had been converted to other uses are now being restored back to their original function--as I saw again this week when I visited a church on the campus of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy where I teach. As I enter Pechersk-Lavra, a monastery site here in Kyiv that also includes several museums, I enter with a growing, this Easter season, number of faithful. But it's not just the Orthodox faith that's thriving: there are a number of Pentecostal and other Protestant American missionaries here attracting a growing number of converts.

In Kyiv and Odessa, I've walked by synagogues reaching the once-decimated, but centuries-old Jewish communities here. In Lviv, the former Museum of Atheism is now the Museum of Religions, with artifacts from many different religious traditions. But, in most situations, the focus is strictly on the Ukrainian Orthodox faith, with limited acknowledgement of other faiths. At the Donetsk Regional History Museum, it was nice to see a exhibit room about religion include not only Ukrainian Orthodox icons, but also Greek Orthodox icons and Torah scrolls. Usually, in museums, a single faith is presented.

I had an interesting discussion with a Ukrainian colleague the other day about the persistence of religious traditions. First, that many Ukrainian traditions, now Christian, actually stem back, in some form, to pre-Christian and pagan times; and second, that despite 80 years of enforced atheism, the Soviets were unsuccessful in fully stamping out religion, and with the fall of the Soviet Union, religious faith has burst into flower.

I'm only a bystander in making these simple observations of the complex stew that is religion here in Ukraine--but it's fascinating to see the ways in which these centuries-old traditions make their way into modern urban life--from the icon-decorated mashrutkas (buses) to the willow branches on Palm Sunday.

Top to bottom:
Church in Podil district, Kyiv
Synagogue in Odessa
Pechersk Lavra, Kyiv

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Idea Lounge at AAM: Chernobyl

Interested to learn more about Chernobyl? My fellow Fulbrighter Michael Forster Rothbart's exhibition on today's workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant will open here in Kyiv on April 23 and be up for the anniversary of the accident on April 26th.

But you don't have to come to Kyiv to learn more. At the American Association of Museums Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, on Friday, May 1, at 8 AM, I'll be leading an Idea Lounge session discussing environmental issues and exhibitions framed about what I've learned here.

Here's a bit of what we will discuss:
  • How can affected communities actively participate in the development of environmental exhibitions?
  • Should exhibits be developed that explore both humanitarian and scientific issues?
  • How do issues of geography, politics and place influence our interest and engagement with these issues?
  • Can museum exhibits bring about changes in social or environmental behaviors?
Big questions for only an hour, but I look forward to a lively discussion. In addition, if you're attending AAM and just want to learn more about Ukraine in general, or my time as a Fulbright Scholar, I'd be happy to meet with you. Just get in contact with me via email.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

An Armful of Willows

Today, in the Orthodox Church, is Palm Sunday. All during the past week I've noticed people here in the city and in the countryside, tidying up...planting, cleaning yards, and general outdoor yard work. In the villages, it was traditional to whitewash your home, inside and out, for Easter. But today, one of the holiest days in the year, no one is working. But everyone is outdoors. It's not particularly warm today, but everyone is out (including Bart Simpson) and almost everyone is carrying a few branches of willow, which are used in this part of the world instead of palms. So no thoughts on museums today, just some pictures of Palm Sunday in Kyiv.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It Takes A Village

This week I spent two days in Opishne, in the Poltava region, presenting a workshop at the National Museum of Ukrainian Ceramics. Opishne is a village, of about 6,000 people and it's unusual to see a museum of this size and activity in a Ukrainian village. The museum, under the active leadership of Oles Poshyvailo and with an enthusiastic dedicated staff, has spread its activities throughout the village.

The museum's collections storage and offices, along with a small hallway exhibit and a demonstration area are in a former workers' dormitory. Surrounding the building is a large installation of contemporary work by Ukrainian ceramicists--many use traditional motifs and forms, others do not, but all are fascinating. But that's not all of the museum. It also operates two small memorial museums. In Ukraine, a memorial museum (house or flat) is what we in the US would call a historic house. In this case, and somewhat unusually, it is not the house of a famous writer, but the small village houses of two potters. The museum also uses the former Palace of Culture in the village as a place for changing exhibitions and a school, formerly part of the museum, teaches art to young people.

So for a small village, the efforts of the museum, and the accompanying National Institute of Ceramics, are critical. It is an important economic factor in the village, at a time when many Ukrainian villages are only populated by older people struggling to survive, and as well, the work of the museum, connected so directly to the traditions of this community, provides an important source of pride for this place. While I was there, busloads of Ukrainian visitors arrived each day to visit the museum. I can imagine that the continued careful, thoughtful development of the museum and the village, with the museum's wonderful collection, the village's small historic homes, its carefully tended gardens and fields, and an ongoing involvement in traditional ceramics, will create a wonderful experience for many visitors and could become a model for sustainable tourism in Ukraine.

My deep thanks go to Ihor Poshyvailo, deputy director of the Ivan Honchar Museum, for arranging the trip. It's his grandparents' house that's a memorial museum and his passion for family traditions and for the village was a great thing to experience. Ihor's enthusiasm and help has been an important part of my entire experience here in Ukraine, and as my time draws to a close it was wonderful to see and understand a part of his own history. That's Ihor above, with his uncle who demonstrates at the museum. Below, his grandparents (from the National Museum of Ceramics)

And the best part of the really is finally spring and was great to be in the beautiful countryside!

Working with Children in Museums

Earlier this month my fellow Fulbrighter Christi Anne Hofland and I presented a workshop on working with children in museums at the National Art Museum of Ukraine. The plans for the workshop started with a request from staff member Anna Perekhodoko to learn more both about working with individuals with disabilities and with teenagers and then expanded to a broader focus on developing age-appropriate activities. I had asked Christi Anne to join me because her work her in Ukraine is focused on teaching art at a rehabilitation center in Ukraine, and she has taught art to diverse audiences back home in the US.

We began with a basic overview of child development, with images of appropriate activities from American museums (thanks to all those of you, and all those parents, who post images on Flickr. Great for my research). We also shared a video about Visual Thinking Strategies from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston--turns out that the staff at the art museum use VTS in their work as well.

Christi Anne then led the class through a drawing exercise, based on a very contemporary art installation (see the top image in this post). In general, much Ukrainian instruction is based on doing things the right way--even art--so Christi Anne's technique of beginning with a group drawing exercise and then asking them to complete the drawing in any way possible, was a great exercise that both made the museum staff participants feel comfortable but encouraged individual exploration.

We then divided the participants in small groups and asked them to find a work in the museum and to develop a way of looking at the artwork, developing a hands-on activity related to it, and considering what post-visit activities teachers could pursue in the classroom--but we requested that the materials for each painting be geared to a specific age group. Great, interesting ideas came from all the groups and we particularly appreciated the feedback from staff from an organization (or department) that deals with disabled individuals here in Kyiv, who offered to work with the museum staff in developing appropriate programs.

Some of the ideas: for very young students, looking at the painting with cows, learning to make cow sounds, and seeking out other paintings in the room with animals in them; for middle age students: considering the life of the older woman; exploring a reproduction trunk with her possessions, and writing an essay imagining her life; and for the violinist, for high school students, a discussion of the materials and process of production of the piece, beginning with observation that the bow of the violin is absent from the piece. In every small group project, the participants moved beyond the often typical old Soviet approach of directly providing the information to students--and encouraged them to consider the lives of those depicted in the paintings, forging a deeper connection to the works of art.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What Makes a Good Museum Leader?

In the US, I often think about museum leadership--I've been a director and have worked with many directors. Are leaders of any organization, including museums, made or born? During my time here in Ukraine I've met a number of museum directors, and just like in the US, they run the gamut from energetic and forward-thinking to protectionist and, unlike the US, perhaps corrupt. And as always, I often reply on Anne Ackerson's blog, Leading by Design, to generate new ideas and perspectives. It's a challenge to think about leadership here--the cultural norms are very different. The other day, when I pressed a museum director about his comments, I saw many eyes widen with surprise. It's just not done. I've done my very best to be a good listener here, but in this case I felt it important to ask more questions.

Even though the Soviet Union came to an end two decades ago, the bureaucratic system remains in full force. Most museum leaders came of age before the end of the Soviet system and many still reflect those perspectives. One of the surprises to me, perhaps incredibly naively, is how unegalitarian museum workplaces often seem to be. Some museum staff do all but genuflect to their director, saying of course, whatever he wants is what they will do. I know that occurs in the US as well, but in these situations I find that talented staff are undervalued, and that directorial decisions are made, not on the basis of what is best for the organization, but what is best for the director. I also see that little supervision actually happens. Many people are left alone to do their job, but never really are encouraged to understand how their work moves the organization forward and connects to audiences.

Virtually all museums here are state-run institutions, and so, once you have a museum job, although it may pay incredibly badly, you probably have it for life. I've been surprised at the number of directors who have direct family connections to museum founders, collectors, or former directors--these jobs seem to be often hereditary.

But...and it's a big important but...I see other museums where directors are learning new skills and inspiring their staff. At one workshop, a staff member says, "we do not know how to write grants--what will we do?" and with a gentle, but firm smile, her director says, "We will learn." At another, the director, as one of her first acts, renovates staff offices to improve morale--and does her own office last. At still another, the director's passion for her subject inspires others on staff to work together to do new projects that directly connect to audiences. As I write this though, I notice that many of these inspired directors I have met are women. Not all, but many.

In a way, this connects to other parts of life I see in Ukraine. According to some measures, the life expectancy of a Ukrainian man is only 55; while for women it is (still only) 64. In one conversation, a colleague thought it was because the end of the Soviet Union was very hard on men--their roles had changed and they no longer knew what to do.

But here, women just figured out how to cope. And it's not just museums--another colleague tells me that most grassroots environmental organizations here are run by women. And it even spreads to small entrepreneurs--it's mostly women running the small kiosks that are everywhere in the city selling newspapers, cigarettes or snacks; the babushkas selling vegetables or flowers in the subways are, by definition, women. Several of my young students are married, have children, and are working towards their masters' degrees--and often hold jobs as well. Women work very hard here, and I think they develop the skills and motivation to move forward, to not spend time lamenting a time passed.

Resiliency and an ability to embrace change--maybe that's what makes a good leader.