Monday, October 24, 2011

Miners and More Miners

As part of the Pickle Project's grand tour of Ukraine this month, Caleb Zigas of La Cocina and I spent a couple days in Donetsk, in far eastern Ukraine.  Donetsk is the center of the Donbass region,  where coal mining and metallurgy are the most important industries.  On my last visit to Donetsk, I wrote about the idea of superfans, based on an outdoor exhibit created by the Shakhtar football team.  This time,  I was impressed by the idea that Donetsk has chosen to highlight the things that make it different than any other tourist place, not the same.  The city is not a place much visited for tourism by either Ukrainians or westerners (in fact, we got more than one raised eyebrow when we said we were going there).  But,  it's one site of the upcoming Euro 2012 football (soccer for US readers) championship.  Donetsk is about mining. Two exhibits, both about miners, both different, both compelling.
 At Izolyatsia, a new cultural center located in a complex of industrial buildings outside of the city center, the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang worked with the organization's staff, miners, and volunteers to create an installation featuring large-scale portraits of miners installed in a huge space, filled with both salt and coal.   The artist actually went down into the coal miners, to experience what the men do in this dirty, hard, business.  Local realist artists were then asked to create portraits of workers as they came up out of the mines, dirty and tired at the end of the shift.  With the help of volunteers, and with audiences watching, Cai Guo-Qiang then converted those sketches into large-scale stencils,  blown into black and white portraits by the controlled explosion of gunpowder.   These large portraits were then mounted in a manner similar to that used to carry portraits of leaders in Soviet times, and installed upon huge heaps of salt and coal.
It was a really cold rainy day when we went--on a day when it was not officially open (thanks izolyatsia and Eko Art for the arrangements.)  It's hard to describe what it's like to scurry inside from the wind and rain, underneath the slag heaps,  to see these gigantic portraits of everyday people.   They are not the abstracted portraits seen in Soviet propaganda, but really people, tired, perhaps worried about their families and their jobs.  They made Donetsk seem really to me--the part that most people never see.  Standing there looking at the portraits brought both tears and respect to my eyes.  And I think it's tremendously important that this organization has chosen to focus on the ways in which contemporary art can illuminate and inform the history of a place.  I can't wait to see what they do next.
Very different is the Shakhtar Museum at the new, enormous stadium built by Donetsk billionare Rinat Akhemetov,  where the soccer team Shakhtar (the miners) plays.  This isn't a place where you go to learn the history of Soviet sport, or to fully understand the global, commercial nature of today's worldwide soccer.  It's a fan's place--but within that context, they also do an interesting job of engaging visitors.  On the one hand, it's a straightforward narrative of team history, but several elements make it fun, and certainly different than your average Ukrainian museum. 
There's a movie of past team highlights projected on fog;  and then you're invited to walk through the fog and see the future of Shakhtar--sort of a neat visual trick.  Players' feet (and goalies' hands) are presented as cast metal molds--a nod to the team's industrial heritage.  A projected football field and ball that you could kick meant that immediately, people who didn't know each other could participate--all of a sudden I looked up, and Caleb was kicking the ball back and forth with a total stranger.   And, by the way, an enormous giftshop with everything from soccer gear to Shakhtar air-fresheners.
At various points in my career I've gone to heritage tourism meetings where it seems like the conversation about how to make  a place special are just like the ways that every other community.  We have old buildings!  There were settlers!  Some of those things that make communities different are challenging to acknowledge because they represent a difficult past.  There's no question that Donetsk's mining life is a hard story to tell, and these projects certainly don't tell a comprehensive story, but both of them help visitors understand a bit about what Donetsk is, and how it came to be. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why Am I Thinking About Food?

All of a sudden, it seems, the museum world is thinking more about food.  I don't just mean thinking about what to serve in your cafe,  but about what food means,  if a museum can should have a farmers' market or a community garden,  how food connects to the "Let's Move"initiative, and much more.  It's been interesting to me as, at the same time, my own interest in food has grown as a result of the Pickle Project, an effort I co-founded with Sarah Crow to explore, understand and share the food traditions of the complicated place that is today's Ukraine.

So although I wish I could be at the Feeding the Spirit Symposium sponsored by AAM and other organizations, this week I'm headed back to Ukraine with Sarah,  Caleb Zigas of La Cocina in San Francisco and Rueben Nilsson of Faribault Dairy in Minnesota for a series of four community conversations, in four different Ukrainian cities, about food.

The juxtapositions between American food and Ukrainian food are sometimes startling.  Most Ukrainian villagers grow their own food;  but their city grandchildren rarely cook.   Ukraine has some of the most fertile soil in the world,  yet much farming is scarcely above a subsistence level.  The country's difficult history, with times of great hunger,  mean that Ukrainian cooks, growers and eaters are resourceful in ways most Americans have forgotten.

This summer I've spoken about the Pickle Project to a couple American audiences,  who are full of questions about food safety,  about sustainability, and about a country that most people only identify with in terms of Chernobyl or painted eggs. We have much to learn and share with each other.

This isn't a museum project, but we hope that a traveling exhibition emerges from our work.  We've been interested in how many colleagues have said, "You just started a project?!"  Perhaps that's what the museum field needs more of--projects that don't necessarily have a final product, but spring from a passionate interest in connecting.  But that's a subject for another post.

For now, however, thanks to support from the Trust for Mutual Understanding and our community partners in Ukraine, these conversations will be the next steps.  If you're in Kyiv, Donetsk, Odessa, or L'viv over the next couple weeks, we'd love to see you at a conversation--check out the Pickle Project blog for the dates and locations, or find us on Facebook--to keep up with the conversations from afar.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Seen Led Zeppelin at Your Museum Lately?

A few weeks ago, in the tiny Westman Islands off the coast of Iceland I turned a corner in the local history museum in the fishing village of Heimaey and saw this poster of Led Zeppelin.  I walked a little further and saw Muhammad Ali, Farah Fawcett and a beer bottle or two.  Definitely things I had never seen in a local history museum before, so I made a special effort to discover what I was looking at.  Literally, it stopped me in my tracks because I had never seen a period room installation like this:
 This local history museum, the Byggdasafn Folk Museum,  has much amazing history to tell.  The story of why it's called the Westman Islands (Irish slaves escaping from their Norse captors);  the invasion of Algerian pirates from the Barbery Coast;  the conversion and immigration of hundreds of Mormons;  and last but not least, the 1973 volcano eruption that covered the island in volcanic ash.  So why Led Zeppelin?
This museum chose to tell a story about all the kinds of people who live and work here--up to the present day.  This re-created space is a dorm room lived in by men who came to work in the fish factories in the 1970s and 1980s.   At first when I thought about this exhibit--which also has a great label explaining how they re-created it--I thought it was important because it was about contemporary life, not just some far-distant past.
But over the last several weeks I've continued to remember this installation and to think about its meaning to my own work.   Yes, this museum did a great job looking at all kinds of contemporary issues.  Is fishing the most dangerous job in the world?  If the video doesn't convince you,  the memorial listing of fishermen running up to the present day might.   But what really made me remember it?

I might keep thinking of it because it's a reminder of how reluctant many museums are to address issues of class and economics.  The guys in the fishworkers dorm were working class, and not all local.  The museum treated them equally.  Their story was integrated into the entire story of the community, not segregated into a separate exhibit about working people.  The museum just didn't tell the story of founding fathers and mothers,  without any mention of hired hands, factory workers, maids or servants.  Many museums have made great strides in this direction,  but few do such a good job at telling an integrated story; telling the story of workers as one part of a whole community story. 

And for an entirely different take on working, if you're in Western Massachusetts, check out MassMOCA's exhibit The Workers, where work by more than 40 contemporary artists encourages thought, debate, and sometimes confusion about work in today's global economy. 

So who knew that spotting Led Zeppelin on a tiny Icelandic island would lead to a meditation on class and museums?