Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bridging Distances: The View from Belarus

I have a number of blog posts in my thinking queue as a result of my time at the AAM conference and in Minneapolis' great museums,  but I'm very pleased to share this post by Katrin Hieke (kontakt[at] of Bonn, Germany, about her experience in Belarus.  It's partly a tale of social media, as I saw her tweet that she was going, we connected, and through some Ukrainian and Fulbright friends and colleagues, the network expanded.

Now, where at all is Minsk? In February 2012 and rather surprisingly, I received an invitation to travel to Minsk in Belarus. Even for Europeans, this land seems to be very, very far away - in many ways. 

This year, over the course of several months, the Goethe Institute in Minsk is holding a training series for museum staff, historians and didactics in basic fields of museum management. It is meant to serve as a starting point for the discussion of specific issues and tasks of the Belarusian museums as well as to stimulate developments. The programme has been designed by Dr. Kristiane Janeke of Tradicia History Service (who is both an expert in museum management als well as of the Eastern European museum scene) in cooperation with ICOM Belarus & ICOM Germany.
My part there was to conduct a one-day seminar on “Museum marketing as an instrument of a systematic management process”– something I have done quite a few times before and felt safe at.

But as soon as I started preparations I realized, that this would indeed be a very special job. To begin with, information about the museum scene in Belarus is very rare. In the information age, where it feels that all information is readily available on the Internet, this feels strange. Only lately Kristiane Janeke published a (German) article about the museum landscape of Belarus (Kristine Janeke: Die Museumslandschaft in Belarus. Belarus-Analysen 4, 22.11.2011, page 6-12) So I extended my research to other channels and networks and thanks to Twitter, Linda learned of my plans and  put me in touch with Christi Anne, who lived in Ukraine for several years and is now in Minsk studying Russian, and Alla Stashkevich, the ICOM chairperson in Belarus, who also attended the seminars. Thanks to all these sources, I felt my way up to the questions of the current situations of the museums in Belarus, virulent issues as well as everyday life in Minsk.
For my seminar, of course, the question of the perception of marketing as part of the museum management was particularly interesting; how marketing could at all work in a very regulated and controlled country without a significant "market" as such; where marketing might be under the general suspicion of selling out and the commercialization of culture, reduced to advertising, not affiliated with the museum's goals and mission of the museum (which actually still is the case in some places in western Europe and beyond).
The second challenge in addition to the unusual setting was a very practical one: how to run a seminar in which I do not speak the language of the participants? Natalja Ilkewitsch from the Goethe Institute did not only a lot of the necessary organization and preparation, she also translated my slides in advance as well as my talk and the contributions of the participants. You did a brilliant job, Natalja! 

It became somewhat difficult as soon as discussions started among the participants themselves. Knowing that a lively network among the museum professionals is only just emerging and absolutely vital for the development of the museum scene, I found it difficult to weigh this and the need to move forward in the seminar; and also, since unable to follow all remarks and comments, to distinguish the important objections, understanding issues and problems from the cursory whispering. The participants showed a lot of patience, because they too had to wait for the translation of their many brilliant, sometimes quite critical questions. Definitely I was inspired by the overwhelming enthusiasm and curiosity of those 25 museum directors, officers, scholars, educators and curators from university up to cultural institutions from all over Belarus and of all ages. 
So in the end, they made me reflect a great deal on the German and Western European museum marketing approach.  My Belarusian colleagues where thinking about what to learn from that, but absolutely not in ways of unquestioned adoptions. 
In some seminars or customer meetings in Western Europe marketing ideas are lightly dismissed as unrealistic. But here, although the initial situation is much more difficult and the possibility of achieving it so much smaller, there is a tremendous motivation and ongoing considerations as to what might be implemented and how this could somehow be achieved. This is particularly surprising  when I learned that sometimes the producing of an ordinary museum flyer must be approved by the authorities; that there is almost no campaign budget and generally a vast dependency on governmental funding and thus externally fixed targets and tasks. There is no real link to the international museum world or access to comprehensive literature and training opportunities, let alone the option of visiting or even cooperating with other countries and their museums. And in addition, there are of course all the many problems and challenges that museums face all over the world: deficiencies in the infrastructure, lack of programs or offers for the target groups or too few staff, to name just a few.
The objectives too, in addition to resolving the major problems mentioned above, can easily be compared with those of other museums worldwide. Often mentioned in the course of the seminar was the wish to reach more children (besides school trips), young people and families; to connect the museums to the tourism sector (though this is a totally different challenge in itself), open up to multimedia and social media, develop a brand and so forth.

I very much hope that the training series will, despite the political situation, strengthen the skills and the creativity of the museum professionals and help to carry the apparent will of networking and shaping their museums of the future into the daily museum work to finally develop modern, socially relevant museums within an independent museum scene in Belarus. 

For me, Belarus is now a lot closer. And I truly wish all the many energetic, motivated people I've met there, that the country will eventually be able to join the worldwide network of museum people, putting Belarus back on the international museum map. 

Images, from top:
Lenin statue in Minsk, photo by Katrin Hieke
Street scene, Minsk, photo by Katrin Hieke
Seminar participants, photo by Yana Rovdo
At the seminar:  left to right, Kristiane Janeke, Katrin and Natalja, photo by Yana Rovdo
Touring the National History Museum in Minsk with Eugene Chervony from the Natural History Museum in Lviv (Ukraine) and Christi Anne Hofland whom I had the great pleasure to meet and spent a day in Minsk. Both are not unknown to readers of this blog!  Photo by Katrin Hieke
The National Art Museum in Minsk, photo by Katrin Hieke


Katrin Hieke said...

Thank you, Linda, for giving me the chance to publish some thoughts and impressions at the uncatalogued museum! Very honoured!

Sarah Sutton said...

I enjoyed this post Katrin. Your experiences and stories are very much like mine in similar projects with museums in Kyrgyzstan. We are all very, very lucky to be able to play and work in a field that allows us such fantastic informal ambassadorial roles. I hope you can continue these relationships.

Katrin Hieke said...

Thank you very much for your comment, Sarah! And I agree: we are not only working in such a great field, we also have those unique chances.
I would love to hear a bit more about your projects in Eastern Europe!

Linda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda said...

Somehow commenting from Belarus has proved challenging, so I'm pleased to share this comment from Kristiane Janeke of Minsk, Belarus.

"Also I would like to thank Katrin for her text. I am glad that you enjoyed the excursion to Minsk not only personally, but also professionally. And I am glad that this Blog makes it possible to spread your impressions to a wide museum audience. Unfortunately, the political reports about Belarus
often covers other initiatives in various areas of the society. Especially in the museum field there are many creative ideas and potential for professional development which animate my work here always anew."

Many thanks, Linda, for your support and kind regards from Minsk,


And thank you, Kristiane, for sharing your thoughts--I hope we have a chance to meet in person someday!