Saturday, February 18, 2023

The Power of a Single Voice and the Power of Our Collective Voices

This week, it's been one full year since Russia launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine, a country I love deeply.  I've been in awe of the courage of the Ukrainian people--both the people I know, wherever they are, and the people I read about in the news.  It's clear that in addition to fighting on the battlefield, there are also battles being fought about culture and cultural heritage.  In this grab-bag post, I just wanted to highlight some work I admire (there is so much more too!).

First, the power of a single voice.  Nadia Parfan was a student of mine the very first year I went to Ukraine (2009).  She also was good enough to serve as my translator sometimes when I returned to Ukraine.  For some reason, I have such a clear memory of her attempting to explain post-Soviet museum culture to me as we walked up a set of steps. Not an easy explanation, for sure!

Her new short film, "I Did Not Want to Make a War Film,"  has just been featured on the New Yorker's website so it's gotten loads of attention already in the United States: you may have already come across it.  If you haven't seen it yet, please take a watch.  This is such a personal story, using the tools of filmmaking, friends, and family to help all of us understand, at least a small bit, about the ways in which the war is affecting everyone in Ukraine, not just on the battlefield.  From her grandmother's prayers to the joy of returning to Kyiv, the city she loves, to that tamarind plant, it's just one story of the millions about this year of war.

Dozens of Ukrainian scholars have opened new conversations about Russia as a colonial power and about the ways in which that colonial power has meant that Ukrainian artists and artworks have been ignored, misnamed, or minimized in European and American museums.  Last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I found at least two re-written labels on artworks, due, I feel sure, to the pressure of those scholars and journalists.  

Artwork and labels from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My own not-very-good photos.

I wish the Met had actually owned up to what the previous labels had said, as a way to open up a broader discussion, but at least the change was made.  To learn more about Ukrainian art history and decolonization efforts, follow Oksana Semenik on Twitter at @ukr_arthistory, and for fascinating and important threads on Russia as a colonial power, follow Maxim Eristavi on Twitter @maximeristavi.  Many, many more folks are doing this work as well.

Individual actions are joined by collective actions. ICOM-Ukraine, the national committee of the International Council of Museums, has actively worked to have ICOM take a strong stand.  This past week ICOM-Germany did just that.  ICOM-Germany is the largest national committee so this stand takes a significant message to the larger museum community.  In a statement (read in full here) the committee said, 

With immediate effect, ICOM Germany is boycotting the Russian National Committee as the national association under the Russian flag. In principle, the German National Committee will neither cooperate with ICOM Russia nor participate in events at which representatives of ICOM Russia or Russian museum colleagues are present. ICOM Germany is also demanding that the Russian National Committee be suspended at international level. To this end, talks with other ICOM committees and ICOM International are being intensified. The aim is to completely stop working with ICOM Russia and to exclude the Russian National Committee from the world association until further notice.

The board of ICOM Germany shows solidarity with all democratic, progressive and liberal institutions and people in Russia. It is aware that the exclusion will also affect employees in Russian museums who work for peace and justice. However, the cultural sector must not permanently claim a special role or postulate a general impression of innocence. The systematic looting of Ukrainian museums, which according to current knowledge is supported by Russian museum actors and is an example of ethical transgression, should no longer go uncommented. The reports and pictures from Ukrainian museums speak a clear language. 

Fire extinguishers being delivered by HERI

 So what can you, with your single voice do?  

  • Listen, watch, read, and think critically.  
  • Amplify good work being done.  If you're a member of ICOM, can you encourage your national committee to join Germany?  Can you take a look at your own collections?
  • Contribute financially if you are able.  It seems as if local organizations/individuals on the ground are able to quickly deliver aid of all sorts than the big international ones (in my mind, World Central Kitchen is a notable exception and one I support for their work everywhere).  In the museum world, there's the Museum Crisis Center, founded and run by Ukrainian museum workers which is supporting both institutions and individuals.  The Heritage Emergency Response Initiative (HERI), also founded and run by Ukrainians, has focused on a wide range of support, much of it practical (generators and fire extinguishers, for instance).  HERI is now broadening its work to consideration of what post-war recovery efforts will look like for the cultural heritage sections.  All sorts of private citizens are raising funds to support both military and civilian needs.  For instance, The poet/musician Sergey Zhadan raises funds for drones, trucks, and other equipment for the army--so far, more than 100 vehicles.
Zhadan, upon receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade last fall gave a speech on language and war (full text in English here).  And he ends with the future:
Like it or not, we will have to renew our sense of time, perspective, and continuity. We are fated to have a future. Moreover, we bear responsibility for it. Now, it is shaped by our visions, our convictions, our willingness to take responsibility. We will work at returning our sense of the future, since there’s just so much in our memories that demands our involvement tomorrow. We are all linked by this current that carries us, that won’t let us go, that unites us. We are all linked by our language. Even if, at a certain moment, its capabilities seem limited or insufficient. Nevertheless, we will be forced to return to it and its capabilities which give us hope that, in the future, there will not be any misunderstandings or anything left unsaid.

Dear Ukrainian colleagues and friends, the new visions, convictions, and willingness to take responsbility that Zhadan mentions, will surely bring a new peaceful future. 

Maria Primachenko, A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

My Top Museum/Heritage Experiences of 2022

2022 meant back to travel, which meant that I got to meet incredible people and see incredible places in person.  Here, in no particular order are some experiences that surprised, inspired and moved me.  But the most important is the final one, so please read on!

Difficult stories in Czechia

Last spring, I spent an incredible week out and about in the Czech Republic, in three very different locations, presenting workshops on telling difficult stories.  Stepan Cernousek and Petra Černoušková of, joined by interpretation specialists Kristýna Pinkrová and Ladislav Ptáček identified three places with challenging histories.  The five of us loaded into a van and set off.  The plan for the week was to arrive at a place, give me a chance to learn about it, by meeting with local historians and others, and then do a workshop the following day.  From socialist industrial history to the oft-ignored history and persecution of the Roma people, to the Sudentenland, I learned so much and understood more about how past shapes the present. The workshops were wonderful, but what I remember more are the conversations--over breakfast, over dinner, and in the van, up and down roads across the country with four amazing folks, willing to answer all my questions, and help me ponder my own work and how we can make a difference.  Here's some reflections from the team.

Mammoth Dialogues in Texas

When the Waco Mammoth National Monument in Texas requested dialogue training from our team at Sites of Conscience, I really wondered how in the world I could train in dialogue around mammoths!  I didn't know anything about mammoths, and to be honest, not much about Texas.  But, off I went.  The great team at the site, including some really thoughtful interns, had backgrounds very different than mine--archaeologists and paleontologists mostly.  But, at the end of several days, the group, working together, had found so many interesting and important dialogues to consider using with their visitors.  Climate change--fossils help us understand that.  Evolution--absolutely.  How do we value and understand science and expertise?  Absolutely again.  I appreciated the willingness of this team to embrace new ways of working as they helped me learn too.

In Conversation with Clint Smith 

I first learned about Clint Smith when my husband said, "I just listened to this guy on Fresh Air that I think you'd really be interested in. I then devoured his book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, recommending it to everyone I knew. As you can imagine, I was thrilled and honored when Amy Hufnagel from the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center asked me to be in conversation with Clint as a part of their Stowe Prize ceremony. which recognizes a distinguished book of general adult fiction or non-fiction that illuminates a critical social justice issue in contemporary society in the United States. In the book, he shares his visits to historic sites and the related conversations with visitors and staff, and his own reflections on those experiences, from Confederate graveyards to Monticello.

“Across the United States, and abroad, there are places whose histories are inextricably tied to the story of human bondage. Many of these places directly confront and reflect on their relationship to that history; many of these places do not. But in order for our country to collectively move forward, it is not enough to have a patchwork of places that are honest about this history while being surrounded by other spaces that undermine it. It must be a collective endeavor to learn and confront the story of slavery and how it has shaped the world we live in today.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, we talked about when he first knew he could be a writer (a third-grade poem), how history interpreters can be leaders in the needed conversations in this country, and how he views his work--and our work--as something that is not done for our generation, but for the generations to come. You can watch the full conversation here.

The Tenement Museum in New York City

In October, I joined my Sites of Conscience colleagues on a visit to the Tenement Museum.  97 Orchard Street, the tenement itself, is temporarily closed, but we saw an exhibition/installation about garment workers that I had not seen.  But my big takeaway here was not interpretation (though it was great), it was about what visionaries can accomplish.  Ruth Abram, the founder of the Tenement Museum was also the founder of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.  In a 2014 interview, she spoke about a key question for her work:

"Most of my life there's been a single question hanging over each thing I've done, whether in the women's movement or the civil rights movement, and it's how are we going to be one nation and at the same time appreciate, enjoy, and not be afraid of the sometimes profound differences we bring to the table based on our backgrounds?"

This was not, of course, what historic houses were doing in 1992. But over the last decades, the worldwide museum field (including the new definition) has moved closer to Abram's vision of museums and historic sites as places where we can "appreciate, enjoy and not be afraid."

Hadrian's Wall, United Kingdom

On a glorious November day, historian Joanne Sayner and her family took me off on a walk to the highest point of Hadrian's wall in the north of England. What made this memorable? It was a reminder of how large the Roman Empire was (just a month earlier I had been looking at Roman walls in the subway station in Sofia, Bulgaria). But it also was a chance to consider history outdoors, to see not only the wall, but also the varied landscape, altered over centuries. It was a reminder that joy and history can find places to work together. (a shout-out also to the very nice interpretive center, with its dialogic questions in an exhibit!)

Ukrainian Museum Colleagues

Here's the most important museum/heritage experience of 2022. As most readers know, I have a long deep experience in Ukraine, beginning as a Fulbright Scholar fourteen years ago this month. Until the pandemic, I had been able to return almost every year for one project or another, and have had the opportunity to travel all over the country, doing workshops, meeting colleagues, and learning a great deal. I have not been able to visit this year, of course, but I am in awe of the work that Ukrainian museum workers have done, showing courage and resilience under circumstances that few of us can even imagine. They have packed collections away, they have repaired damaged buildings, they have continued to do programming, in courtyards or subway stations underground, they have supported their colleagues in more dire need, they have shared their work to the world, working to decolonize narratives, they have asked for accountability from our international organizations. All this while they are working to keep themselves and their families safe. They are true heroes.  At the ICOM meeting in Prague, I had the chance to catch up with some Ukrainians in person (above, here we are at lunch) so this photo stands in for the thousands of colleagues doing challenging, difficult, meaningful work.

I want to encourage those of you who are able to contribute to supporting Ukrainian museums and museum colleagues. These are two locally-organized endeavors doing great work in Ukraine:

What did I Learn this Year?

As I look back and reflect on these experiences (and many more) there are a few important takeaways for me.

First, curiosity. I want to learn about places, about people, about the past, about where to eat the best local food (fabulous barbeque outside Waco!), the best beer (okay, all over Czechia), what different building styles mean and so much more. Accompanying curiosity is a willingness to ask questions and to acknowledge what it is that you don't know. I don't necessarily think of myself as a humble person, but it's true, curiosity is a kind of humbleness.

Second, believe that change is possible. From Ruth Abram's vision to Clint Smith's hope for the future, from tough conversations in rural Czechia to the work of Ukrainian colleagues--they all demonstrate that change is possible, but it requires not just hope, but also work.

Third, it's people that matter to me. It's not only objects or buildings that created the memories, although they are a part of all these experiences. It's the chance to have conversations--in a van heading across Czechia, under a big tent with Clint Smith, and even on Zoom calls with colleagues (though thankfully fewer of those these days!). A particular shout-out to the best work conversation person for me, Braden Paynter. We laugh that we start from two different ends (he's theory, I'm practice) to get to some really interesting conversations about ways to approach our work, almost always meeting in the middle! I've learned about the value of silence from him, and he's learned, I think, about the value of jumping in from me. A lucky, deeply meaningful work pairing.

An informal fourth: try to eat local food wherever you are! Check out the end of the post for some of what I ate this year from Texas barbeque to Italian gelato to Czech dumplings to a giant Scottish breakfast.  If you're interested in general travel plus photos, in addition to museums, follow me on Instagram

And what else?
So many other experiences this year--too many to write about, so my intention for 2023 is to do more writing, more immediately, about what I see and learn. Deep appreciation to all those of you who I met along the way. Stay tuned for 2023.