“Our visitors aren’t ready yet”

The role and result of the Lviv Historical Museum in creating a collective memory of the Ukrainian liberation struggle.

The first foundation of the Lviv Historical Museum is dated in 1893. In 1940 the Historical Museum of Lviv and the National Museum, situated next to each other, were united into one institution: Lviv Historical Museum. One of the departments of the Lviv Historical Museum is the Department of Liberation Struggle. In 2006, a small collection of this department was exhibited in the head building of the Lviv Historical Museum at Rynok Square 6. However, the collection became so extensive that in 2012 they moved to another building at Lysenko Street 23. This castle-like building, designed by E. Engel, originally housed the city’s shooting range and it was also the place where the so-called ‘Provista’ society was established: a nineteenth-century proclamation in Ukrainian Galicia for preserving and developing Ukrainian culture and education among people. By the declaration of its founders, the movement was created as a counterbalance to anti-Ukrainian colonial and Russophile trends in the Ukrainian society of that period. Nowadays, the building houses the exhibition “Military and Historical Monuments”, featuring materials on the history of the War of Independence of Ukraine in the twentieth century in chronological order.

Initially, my plan was to research in what way different forms of camp art [red. exhibited by the Department of Liberation Struggle.] contribute to the collective memory of the liberation struggle of Ukraine, and therefore nation-building. The fact that people made art while finding themselves in a miserable situation I found very striking. How could art flourish in an environment of extreme inhumanity like this? Why did the prisoners persist in creating works of art? Because people took great risks in making art. Besides this, what kind of function does art fulfill in a liberation struggle museum? Was it meant to be art when it was being made or did the museum musicalized these objects into art objects to show how creative Ukrainian prisoners were, despite the inhuman conditions? In order to answer the questions, a visit to the museum in Lviv was obviously necessary. While being there on site and conducting a short interview with and attending a guided tour by the curator of the exhibition, my research took a new turn.

Although being a young exhibition (2012), the objects of the Liberation Struggle department are installed in a rather opulent and crowded way. When the visitor enters the exhibition, it feels like entering a treasure trove. The objects hang next to, above and below each other in a chaotic and non-minimalistic way. The way in which the objects are arranged, gives one a feeling of heroic deeds they embody and justify, encouraging the visitor to be proud of the people who were in battle and therefore this country, this ‘united Ukraine’.’ The collection definitely shows its, rather innocent, victim and heroic role in the history of Ukraine. This also applied for the camp art section, which consists of embroidery, paintings, pencil-drawn portraits, woodwork, graphics and greeting cards. The website of the Lviv Historical Museum mentions the followings about the camp portraits: “Gallery of camp portraits by talented artist V. Myarchuck reveals the greatness of spirit and firmness of fighters for freedom and independence of the Ukrainian people to the visitors.”  But which visitors does the museum want to attract?

From left to right: 1. The exhibition ‘Military and Historical Monuments’ in the Department of Liberation Struggle. 2. Camp portraits made by V. Myarchuck. 3. Embroidery made in the camps by prisoners. © by Fidessa van Rietschoten.

During the two visits to the museum, the curator made clear that the main goal of the museum is to preserve and memorize the liberation struggle of Ukraine for the younger generation, but also for visitors from East Ukraine, who more often criticize this vision on history than support it. However, the conservator argued that the museum tries to present the history of the whole of Ukraine, and not only of western Ukraine. In the next room, he claimed that Ukrainian nationalist Stephan Bandera wasn’t a Nazi collaborator, but that he only cooperated with the Germans. In line with this, clothing, photographs and other war attributes from national militant organizations such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army embody the martyrdom of these groups. Opposite stands the Jewish genocide, which is a crucial part of the history of Ukraine in the twentieth century, being completely silenced in the exhibition.

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4. In the middle our translator Andrew who clarified the guided tour of the curator. On the right miss Svetlana who gave us more information about the camp art section and on the left is me.

Logically, critical questions were asked to the conservator why certain parts of history weren’t shown and explained in the exhibition.  After a few denials and vague answers, the conservator slowly thawed and came up with interesting answers. One of the reasons certain parts of Ukrainian history aren’t visible, he explained, is the fact that the visitors aren’t ready yet. “Ukraine is still a divided country. Once Ukraine is really one nation, with more unanimity, the visitors are ready to hear and see also black pages of the Ukrainian history.” In addition to this, the conservator explained that there are also various, mainly political, stakeholders, who maybe won’t agree with the museum showing Ukraine’s dark, but more complete story of its past. This top-down phenomenon is also mentioned in the article by Rob van der Laarse (2016), in which he mentions “the political conflict and military dynamic itself transformed the 1990s policy of bilingualism and multiculturalism into a unifying doctrine of ethnonationalism from above […] “to turn into an important Central European state, rather than a post-Soviet post-colony like Belarus”, for which it should have its own, undivided culture, identity, and history – “a national history, not one dictated by Moscow”.

David R Marples (2010) explains that the attitudes towards OUN and UPA are geographically split in Ukraine. The western regions are in favor of these organizations, while the far east and south of Ukraine disagree with this hero status. In addition to this, the article notes that: While all modern nations embrace historical myths about the past, Ukraine is a case in which there are conflicting interpretations that serve to divide the population along regional and historical lines. In turn, these divisions serve to impede the process of nation-building and the creation of a common and widely acceptable historical memory.” It is obvious that this sentence applies to the Department of Liberation Struggle which is ‘struggling’ with the conflicting interpretations of Ukraine’s past. Taking in account the words of the conservator about how the museum also wants to attract visitors from the east of Ukraine, just because the museum is aware of the fact that Ukraine doesn’t share one narrative, it is clear the museum chooses, knowingly, to show a one-sided narrative instead of a more nuanced and complete version that does justice to history. Besides this, although the conservator stated that the museum also wants to make sure that the exhibition not only depicts Ukrainians as victims but also as fighters, the whole exhibition just serves one goal: creating an anti-Soviet feeling and motivating populist pride for a united Ukraine.

For me personally, there are two things which are striking when I rethink my visit to the Department of Liberation Struggle in Lviv. Firstly, it is the role the Lviv Historical Museum fulfills. And second, the way in which this role is bringing back the use of the propaganda as a political instrument. By making an exhibition with such a one-sided and half story, the museum creates a relationship with its visitors which is based on conscious incompleteness. This raises questions about the role of a museum in society. In this article Richard Sandell (1998) emphasizes that most museums are turning towards becoming a more educative institute instead of purely being a preservation and conservation role since their influence on society and the public opinion is strong. Taking this into account, the way in which the museum presents a martyr like and nationalistic and incomplete story can be seen as a form of Post-Soviet propaganda. As David R Marples concludes by asking “Has one form of propaganda (nationalist) replaced another (socialist)?”.

It is striking that a museum that wants to create a common feeling of ‘oneness’, is using the same political instrument just as their former occupier did. How can a common memory be widely accepted when it is based on incompleteness? As a disguised educational institute, the museum tries to impose a memory for the reach of a political goal. I would like to suggest that the museum not only makes room for the martyr and heroic stories but also for the guilty ones and the recognition of their deeds. Would it not be more useful to show historical dark pages and taking them into account in current debates and decisions? The museum falls short of its visitors by thinking they are not ready yet. On the contrary, by using the collection in such a way is a sign that the museum isn’t ready yet to step up to break this vicious circle of propaganda.

 

Bibliography

Marples, David R. “Anti-Soviet partisans and Ukrainian memory.” East European Politics and Societies. 24.1 (2010): 26-43.

Sandell, Richard. “Museums as agents of social inclusion.” Museum management and curatorship 17.4 (1998): 401-418.

van der Laarse, R. Who Owns the Crimean Past?: Conflicted Heritage and Ukrainian Identities. Callebaut (Ed.), A Critical Biographic Approach of Europe’s Past. Oudenaarde: Archeologisch Museum Ename. (2016): 15-53.

Image credits:

Header: The Department of Liberation struggle from Lysenko Street. © by Ihor Zhuk, 2012. via: https://lia.lvivcenter.org/en/objects/park-stara-strilnytsia/#group-8.

Image 1, 2, 3: © by Fidessa van Rietschoten. October 2018.

Image 4: © by one of my fellow excursion students.

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