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  • Ana Villegas

Live Update: The Crisis & Response of Cultural Institutions in Ukraine

By: Ana Villegas


On February 24th, 2022 at 6 a.m. Moscow Time or 03:00 GMT, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of "special military operations" in Ukraine. As of Wednesday, March 2nd 2022, Russian forces are attacking Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv and have taken Kherson. Ukraine’s military forces and civilians have so far successfully stalled Russian forces’ advancement into their country. Over 800 000 people have fled from Ukraine into neighbouring countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova. The International Court of Justice is scheduled to hold public hearings on March 7th over claims of Ukrainian genocide by the Russian military (Number 15). The International Criminal Court in The Hague is going to immediately start an active investigation into potential war crimes. In addition to the loss of life and the forced displacement of innocent civilians, the devastating destruction of Ukrainian tangible heritage is of real concern.

Map of the Russian military's advance as of March 1st, 2022. Courtesy of the Institute for the Study of War with AEI's Critical Threats Project & CNN.

Ukrainian museum and art professionals are struggling to protect their collections and institutions from the onslaught of the Russian invasion. Ukrainian artists and curators have had to cancel or delay their projects. Olga Kravchenko, co-founder of Musemio (a company that uses VR tech to encourage children to engage with museums), is running her business remotely and has had to stop operations to ensure her team’s safety. Volo Bevza was forced to cancel the opening of his solo exhibition Soft Image because of the invasion. The Odesa Fine Arts Museum’s curators Lizaveta German, Maria Lanko, and Borys Filonenko are no longer working on their exhibition for the Venice Biennale; their team has fled to Lviv in western Ukraine. The Mystetskyi Arsenal National Art and Culture Museum Complex, one of the largest art museums in Europe, was preparing for the Arsenal Book Festival. Its director, Olesia Ostrovska laments that "...our team must focus our efforts to ensure the safety of our staff and our families, as well as guard our collection and our museum objects: paintings, graphics, and fine art." She has come up with suggestions on how people can help and show support for Ukraine.

As is often the case during war, Ukrainian material culture is very vulnerable. According to the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (Articles 6-9), it is illegal to move collections internationally without explicit permission. Due of this, Ukrainian institutions have needed to find creative ways to protect their collections. For instance, the staff of the Odesa Fine Arts Museum moved their collections to the institution’s basement and surrounded the space with barbed wire. Other institutions are looking for facilities to store the collections further west, away from the fighting. The director of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, Fedir Androshchuk, is coordinating preventative measures against looting and destruction. Some Ukrainian museums have no options or resources for transportation and are instead focusing on strengthening their institutions’ defences.

Additionally, there is valid concern that Russian forces will deliberately target Ukrainian heritage and cultural sites. Brian Daniels, the Director of Research and Programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center in Philadelphia, states that "Ukrainian folklore in museums and institutions is the site of anti-Soviet opposition. And you know, I'm very fearful for those institutions, especially because there is a certain kind of ideological conflict going on here as well, in which museums are going to be implicated."

Unfortunately, this situation is not new. During the Maidan Revolution (November 2013 – February 2014), the National Art Museum of Ukraine was almost torched by a Molotov cocktail and the Donetsk Regional Art Museum of Local History lost 30% of their collection. Professionals are worried that the Maidan Museum (a museum which extols Ukrainian independence) might be a potential target. The UNESCO Convention of 1954 (Article 4) clearly prohibits the intentional destruction of cultural property. ICOM (International Council of Museums) has issued a statement on their website:

ICOM “expects both countries, as States Parties of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of armed conflict and its First Protocol, to abide by their international legal obligations to protect heritage... ICOM calls for a swift ceasefire, immediate mediation between belligerents, and coordinated efforts to ensure the safety of museum personal [personnel] and protect cultural heritage.

The damage caused to the Donetsk Regional History Museum by bombardment by pro-Russian separatists, c. 2014. Courtesy of Next City.

Despite the brave efforts of civilians and employees, some collections, memorials, and institutions have already been damaged by the invasion. On Monday, February 28th, the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum was decimated. Inside, along with other priceless works of art and artifacts, was a collection of art by the Ukrainian folk artist, Maria Prymachenko. Director Vlada Litovchenko reported, “Since 2014, the Russian Federation has been systematically violating international humanitarian law and international conventions for the protection of cultural heritage, especially on the Crimea Peninsula.” And today (March 2nd), although it is unclear if the site was the deliberate target, the Holocaust memorial site of the Babyn Yar massacre, has been bombed. It was reported that five people were killed and five more wounded. Ukraine’s Minister of Culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko is demanding for UNESCO to rescind Russia’s membership to the organization.

Our Army, Our Protectors by Maria Prymachenko (1978). Courtesy of Artnet.

The bombing of Babyn Yar. The intended target could have been the Kyiv TV Tower pictured above. Courtesy of Artnet.

Despite the atrocities, destruction, and bloodshed, there have also been demonstrations of solidarity within the museum community. The Lviv Municipal Art Center has become a safe zone for refugees by offering food and drink, and setting them up with representatives who can coordinate temporary housing for them. The National Museum in Warsaw is currently coordinating with the Lviv Museum to house their employees’ families while they stay behind. They have also sent a van across the border with non-perishable goods.

Clothes and food donations in an art gallery in Lviv. Courtesy of The Washington Post.


Live Updates on the Russo-Ukrainian War:


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