Discussion: Modern museums should be a space for reflection, dialogue and reconciliation


What themes and ideas do Ukrainian museums express through their activities, and which do they leave out? What complex issues are left behind the scenes, and what is the way to work with them? Museum community representatives tried to answer these questions at a discussion dedicated to International Museum Day, held at Ukraine Crisis Media Center.

According to the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, the biggest challenge of World War II was changing ideologies. It presents the events of World War II, Afghanistan and the war in Donbas, so on the background of deideologization and decommunization, opening of forbidden pages of history, it is necessary to change narratives and interpretations of events, said Ivan Kovalchuk, CEO of the “National Museum of Ukraine in World War II”. It is also important how many views museums are ready to display in their exhibitions – show a few or use the paradigm dictated by the Soviet legacy, added Anastasia Haidukevych, Head of Museum, museum issues department of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance.

The National Museum “Memorial to Holodomor victims” tries to reason how to deliver information to young people so that it is not too traumatic, said Lesia Hasydzhak, Deputy Director of the National Museum “Memorial to Holodomor victims”. Another problem is that the issue of Holodomor is often used as a target for manipulation by the Russian propaganda, which tries to downplay or deny the tragedy.

The Museum of Maidan considers the biggest challenge to be that too little time has passed after the events and the memory of them is too painful, besides each person who participated in the events gives a slightly different interpretation. “The most difficult thing about interpretation and presentation of the events on the Maidan is to avoid a classical approach to viewing history via two main aspects: victimization or heroization. This is a problem not only for Ukraine but also for the Western world: museums, dedicated to World War II, have the same problems,” explained Ihor Poshyvailo, Director of the National Museum of the Revolution of Dignity. Now museum workers are seeking a “common ground” among the witnesses of the events so that it does not become a political project and the idea is not narrowed to honoring the casualties. “Our task is to find a multi-narrative approach, a common ground through consultations and dialogues, cultivating mutual trust and understanding that we have one goal. The idea of the ‘Museum of dialogue’ is the most appealing to me. Not everyone agrees with it in the context of creating the Museum of Maidan. They ask, ‘Dialogue with whom – the other side?’ There are three types of such museums, and one of them is the most appealing to me: when a museum is a platform for learning the forgotten or forbidden history and provides a platform for learning a lesson based on this forgotten past and gives opportunities for creating the future,” he noted.

According to Vitalii Nakhmanovych, historian, etnopolitologist, executive secretary of the Public Committee “Babyn Yar”, the biggest challenge for museum staff is to explain why the events of the past, such as the Holocaust and the Holodomor, should be touched upon 70 or more years later, why they are topical for young generations and what things they should learn. “The main thing is to speak about humanity at that time, about how certain people, contrary to the inhuman orders of the state, put up resistance to it and ideologies of the time and remained humane. I think this should be the message that all museums ought to get across to young people,” he noted. Vitalii Nakhmanovych reminded that the Babyn Yar tragedy museum has not been created yet. This subject provokes controversy, because not only Jews, but also representatives of Ukrainian nationalist forces, Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, members of underground organizations, and hostages were killed there, and in practice representatives of each separate group are not ready to create a joint museum. According to him, the state should encourage them to begin the dialogue.

Linda Norris, program director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, USA, informed that in their work in different countries, they focus on using the museum space to “build bridges” between people, maintain the values ​​of fairness, humanity and human rights respect. “Memory is the way we construct meaning of events, some kind of shared knowledge. We think that memory must think to bring people together and to build space for dialogue. It’s a process through which memory is perpetuated […], a kind of symbolic reparations. Monuments are just one aspect of memorial work. Potential of commemoration work is reconciliation, recognition of what happened and inclusive new narratives, truth telling, civic engagement and the idea that perhaps we can help the communities and people who visit our sites to think about ‘Never again,’” she said.

To transform Ukrainian museums and adopt the best international practice we should learn their experience through communication with our foreign colleagues and training, stressed Ihor Poshyvailo. Besides, the Ukrainian museum workers should communicate with each other. “We lack interdisciplinary communication. The workers of art museums do not communicate with the workers of historical museums; those of local history museums – with professional historians. Even those conferences, which are held regularly enough, cannot always compensate for this lack of internal communication. In practice, only when we all together discuss these issues – the missions, objectives of museums, ways to build bridges between museums and society as well as approaches to work, we will find the effective solutions.” We should create a “museum with people” rather than “museum for people,” emphasized Kateryna Chuieva, International Council of Museums, the National Committee of the Blue Shield.