Ukraine’s museums plan their postwar future

May was another particularly challenging month for Ukraine, as Russia escalated its war of aggression against its neighbor.

Many Ukrainians are nevertheless already planning their postwar future.

Representatives of the country’s museums met at the end of the month for a two-day conference held in Berlin. Called “From Crisis to Future: New Responsibilities for Museums in Ukraine,” the conference was initiated by OBMIN, a Warsaw-based foundation set up in 2022 that serves as a platform for more than 100 museums from all parts of Ukraine.

The event, described as the largest gathering of Ukrainian museum workers since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022, allowed experts from Ukraine, Poland and Germany to discuss their visions for restoring cultural heritage sites in the near and distant future.

An Orthodox Church seen from above, heavily damaged by shelling
This Orthodox Church in the village of Bohorodychne, in Donetsk, was heavily damaged by Russian shelling Image: Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Delegates developed 10 concrete proposals highlighting how museums can contribute to the reconstruction of Ukraine and strengthen its civil society.

The proposals will be presented at the Ukraine Recovery Conference, an international annual meeting held this year in Berlin from June 11 to 12. The high-level political event will address various issues related to the reconstruction of Ukraine, including economic and social aspects, as well as planning reforms at regional, national and EU-related levels. 

Russian occupiers aiming to destroy Ukrainian identity

According to numbers provided by OBMIN, 102 Ukrainian museums and galleries have been damaged since the war began, of which 12 have been completely destroyed.

Some 1,062 cultural heritage sites have also been damaged by the war. Out of this number, 123 are of national and 864 of local significance.

Picture of the damaged interior of a church.
The Transfiguration Cathedral was badly damaged by Russian attacks in the city of Odesa, a UNESCO World Heritage SiteImage: Jae C. Hong/AP/pictrture alliance

Attacking cultural heritage has long been a wartime strategy; here too, Russian occupiers aim to destroy Ukrainian identity by damaging these objects. 

Museum directors are also one of the Russians’ targets, said Milena Chorna, an expert with the European Commission subgroup tasked with safeguarding Ukraine’s cultural heritage and head of the Ukrainian Museum Association.

As museum workers stayed behind to protect their collections in occupied territories, many were kidnapped by Russian forces, deliberately targeted “as leaders of their community and as opinion leaders,” Chorna told DW. The goal was to make them collaborate with the Russians. 

Since they were “mostly unwilling to do so, they were put under psychological and physical pressure,” she said. Two museum directors were killed in Russian attacks. Fortunately, adds the cultural expert, most of the museum workers have since been able to leave the occupied zones.

Picture of a woman with white blond hair and an olive green embroidered blouse smiling for the camera
Art historian Milena Chorna is among the experts committed to preserving Ukraine’s cultural heritage Image: Elizabeth Grenier/DW

Participants offer different views of ‘the future’

Knowing that the end of the war is still unforeseeable, the “future” is a very indefinite framework.

Participants at the museums’ conference visibly all had their own distinct perspective and timeline in mind when discussing the future of Ukraine’s cultural institutions. The discussion panels brought together a wide variety of museum experts, as well as people involved in the safeguarding of Ukrainian heritage.

Among them was Oleksandr Kostin, acting director of the Department of Culture and Tourism of the Kharkiv Region Military Administration, who spelled out concrete needs for the restoration of damaged museums. The measures he mentioned — such as planning bunkers and barrier-free entrances for the numerous people who have been disabled by the war, as well as finding ways to attract the people who left the war-torn area to return — are reminders of the fragile state of the region.

People inspect the ruins of a local museum in Kupiansk
This local museum in Kupiansk, a once-occupied town in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region, was ruined during Russian attacksImage: REUTERS

Then, on a completely different level during the same panel, Andrea Jürges from the Frankfurt Architecture Museum offered inspiring input on how museums of the future should develop a vision that goes beyond the traditional definition of these institutions, in order to reinforce their role as a “third place” — the sociological term used to refer to environments that bring people together beyond the first two usual social spaces, home and the workplace. By serving as a meeting and discussion point, museums can help to contribute to strengthening civil society.

Yuliya Vaganova, acting director of the Khanenko Museum in Kyiv, later shared her experience on how her institution — which was also damaged by a Russian missile attack — already served as this “third place,” gathering diverse members of society.

Early in the war, they opened their space to the public to allow people to drink tea and warm up together. The Khanenko Museum later organized a special opera that guided visitors through the museum’s empty exhibition halls — as all the artworks had been dismantled to make sure they wouldn’t be damaged by missile attacks.

Performers on a red-lit staircase.
‘Genesis. Opera of Memory’ led visitors though the Khanenko MuseumImage: Hennadii Minchenko/Avalon/Photoshot/picture alliance

Looking to Berlin as a model of postwar reconstruction

Even the location of the conference itself provided an example of the long-term work required to rebuild cultural institutions destroyed by war, as Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, noted in his introductory speech at the conference.

The gathering was held in one of the newest institutions on Berlin’s Museum Island, the James Simon Gallery. The whole ensemble of museums had to be restored following World War II, and was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1999.

Panelists at a conference.
One of the discussion panels included Hermann Parzinger (with mic) and Anastasia Bondar, Ukraine’s deputy minister for culture and information policy (third from right) Image: Obmin

The OBMIN document developed by the conference participants, “Reconstruction of Ukraine and Strengthening of the Civil Society: 10 Fundamental Principles by Ukrainian Museums,” demonstrates Ukrainians’ optimism for the future, despite all current difficulties.

For example, one of the principles highlights how rebuilding Ukraine can serve as an opportunity to turn the country’s museums into the “most modern, most visitor-oriented in the world.” As the document adds, many museums in the currently occupied territories made giant steps in the digitization of their collections due to the war.

‘We should be prepared’

As Vaganova pointed out during one of the panel discussions, the future of museums also includes ensuring that the country becomes safe again, and that, she said, includes supporting Ukraine with weapons so they can defend themselves against Russia.

A damaged bust amid ruins of a building damaged by shelling.
View of a hall in Mariupol’s Museum of Local Lore that burned down after a shelling Image: AP Photo/picture alliance

Meanwhile, people in Poland are also increasingly feeling the threat of war. One participant, Barbara Golebiowska from the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Museum in Warsaw, told DW that she saw the conference not only as an opportunity to network with Ukrainian colleagues and see how she could help them, but also to learn from them in case war were to erupt in her own country.

“In Poland, we are thinking about the war each day now, and as the director of a cultural institution, for me it’s really an important question,” she said. “It’s horrible, but I think we should be prepared — and ideally avoid the war, of course.”

Edited by: Brenda Haas