Cultural workers and institutions are being specifically targeted by Russian troops, Ukrainian museum professionals have said.
In a webinar this week organised by the National Museum of American Diplomacy, museum leaders in Ukraine described the scale of the challenges they were facing and the best ways for the international community to help.
Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta, the director of the Art Arsenal cultural centre in Kyiv, described how culture is “in the very core of this war”, saying that Russia’s attempt to erase Ukraine as a separate entity was “genocidal in its intent and actually in its action” and that the war was in effect an “extreme assault on culture”.
Ostrovska-Liuta said the Russian Federation therefore had a “very lucid, clear cultural policy” in its invasion, including the targeting of cultural workers, artefacts and institutions; the reattribution of Ukrainian culture as Russian; and the appropriation of cultural objects. She said there were reports of “state-organised looting” of museum collections by the Russian military in the occupied cities of Mariupol and Melitopol.
Ostrovska-Liuta said cultural heritage workers are in “huge danger” because of their work to preserve Ukrainian cultural identity and promote the country as a separate entity to Russia, and said they should be regarded as living under a similar level of threat to journalists and civil activists.
In addition to the threat to cultural workers and objects, Ostrovska-Liuta said cultural institutions were being weakened and losing their ability to function because of the crisis. With 11 million Ukrainians now displaced, many institutions have been rapidly destaffed.
Although Ukraine still has good internet connection and teams are working remotely even while geographically distant, she said the situation was not sustainable in the long term. “Who will protect this heritage if people are not physically there?” she asked.
Institutions are also facing an economic crisis as Ukraine has lost 50% of its GDP. “[Cultural institutions] have never been too wealthy and now they’re really underfunded so cannot pay salaries and bills,” Ostrovska-Liuta said, which could put collections at further risk.
Ostrovska-Liuta said the international heritage community could help address some of these challenges by ensuring any placement programmes offered to displaced Ukrainian museum personnel are created in collaboration with their home institutions, and by developing programming that increases understanding of Ukraine’s culture, perspective and history.
Support for Ukraine
The Museums Association’s Benevolent Fund is running two schemes to support Ukrainian museum professionals.
Ihor Poshyvailo, director of the National Museum of Revolution of Dignity (Maidan Museum), described efforts of the Ukrainian ministry of culture and international agencies to monitor around 26,000 cultural heritage objects.
He said 262 cultural objects and buildings have been recorded as damaged or destroyed in the war so far, including 94 places of worship, 12 museums, 16 libraries and four theatres. This number is approximate as some occupied territories cannot be monitored at present.
“There is a need for high speed response because the war theatre is very dynamic and we have to respond very quicky,” he said. “Today the museum is safe, tomorrow everything is destroyed. There is a constant change of the war frontline – today we can help, tomorrow it is occupied.”
The Ukrainian government has produced guidance for museum professionals, which covers issues such as the legal implications of collaboration if a museum is occupied by Russian troops.
In addition to the international efforts to protect cultural heritage, evacuate collections and document losses, Poshyvailo said it was “very important to think not just about the crisis but the post-conflict period”. He said Ukraine is working with international bodies such as Unesco and the International Council of Museums to prepare an action plan for post-conflict reconstruction.
Although offers of help have flooded in, Poshyvailo said better coordination of the emergency heritage response at international level was now needed. “There are a lot of initiatives and it is a bit of an uncoordinated situation at the moment,” he said.
But he said the support received from the international heritage community was “really very inspiring for us and empowering us for the struggle for our cultural heritage”.