HISTORY OF THE NOW – a museum for Maidan. An Interview with Ihor Poshyvailo

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Im Jahr 2014 kuratierte Ihor Poshyvailo die Ausstellung „Kreativität der Freiheit: Die revolutionäre Kultur des Majdan“ im Ivan-Honchar-Museum in Kiev. Sein neues Projekt: der Aufbau eines „Museums der Freiheit“, das der Erinnerung und Bewahrung von Artefakten der Majdan-Proteste dienen soll. Über das Projekt und dessen Rolle im gegenwärtigen politischen Kontext der Ukraine sprach er mit Laura Weber im Rahmen eines Projektseminars der Berliner Humboldt-Universität. Hier das Interview in englischer Sprache:

HISTORY OF THE NOW – a museum for Maidan.
Laura Weber in conversation with Ihor Poshyvailo

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Ihor Poshyvailo talking to students from Berlin at the exhibition “Creativity of Freedom: The Revolutionary Culture of Maidan” (Ivan Honchar Museum Kiev) © Lisa Vogt

Ihor Poshyvailo is the deputy director of the “Ivan Honchar Museum”, the National centre of Folk Culture in Kiev. In late 2014 the museum served as a stage for the temporary exhibition „Creativity of Freedom: The Revolutionary Culture of Maidan“, curated by Poshyvailo. As part of a seminar conducted by the Institute for Slavic Studies at the Humboldt-University of Berlin, Ihor Poshyvailo talked to a group of students about the importance of this exhibition for the Ukrainian society. He also shared his experiences of the challenges, responsibilities and especially the great possibilities, that come with his new project: the establishing of a museum of freedom memorialising and preserving artifacts of the Maidan protests.

This talk of his left a lasting impression on me and my fellow students. Since our return to Germany I have been wondering how the project was coming along, whether a concept was found for the exhibition, and what role the exhibition might play in the current political developments. Thankfully, Mr. Poshyvailo was so generous as to take the time and answer some of my most urgent questions.

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Ihor Poshyvailo © Lisa Vogt

Laura Weber: In the past decade many protest movements (Occupy Wallstreet, “The Arab Spring”, Occupy Gezi, etc.) evolving from the people against their governments took up not arms but art. As a consequence, one might suggest a connection between a liberal, democratic and rather left-oriented attitude and an artistic expression of protest. However, this reference to the arts was nowhere as impressive, extensive and lasting as it was in the Ukraine, reaching from the visual arts to music, performances and particularly to literature. How do you explain this phenomena in your country?

Ihor Poshyvailo: Art as a form of protest was really quite strongly manifested on the Maidan. Which, in fact, doesn’t come as a surprise given that artists and cultural activists used to be leaders in various communities and are often expected to initiate social change. According to Olha Bryukhovetska of the Ukrainian Visual Culture Research Center, “Revolutionary art always comes first, not last. Revolutionary art is the one to speak about the revolution when it has not found its own words yet.” In Ukraine this was true for many centuries. The Bolsheviks and Soviet regimes were the first to fight artists and intelligentsia in order to prevent mass opposition to the totalitarian policies. So art and culture traditionally play a special role in protests.
In the Euromaidan hundreds of artists – both professionals and amateurs – openly expressed their feelings and communicated their attitudes towards what was going on around them. They actively created visual identities and engaged protesters and the Maidan territory visitors into artistic expressions at physical spaces of protests worldwide, as well as online – in the Internet and on social media. Painters, dancers, musicians, performers, illustrators as well as ordinary people created poems, novels, songs and music, painted helmets and shields, designed funny posters and humorous installations, decorated barricades, cars, tents, trees, streets and buildings, organized flash mobs, performances, concerts and exhibitions. Together they formed the Artistic Squadron and Union of Artists of Maidan. The New Year Tree installation – named ‘Yolka’ – became a landmark revolutionary artistic space and popular open exhibit where everyone could express herself in various forms. Art and culture as alternative forms of participation in the movement enabled people to communicate their identity, values, dreams, fears, hopes, and desires for the future not only locally and nationally, but also internationally, thereby helping people worldwide to better understand their motives and appeals to Europe. It also functioned as a form of psychotherapy, a protective and positive force for many protesters in the surrounding fights and omnipresent violence. Therefore, the arts played a crucial role at the Euromaidan as they empowered the movement with concrete ideas, messages, identity, engagement, solidarity and understanding.

Could you please briefly explain your current museum project to our readers? Can you tell us anything about the underlying concept of the museum yet? Will it, for example, be organised thematically, chronologically or in terms of styles and genres?

Millions of people have become participants and creators of historical events in Ukraine. Ukrainians actively self-organized, bravely protested and heroically died for the European democratic values and their rights. In order to preserve artifacts, which in many different ways represent the unprecedented movement for freedom and dignity, a few museums and NGOs in January 2014 launched a joint project – The Maidan Museum, which recently has been expanded by the Museum of Freedom initiative.
The group of cultural activists collected objects (hand painted banners, makeshift shields, helmets, catapults, paintings, etc.) and stories from the camp – these stories will form part of the view into the Ukraine and are supposed to tell more about the protest movement, not only taking into account the dramatical historical events, but also the huge amounts of artistic expression, the diverse display of creativity, humor and satire.
As a result, a comprehensive collection was established, an expert group on musefication of the Maidan events was appointed by the joint decree of the Ministry of Culture and Kyiv City Hall to work on the Maidan Museum conception, the ‚Territory of Dignity‘ International Open Contest was launched this May and a few exhibitions were organized in Kyiv and Paris.
At present it’s hard to say how the museum will be organized, as its concept is still under discussion and our main idea is not to impose our curatorial authority and visions on the visitors (?). To me our mission is to engage as many individuals and institutions as possible in order to create a participatory, inclusive and interactive art space, which will display creativity and humor as the driving force of the protest movement for freedom and dignity in Ukraine.
For now, we can only say with certainty that we want the future museum to serve as an environment for artistic expression of and philosophical reflection on the revolutionary events; a platform for public discussion about basic notions of freedom, specific forms of the struggle for independence and dignity and about the rediscovery of personal and national identity; a social engagement strategy, a tool for uniting various activists’ initiatives of the democratic movements, a mean for enlarging the collection of objects, memories and stories. We look forward to creating an interactive exhibition, but meanwhile cannot wait anylonger until the story is done and everyone feels comfortable.

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At the exhibition “Creativity of Freedom: The Revolutionary Culture of Maidan” (Ivan Honchar Museum Kiev). © Lisa Vogt

You told us that in order to figure out an adequate and relevant concept for the museum, you’ve been studying the concepts of museums all over the world, especially in the States, the UK and in Germany. What differences did you note between the museum culture of those countries and your own? What ideas and concepts did convince you in particular?

Our museum culture is part of our political, economic and social cultures. It can hardly be understood without providing a context of its almost eight decades of functioning. The genocide policy of the communists in Ukraine and the cultural oppression in the 20th century resulted in a considerable loss of historical memory for Ukrainians. During the repressive years of Soviet culture, much of the distinctively Ukrainian heritage lay dormant. Throughout that period, museums were explicitly places of propaganda. Since independence in 1991, Ukrainian museums have made significant progress in turning their institutions into more welcoming places, with enlarged collections, changing exhibitions, various programs, engaged audiences and strong leadership. The newly achieved freedom has made access to new markets and cultures possible. Along with this access came the flood of global cultures. Although there may be many economic advantages, in Ukraine this flood of global culture has met a vacuum of cultural memory. For our nation charting a distinctive course into the future, towards peace and a democratic united society, some memory of who we have been is required.
The events of the winter 2013 – 2014 in Ukraine have proved this need as never before. They demonstrated a social responsibility, a real hunger for civic and community engagement, patriotism and a burst of cultural activism.
All this shall be reflected in the future museum, following the best examples of our Western colleagues. We are not looking for yet another historical museum merely conserving events of the Euromaidan. We are striving to create an engaging platform for learning, discussing, creating, mutual understanding, healing from post-violence trauma and, finally, consolidating the society on the basic values of freedom and dignity. It’s not easy for us to display not the past but our present, to turn objects of the current history into historical displays’ subjects. It took dozens of years of survey and consultation to create, say, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, or the European Center of Solidarity in Gdansk, Poland.
Here in Ukraine we are less familiar with the process of creating a dialogue within exhibitions and museum settings, the concept of interactive exhibitions is still so new to Ukraine. But we are ready to get rid of our Soviet legacy, get rid of, as my American colleague Linda Norris mentioned, “…the single, definitive curatorial or artistic voice”. We have heard many voices on the Maidan square and are ready to transform them into lasting places of civic engagement.

One crucial aspect of the protest culture on Maidan was communication, which worked mainly on a visual level. Images, performances, chants and slogans – everything was recorded and distributed on several social networks, reaching millions of people within and without the Ukraine. How do you intend to include this “online” existence of protest art in your exhibition?

Communication and online presence of not only protest art but also other movement expressions are very important aspects of the Maidan. I hope that we won’t face any problems in displaying them in the future museum exhibitions using both new technological multimedia and traditional methods. For example, during our exhibition “Creativity of Freedom: (R)evolutionary Culture of Maidan” we successfully displayed series of images, the Maidan revolutionary epos, songs and performances on digital monitors and the Facebook Revolution stories – selected posts from Facebook – on the printed plates. I think the biggest challenge will be the question of interactivity: how to make the exhibit ecnourage people to react and share their personal memories, feelings, ideas and, threby, become part of the display.

When I try to assign your recent project to one of the major categories in which museums operate I start to struggle: is it dedicated to history, ethnology or art? Maybe it doesn’t have to be classified, and you are intentionally pursuing an interdisciplinary approach? How do you expect your visitors to interpret the exhibited objects, as art or as historical artifacts?

You are right. I struggle with this as well. Of course the main approach in creating an exhibition at the Maidan Museum / Museum of Freedom should be multidisciplinary. As for the classification, it might be much closer to museums of memory or museums of conscience than to museums of art, history or ethnology. We had some similar difficulties in trying to classify the Ivan Honchar Museum, which is not merely an ethnographic or folk art museum but the National Centre of Folk Culture – culture understood in its broader sense, not limited to one of its expressions. In chosing this title and status we wanted to escape typical classifications and extend our functions at least in terms of our post-Soviet bureaucracy.

Most of the objects in your exhibition weren’t primarily created with aesthetic purposes in mind, but with very practical, pragmatic ones. They served for protection and attack, for communication, for motivation and identification. Thus, I am wondering: how did you choose which objects to include in the exhibition? What criteria of selection did you apply?

The main criteria for selecting the objects for the exhibition you’ve visited – “Creativity of Freedom: (R)evolutionary Culture of Maidan” – was the presence of aesthetic and/or creative elements. Thus, we displayed art works like paintings, installations, painted helmets, shields and elements of the barricades, as well as objects created with amazing skills or innovations which showed the ability of protesters to create something from almost nothing. Moreover, our art curators also selected items which were “decorated” by the historical events and gained new meanings and value by means of fire, smoke, footprints, bullets, and even blood. We also wanted to include objects of a definite social value, objects with real stories and connections to real personalities, as this helped to bridge the objects to the visitors.

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At the exhibition “Creativity of Freedom: The Revolutionary Culture of Maidan” (Ivan Honchar Museum Kiev). © Lisa Vogt

You personally took all those helmets, shields, banners, etc. from the Maidan square, while they were still in use. How did people react when you tried to “archive” their ongoing protest? Isn’t there a risk of “freezing” a protest movement by putting it in a museum? Were you confronted with resistance?

The main mission of our initiative was to preserve the evidence of the events unfolding around us. Unlike official positions and collecting policies of many Ukrainian museums which were quite “shy” at that movement, we started collecting objects and stories immediately, being well aware of the historical value of the events. Sure, it was not easy to collect them and there were various stages of approaching people, tracing and collecting the objects. The people reacted in different ways but mostly with deep understanding and assistance. However, it took a lot of time and effort to approach the activists, to explain our mission and inspire confidence. Many items we simply took from the trash, saving them from destruction. Many objects were also given to us later, in time and especially after the exhibition, for people saw our initiative and trusted us. In fact, there is no risk of “freezing” the protest movement by preserving its artefacts and putting them into a museum. It’s impossible to freeze or imitate any movement at the museum, of course. And this is not our goal anyways. We focused our efforts on preserving some objects to later serve at the exhibitions, to help creating the contextual environment, to be the facts, the authentic items that keep memories and evoke emotions. Interestingly, when we were producing the film “Windows into Protest” in the context of the Tandem EU project, and interviewed the Maidan activists at the Creativity of Freedom exhibition space, many of the people were emotionally overwhelmed with feelings entering the gallery as the Maidan artefacts immediately evoked memories.

A shield on Maidan is used by the protester to protect his or her body, his or her life. In a museum its meaning changes dramatically. It can now be read as testimony of the war, the bullet holes as prove of the violent confrontation and the risk incurred by the government to actually take lives. Aren’t you afraid to take the authentic and genuine meaning from things by artificially reconstructing them in a private space?

As mentioned above, the shields were given one more connotation by protesters. They didn’t use them only to protect themselves (both physically and spiritually), but also to communicate messages. For this, we have a wonderful example in our collection – a plywood shield with a handwritten inscription, saying: “Mum, I will never let you be hurt. I’m here for our Ukraine and for our parents. I will not leave Maidan without victory…”. On the other hand we were not collecting from the very beginning in order to conserve, reconstruct or imitate the events of Maidan revolution. Our main idea was to create a space that will commemorate the events of the past but that will also, and even more so, focus on the future. A future for which so many people gave their lives. Hence, the exhibition will be rather people- and concept-centred than object-centred. And of course the context will be lavishly provided alongside the objects’ authentic and genuine meaning so that the curators and visitors might rediscover and reinterpret them in the most inclusive ways possible. Of course it’s not easy to talk about authentic and genuine meaning of the objects which by the time (even within 3 months of the protests) were changing their meaning even for their owners and holders.

In his recent lecture on “The Arts of Occupation” held at the Freie Universität of Berlin W.J.T. Mitchell reflected on the transitional process protest objects undergo when put in a museum. Referring to the installation “State Britain” by Mark Wallinger displayed in Tate Britain in 2007, Mitchell concludes his talk with the question whether in the museum the political meaning of Brian Haw’s occupation protest was destroyed. Transferring a revolution or a protest into the space of memory, which the museum certainly is, was a very discouraging thought to Mitchell. What can, in your understanding, be the protest objects‘ function in a museum?

I do understand Mr. Mitchell’s concerns. It’s true, the museums, which in this or that way depend upon the government or private groups, can easily change the political meaning of the exhibiting issues. As David Fleming from The Liverpoll Museums argues in his work, all museums are political but not all of them publically admit this. We have similar fears that the government may take over this initiative and quickly and formally approprioate the Maidan Museum. But how objective would the exhibition, the programs and the concept be in that way? Therefore, from the very beginning we wanted the communities and the protest activists to be engaged in the process as much as possible to advice, control and influence the process. We envision the Maidan Museum as a timeliness and inclusive institution which will represent various points of view and be relevant both in form and content to various audiences and generations.

When you spoke to us in May you said that the telling of personal, individual stories would be at the core of your new museum. What do you expect from stories? And how do you consider their potential especially for the representation of the Maidan movement?

The Maidan movement was the grass-root initiative, in fact a phenomenon for Ukrainian people who are stereotypically considered to be quite passive as a nation and as individuals. The protest happened to be the biggest movement in Europe. Thus, those events brightly displayed that a nation was born as a result of the burst of millions of social activists’ energy. The Maidan itself was a very dynamic, multilayered and multidimentional phenomenon. There could be seen people of different age, background, social status, religion, places of living and even nationality. On the one hand, we saw students, teachers, businessmen, politicians, actors, artists, showmen, scholars, retired people, foreign visitors, homeless people and many many more, who became united with a goal to change the country and their lives for the better. On the other hand, the protestors had various motivation to participate. So all of them have their personal stories to share and I hope this can be the best way to bridge the events to those who did not participated and to future generations.

As deputy director of a museum for Ukrainian Folk Culture, can you see a trace connecting both form and content of the recent events to the folklorist culture of the Ukraine?

Yes, you could easily identify many forms, tangible and intangible, of the Ukrainian traditional culture manifested in the urban protesters space: from paintings in folk style on helmets and shields, tents and elements to folk songs, dances and music on the barricades, from the way protesters were self-organised – in hundreds – as in Kozak times, to the existence of a viche, peoples’ meeting forum, traditionally an institution for taking decisions in a democratic style, and ultimately even the way the killed people were mourned and honoured – all those aspects represented the traditional Ukrainian culture. The same is true for the manyfold folklore concerts and performances, which – as well as traditional food – were an organic part of the protest movement in that Christmas and New Year period. Portraits and verses of Taras Shevchenko, an iconic Ukrainian figure, a visionary, a poet, and a painter, were typical attributes in the traditional Ukrainian environment of the late 19th- early 20th century. Ukrainian contributions to contemporary protest art can be characterized by a naïve style and a love for color, texture, and movement, inspired by folk themes. By celebrating local craft, artists validate national cultural traditions – as my American colleague Christi Ann Hofland recently put it in her research of the Maidan protest art.

 

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