Ukraine’s cultural heritage is in danger of being privatized
Museums in Ukraine today are like a patient with failing organs each prompting the others to malfunction, but it is not clear which organ is the ultimate cause — the kidneys, the heart, the pancreas or something else? A deeper look at the problems faced by Ukraine’s museums reveals that they cross the boundaries of culture and are linked to politics and the economy, as well as to the corruption inherent in these spheres. “Black” archaeology, the black antique market, the illegal export of items of historical value are rapidly growing, and the list is endless.
THE PATIENT’S CASE
In the late 1990s, Ukraine’s State Committee for Tourism headed by Valeriy Tsybukh drafted a bill on selling items held by Ukrainian museums allegedly in order to develop the tourist industry in the country. Fortunately, this was never considered by parliament.
The next attempt to “grabit-ise” our historical and cultural heritage came when Dmytro Tabachnyk, who happens to head the Antiquarian Guild, was deputy prime minister for cultural issues. He lobbied for a draft law that would permit any cultural valuables dating back to the 17th century or later to be taken out the country.
The third attempt is taking place before our eyes. Under the pretext of “replacing incompetent staff” prior to the Euro 2012 championship, museum directors were fired on a massive scale. It should be said for the sake of justice that they are not the best museum managers and those already fired (according to unofficial sources) were appointed, like their current deputies, in a haphazard fashion and do not have museum management experience.
The danger for our historical and cultural heritage lies not so much in the strange rotation of personnel as in the draft law “On Making Amendments to the Law ‘On National Cultural Heritage’” which is being pushed by the “antique” lobby close to the current government.
“From the viewpoint of archaeology or, for example, the protection of immovable cultural valuables, this law is well-written,” says Olha Bezpiatova, art critic with controlling functions and representative of the Chief Directorate for Culture in the Kyiv City Administration. “But as far as moving cultural values abroad is concerned, it is outrageous. If these norms are implemented, we will be studying the culture of this land, starting from the Trypillian period, in foreign countries.”
The aforementioned draft law permits free removal of cultural values from the country. What this regulation may lead to in a totally corrupt country is obvious. But the “innovative” document contains another twist – evaluation of museum items using the Tamoikins Expert System (TES).
According to Mikhail Tamoikin, a Canadian-based millionaire who owns a large private collection of antiques, TES offers a unique appraisal method suitable for valuing both contemporary art and archaeological artefacts or private collections. In fact, the idea is ridiculously simple: determine the cost of the material used and the price of the object itself at the time of its creation and convert the resulting figure into modern prices.
“Museum items are not in any way involved in forming our currency reserve,” Tamoikin argues. “What can the hryvnia be backed up with? The state values its gold, oil and asset reserves, while cultural values are outside the scope of its attention. This does not at all mean, as some accusers claim, that we want to turn them into liquid assets. There are assets that are sold, and there are those that are not sold but are kept simply as part of our wealth. As soon as it is accounted for, a large number of jobs will appear, and there will be demand for art critics, appraisers, material scientists and record keepers.”
“How can a slice of bread, a ration given out during the Second World War, be valued using the Tamoikins method?” Andriana Vialets, director of the Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts, counters. “In terms of material value, it costs next to nothing, but its historical value is immeasurable! Or how do you appraise the personal belongings of the dead excavated in Babyn Yar? And is doing so necessary at all?”
The new system took 14 years to develop, according to its creators, and has been recognised by specialists in many countries and by international organisations. In Ukraine, it was tested in the Pereiaslav Museum. However, the story had a tragic ending for the museum’s director: some “well-wishers” burnt his personal car and the museum’s archives. As a result, he refused to “take on any prices.”
“The experiment was that registration, marking, classification, appraisal and record keeping were done using three different methods,” Tamoikin says. “Our products turned out to be the best on all accounts. Then we received an opportunity to call an international conference through the Cabinet of Ministers.”
In fact, this conference generated the above-mentioned draft law “On Making Amendments to the Law ‘On National Cultural Heritage’”.
“We are being accused of intending to sell off and embezzle cultural values,” Tamoikin says. “My reply is: When is it easier to steal valuable items and replace them with fakes? When the system is in chaos, or when everything is pigeonholed and an audit can easily be conducted? When the director of a museum loses a museum piece and there is no price tag attached to it, there is no corpus delicti then. He is not in danger of any punishment, and national cultural heritage is being openly stolen as a result.”
CORRUPT FIGHTERS AGAINST CORRUPTION
System TES is eagerly supported by the National Cultural and Arts Management Academy and its rector, Vasyl Chernets. “We must help the Ministry of Culture carry out museum reform,” he says. “There are orders by the minister to inventory the valuables held by museums. This work will have to be done sooner or later. Let me emphasise that we are working to fulfil a task dictated by President Viktor Yanukovych!”Yet the way Chernets' academy trains specialists (in a two-year course) raises doubts among some experts. For example, Liudmyla Strokova, director of the Zolota Kladova Jewellery Museum says: “These students and their teachers asked us, at one point, to write reviews of their diploma papers. The level of these works was absolutely unacceptable! How can you train an expert in two years?”
However, System TES has supporters with access to top offices in the country. These are members of a mysterious organisation called the “State Institution ‘Anticorruption Committee of Ukraine’” (ACU). It is de jure an NGO, but its official site is in the gov.ua subdomain. It uses the state flag and the state emblem in its symbols and membership IDs. Noteworthily, the SBU caught Tsybriy, chief of one of the ACU’s district branches, as he received a €3,500 bribe. According to the SBU, he was demanding money for facilitating job placement with the ACU.
The controversial draft law was publicly supported by Oleksandr Shchuryk, head of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Ukraine and, at the same time, chief of the ACU Southern Regional Directorate; Valentyna Balabanova, head of another one of the ACU’s central directorates and assistant to Deputy Chief of the Cabinet of Ministers’ Secretariat Yuriy Avksentiev, who has also been lobbying for the art monetarisation scheme. To make the picture complete, it should be mentioned that Tamoikin himself is in charge of the Department for Counteracting Corruption in Material Valuables and Expert and Appraisal Activity in the same organisation – the Anticorruption Committee.
“Yanukovych proposes legalizing private archaeological collections,” Tamoikin assures. To a remark that, according to law, archaeology is a field of activity that is exclusively the government’s province, he diplomatically retorts: “On the one hand, everything that has been found in the ground belongs to the state, but on the other, if an ancient item has been passed from one generation to another, what do you do then?”
Following his reasoning, collections owned by “black archaeologists” are made up of inherited artefacts only, while the gold Scythian rhyton (5th-4th century BC), which, according to unofficial sources, Tamoikin purchased at an auction for $12 million, came to its previous owner from his great-grandmother.
According to the code of ethics of museum employees, they do not have any right to collect items. “It’s a disease,” Strokova says. “Sooner or later one may yield to temptation and make a decision for his own benefit. The collector’s instinct cannot be overcome.”