Yulia Lytvynets: “Museums must be open. And to be open, they need to feel safe”
“People often come to museums in the Netherlands. Just to hide away from the rain,” Yulia Lytvynets, Chief Custodian of Ukraine’s National Art Museum, says. The recent revolutionary events changed the angle from which her museum’s staff approached preserving the collection and the museum building and building horizontal relationships between museums and individuals.
U.W.: What kind of visitor and consumer of museum information do we have in the 21st century? What are her needs and demands? What must she give to the museum? Is interaction possible between them?
The framework of museums’ activities has been severely narrowed in recent times: they must preserve and popularize their collections. But popularization is not aimed at dialogue, i.e., information is provided in one direction with no feedback. Visitors are not just people who pay the entrance fee to see our collection. Visitors are the carriers of information, a litmus test of the processes taking place in society. An analysis of visitors, their needs and interests must change Ukrainian museums. In fact, the situation is already changing, because museums across the world are working to build dialogue with their visitors, between museum objects and visitors.
In the classical Soviet system, there was only information about the displays, and that was it. The views and reactions of visitors were of no interest. This reaction may differ depending on time and social group. I am sure that our state must take steps to help museums. The Ministry of Education would have to make museum visits mandatory for children and students as part of their curricula. If they study zoology, let them go to a zoological museum. If they study a certain period in history or culture, let them go to museums where these things are best represented. Children and youth must have experience. Museums can become part of not only education and enlightenment, but also the life of every Ukrainian from kindergarten to her last day. The National Art Museum is taking steps to accommodate its visitors through thematic lecture series and a number of interesting courses for children and adults.
Perhaps, it sounds like some kind of coercion, but it must be. In the past month, I have met with absolutely different people. They have a certain stereotype of museums as such. Those who went to museums in Soviet time did not bring their children. There is a group of permanent visitors, but it is fairly small. Raising trips to museums from the level of family affairs to at least the school education level would greatly elevate the self-awareness of the Ukrainian community. As a result, we would have individuals and citizens who would not permit a museum being in the firing line.
U.W.: Could you tell about how your museum survived the revolution? You must now have priceless experience that you can share with other museum workers.
The territory where our museum is located changed hands, and when we were controlled by law enforcement agencies, it was an absolutely different reality and different dangers. It was much easier to come to an agreement with the protesters, because an average protester is a person with two university diplomas, good command of English and an understanding what a museum is. Things changed dramatically when we found ourselves behind the police cordon. Ordinary people had a very hard time trying to get to the museum. Our employees had to come out and talk to the Berkut special force and the internal security troops and explain what the National Art Museum is and that it works for all people. On 19 January, things changed dramatically. Lectures and workshops for children were abruptly stopped, and people had to be taken out of the building through different exits and negotiate with the police to let them pass. The next day, very few people were able to go through the police cordon and get to the museum. After that, there were people on duty in the museum around the clock. There was no way to evacuate the museum, even though the collection was in danger. In Soviet times, it was moved away from the front line, but in this situation the conflict was everywhere and it was impossible to move it. The museum guards should be given credit for never deserting their posts. The Ministry of Culture to which we appealed (just like we did to the Ministry for Emergency Situations and the police) was not prepared to help, even though it has a unit responsible for emergency situations. We simply could not reach them by phone – we dialled the number mentioned in the standard instructions for museums explaining what they should do in case of emergence but the telephone was answered by the guards in the ministry who were stunned by the fact that we were calling them of all people. Nevertheless, Maria Zadorozhna managed to get the Ministry for Emergency Situations (MES) send two of their men to our museum. Every day, there were two policemen, two MES people and at least two museum employees on guard to look after the museum’s stock and displays.
There was a great danger than rocks and Molotov cocktails could break through the windows on the ground floor. The exhibits were moved to the stock section; windows were covered with plastic and, where possible, flakeboards and plasterboards. To keep away soot, we put special fabric over all air exhausts and it served as a kind of filter. The friends of the museum purchased 30 additional powder fire extinguishers. Fire hoses were rolled out to the windows. All rooms were hooked up to the alarm system: if there had been a broken window and a fire had started, we would have seen in which room it happened and would have been able to react faster. Moreover, we had to explain to police commanders that, in addition to food provision and heating, they had to arrange for toilets themselves and that the museum was not a proper place for this.
U.W.: The first thing that comes to mind when European cities are mentioned is historical monuments and art museums: the Louvre in Paris, the Prado National Museum in Madrid, etc. The associations with Kyiv are, as before, the Kyiv cake, candies and cutlets. Why is the Ukrainian capital still not associated with a museum or an art gallery?
Let us be frank: for a long time Ukraine was an occupied territory. Our art was nullified in every possible way. Take, for example, the National Art Museum: its collection included 1.5 million pieces in 1919, while a mere 40,000 remain. Unlike Western museums, we were totally divided: a huge collection that included applied and fine arts, history, anthropology and much more was split to create a number of small museums back in Soviet times. A large and nice museum complex has never been constructed.
But even small museums have a very interesting future. Each one of them begins to develop some unique features. These are not the gigantic imperial museums of large cities or well-known brands. Each of them has an opportunity to grow. Museums need to work on their own brands. This will be the essence of museum art, i.e., small museums will have to find the right brands for themselves, present and popularize them and shape their own unique visage.
U.W.: How do you see the brand of the National Art Museum? Will it be about large exhibitions, such as “Normandy in art” or “Jacques Chapiro. Kyiv-Paris”, “Master returning. Mark Epstein”? Will it be about large-scale projects and big names or something totally different but equally interesting?
I am fairly sceptical of the large scale and very big names. In the case of the exhibition about Normandy, the surname of Monet played a very big part. Again, it is a foreign, rather than Ukrainian, brand. But it is still not so bad, because people will come to see Monet or Chapiro and will at the same time see Ukrainian icons, the classics of Ukrainian avant-garde art and realism (Vasyl Krychevsky, Oleksandr Murashko, Oleksandr Bohomazov, Aleksandra Ekster and Tetiana Yablonska) and will grasp that Ukrainian fine art is of European and world-class calibre and is in no way inferior. I am sure, because I have heard it from visitors, that after they see the works we have on display in our museum, they become many times more proud of Ukraine.
Anyway, we are talking about art events. I would like people to come and see Ukrainian classical artists, such as Yablonska, Karpo Trokhymenko and others, with the same enthusiasm as Monet.
U.W.: The National Art Museum is now hosting the exhibition “Ukrainian line of modern art (in the firing line)”. In 2013, a number of works by Ukrainian impressionists, avant-gardists and modernists were brought from various provincial museums across the country to the Art Arsenal in Kyiv. This kind of pulling works from store rooms has given them a unique flavour and freshness. What does the Ukrainian modern art displayed in your museum now look like?
This exhibition has gone through some rough times. We are very thankful to museum directors across Ukraine for providing these works and for not trying to get them back. They trusted us with these works. The exhibition is quite symbolic in terms of not only trust but also its unifying function. We have works from Lviv, Kharkiv, Sumy and even the Crimea. They have indeed come from across Ukraine. And it shows that Ukraine is one and unified.
In fact, the country has to know its heroes, modernist painters. These include Oleksa Novakivsky and, again, Oleksandr Murashko, who was a very versatile artist. It is no surprise, because each painter has different periods and falls under different influences. This means that he was not the same throughout his life. The works by Krychevsky and Vsevolod Maksymovych come across in a new light at this exhibition. There is a widespread idea that Ukrainian modern art did not exist and that expressionism developed abroad but not in our country. But this is far from the truth. We are not so poor and unfortunate as some would like to paint us. We had and still have everything. For example, some of Bohomazov’s works have elements of impressionism. Art should be viewed horizontally, which helps reveal this kind of interesting aspects.
Soon, we are planning to open a very unexpected exhibition composed of the Mezhyhiria “treasures”. Believe me, there are precious, world-level art objects there. Through the prism of this exhibition, we would like to take a new look at our classic display of icons and 19th century art.
U.W.: Ukrainian impressionists, such as Ivan Trush, are no inferior to Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas or other European classical painters. What can a museum do to place Ukrainian art in European context and show to Ukrainian and foreign visitors that Ukrainian modern art, avant-garde and surrealism do exist?
This is, again, about cooperation between museums and the environment. I mean working with television, historians and art critics. In this system, I would give top priority to art critics and the Ukrainian school of art criticism, which was under Russia’s influence throughout the Soviet period. We now have to enhance the level of art critics and their works, which must be published and popularized. This information has to reach public at large and become known.
The next, or perhaps parallel, step should be cooperation with the film making industry. We need to make contemporary films about Murashko, Krychevsky, museums and Ukrainian and foreign art for various population groups. Look at France and its rich variety of programmes for various audiences. We need to have the same here. In this way, we will be able to adequately place ourselves in world context. The problem is that we are not known abroad or even inside Ukraine, for that matter. We don’t know each other , and this isolation is artificial. Museums must be open. And to be open, they need to feel safe. The condition of a museum reflects the condition of society.
There is also an element of trust; this is when society and a museum begin to trust each other. There is still the stereotype that “everything has been stolen from museums and they only put fake items on display”. Together with television and other journalists, museum workers need to explain and enlighten people. I plead with journalists not to twist information in pursuit of sensations.
U.W.: How extensively are the painters of the second half of the 20th century and our days represented in the National Art Museum? Can visitors see paintings by Illia Chychkan, Oleksandr Hnylytsky and Oleksandr Roitburd? Why are these painters featured more in galleries rather than museums? What does a museum need to have to be able to collect their paintings and put them on display?
As far as museum collections are concerned, in Soviet times our museum had a large circle of friends, sponsors and donors who donated items. We went on various expeditions to collect art works. Works were also purchased through the Directorate for Art Exhibitions in the Ministry of Culture. It still exists. The works that were bought were primarily ideologically correct. That is why we have virtually no paintings by top-flight Sixtiers. Valeriy Lamakh and Viktor Zaretsky are represented only in a very fragmentary way. We only have six works by the latter. We happened to receive, absolutely accidentally, through the Security Service, a painting by Oleksiy Zakharchuk – and we couldn’t believe our eyes. It so happened that we have many works of official Soviet art, but unofficial art, which was, in fact, an important strand in artistic life in Soviet times, is barely represented in our museum. Meanwhile, this latter type is gradually declining.
The same thing is with modern painters, including those you have mentioned. Since the 1990s, we have purchased virtually nothing on a regular basis. Even if we find what we need, we cannot buy it. Therefore, we have to ask painters to donate their works to the museum. Naturally, this method does not permit us to obtain the best works of some painter or another.
Let museum specialists themselves decide whether they need Roitburd or Tetiana Golembiievska to fill these voids in the collection. The position of the museum as the one that pleads should be fundamentally changed. Look at the level of Ukrainian painters – they are comparable with the best in the world. This was proven by the 2013-14 revolution. One gets the impression that they had been waiting for it for a long time and then started generating ideas and art works, ranging from very poignant and dealing with the senses to extremely aggressive, relevant at the time. The Orange Revolution did not produce anything like that. In contrast, during the 2013-14 revolution the painters felt they were needed in the literal sense. From paintings and graffiti to the smallest stripe made by Ukrainian artists, such as Andriy Yermolenko, it is important not to let these things become scattered in different directions. They need to be preserved in order to convey the overall atmosphere. Art objects tell an important story as they stand next to a painting or a shield made from a traffic sign in European Square. People fought for that shield. But these things should be somewhere close by.
As far as museum buildings are concerned, we once had great hopes for a building in Instytutska Street... For some reason, Rio de Janeiro has the world’s best Museum of Modern Art, and we don’t. A lack of attention to painters and sculptors from society and the state leads to a situation when their best works go to private collections rather than Ukrainian museums.