Museums Under Occupation

7 May 2014, 21:15

The majority of museums in the Crimea welcome, at least in official commentaries, the changes with the hopes that Russia will be financing them adequately rather than on the leftover principle as Ukraine has been doing in the past years. To take just one example, the Khersones Tavriisky National Preserve (Tauric Chersonese National Preserve) received according to Ukraine’s State Statistics Service, a mere UAH 217,000 in 2012, while no capital expenditures whatsoever were earmarked in the state budget for 2013. Meanwhile, the Russian mass media are keen to show how Kyiv “cared” as they flock to the Lesia Ukrainka Museum in Yalta and take pictures of the cracks in the walls and report about its overall poor condition. The museum’s staff say they applied to various government agencies in Ukraine in an effort to keep the building from decrepitude but never received any aid. Meanwhile, the Association of Crimean Preserves and Museums emphasizes that museums are outside of politics but admit that they are now subordinated to Russia.

“The museums are apolitical and their main objectives are to collect, preserve and show. In any situation, the main thing is to preserve history, whatever it may be,” the Association’s Executive Director Serhii Pushkarov said in a commentary for The Ukrainian Week. He says that the atmosphere inside the museums is calm and practical. New exhibitions are opening on the peninsula; the traditional conference is taking place in the Chekhov Museum; International Museum Day is going to be celebrated in Simferopol for the first time. At the same time, Pushkarov is critical of the idea of transferring any exhibits to mainland Ukraine or to Russia. “There are collections that were formed even before the revolution and have survived wars. We have museums that were established as far back as in 1811. The Kerch Historical-Archeological Museum was founded in 1826 and the Yalta Historical-Literary Museum in 1892. There are a few new ones, including the Crimean Ethnographic Museum, which has collected 11,000 exhibits in 20 years. And this collection was put together through the efforts of people rather than at the government’s expense. These exhibits must remain in the Crimean museums. It is about the integrity of this collection or another. If split, they will lose theirresearch value,” he maintains. The majority of museum directors are satisfied with being annexed to Russia but admit off the record that visitor numbers have sharply dropped in the past months.

Museum wars

Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia have already engaged in a museum war, especially over exhibits that are luxury items. The highest-profile case is the scandalous situation with the exposition “The Crimea – Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea” which is now in Amsterdam. The collection includes Scythian gold items, a ceremonial helmet, precious stones, swords, armour and ancient Greek and Scythian crockery. It is set to be returned after 28 May, and the fight over where it should go continues. Russia’s State Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin insists it should go back to four museums in the Crimea, while Ukraine’s Minister of Culture Yevhen Nyshchyk believes that the exhibits should be temporarily kept in Ukraine. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia says he has reached an agreement with his Dutch counterpart about returning Scythian gold to mainland Ukraine.

Experts are divided on the issue. “I highly respect the principle of integrity and indivisibility of museum collections. Information about collections that have certain history (such as those gathered by the Khanenkos) or belong to one archaeological complex, etc. is as precious as the individual objects they are made of. Moreover, I am convinced that collections should be kept and put on display as close as possible to the locality where the objects were used and/or found. However, I believe that in the present situation objects from Crimean museums that are now on display in Amsterdam cannot be returned to where they are permanently kept, because the Crimea is an occupied territory now and no-one can guarantee the safety of museum objects,” Vladyslav Pioro, Chairman of the Board of Directors, the Ukrainian Centre for the Promotion of Museum Affairs, said to The Ukrainian Week. He believes that the decision to temporarily keep the exhibits in a museum in Kyiv after the closure of the Amsterdam exhibition is quite acceptable, because these objects are part of the state component of the museums’ funds and belong to the people of Ukraine. “However, after the situation in the Crimea, which is an unalienable part of Ukraine, stabilizes, these objects must, of course, be returned to their museums,” he emphasizes.

Ukrainian MP Volodymyr Ariev caused a stir when he reported in late March that, according to his sources, Ivan Aivazovsky’s paintings were being moved from Feodosiia to the Hermitage. The press service of the “State Council of the Republic of Crimea” denied this information, and the Aivazovsky Art Gallery, which hosts the biggest collection of Aivazovky’s paintings (417 items), said that all the paintings are in place. Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture still does not know whether Ariev’s report is true to the fact. A similar report about the closure of the Lesia Ukrainka Museum has been found false.

READ ALSO: Yulia Lytvynets: “Museums must be open. And to be open, they need to feel safe”

Complications and injustice

There are real problems that the Crimean museums are already facing. The Russian occupation of the peninsula has had an adverse effect on their international cooperation. International archaeological expeditions, including Ukrainian-Polish research activities in the territory of the Kerch Preserve, have been suspended. “I am not sure that all of the museum workers in the Crimea realize the complexity of the situation and what other problems await them in the future. In particular, we already know about the unjustified firing of Valeriy Naumenko, head of the Bakhchysarai State Historical-Cultural Preserve, who is a top-flight professional. His dismissal is, no doubt, a heavy blow to the preserve and to the cause of protecting historical specimens in the area. I am not certain that more generous funding will come from the Russian budget, as some of our Crimean colleagues are hoping. What is certain, however, is that the Crimean museums will attract fewer visitors, because the tourist season on the peninsula appears to be completely derailed,” Pioro says.

According to MP Oleksandr Bryhynets, the Crimea is experiencing difficulties with preserving cultural objects that contradict Russia’s ideology. “These are the temples of the Muslims, the Crimean Tatars. I have doubts that Russia will be taking care of them,” he said in a commentary for The Ukrainian Week. Meanwhile, First Deputy Minister of Culture Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta believes that the Crimean museum staff are facing the same problems as everyone else working on the peninsula. “The Russian Federation also has different kinds of museums: some are in a worse situation, while others are doing better. However, the Crimean museums are definitely having a hard time obtaining visas to take their exhibits to international exhibitions,” she adds.

The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory has expressed its concern over the future of the State Archive of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and asked the International Council of Archives (ICA), which has advisory status in UNESCO, to protect the historical and cultural heritage of the peninsula. According to Volodymyr Viatrovych, the institute’s director, the Crimean archive funds contain unique documents that objectively describe the Crimea’s first annexation by the Russian Empire (in 1783), which led to a true tragedy for the Crimean Tatars. “As Russia pursues its occupation policy which includes ‘purging’ the information space of the Crimea, there is a real danger that unique archival documents may disappear from the State Archive of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea,” reads the letter the institute has sent to ICA President Martin Berendse.

What to do next?

The key question for the Ukrainian government is having access to the valuable items and objects of cultural heritage in the Crimea. There is no singular correct recipe for resolving conflicts like this. Ostrovska-Liuta believes that the most important thing now is to constantly monitor the situation. “There is very important international experience. A similar situation was in Cyprus, Kosovo and Georgia. We are now talking to our colleagues in these countries. We are trying to stay in touch with the museum workers in the Crimea, but our communication has been disrupted for a while now. They are afraid of making very pointed statements, because it is an issue of personal security for them,” she explains.

Bryhynets expects international lawsuits demanding that Russia pay for its use of Ukrainian museums. “If the Crimea is legally the territory of Ukraine, while the Russians are using everything there, then there is, at least, a way to force them to pay for using our national property,” he believes.

Experts believe that the crucial thing is to involve international intermediaries – a Council of Europe mission and UNESCO representatives. There is also the Hague Convention signed in 1951 by Russia which prohibits taking cultural valuables out from occupied territories. At the same time, Ukrainian and Crimean museum workers are convinced that, despite political issues, cultural cooperation needs to be continues and experience shared, and if difficulties arise, the parties involve should sit down and negotiate.


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