The speech of the director of the Museum, Olga Gonchar, on the topic: “The place of Ukraine in the process of decolonization of museum institutions”, which takes place within the framework of a discussion organized by the community from Birkbeck, University of London within the framework of the Season of Culture of Great Britain/Ukraine, by the Ukrainian Institute and the British Council Ukraine.
Good day. My name is Olga Honchar. I am the director of the Memorial Museum of Totalitarian Regimes “Territory of Terror”. The topic of my report today is decolonization practices in the Museum and colonization practices in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, particularly in occupied museums.
When I was invited to consider decolonizing practices in the Museum I lead, I thought about it, because what we do is decolonizing by default, but we never called it that and did not specifically highlight it. I think this is related to the fact that the Museum itself was created already at the time of Ukraine’s independence and it did not need to be “decolonized”. Also, I was born and worked already in independent Ukraine, and therefore decolonization practices were not an organic request for me, as well as for my team.
What do I mean?
For example, our main exposition tells about the Holocaust, communist terror, and repression in the voices of people – living witnesses of the most terrible events of the 20th century. Telling about these terrible pages of history on our land, we followed the path of presenting the personal stories of their witnesses. That is, our main exposition is built on our oral history archive. These are about 400 testimonies recorded by the Museum over the past 10 years. These are personal stories of Lviv residents, residents of western Ukraine, who tell from their own life perspective what communist or Nazi terror is, and how a person, finding himself in the grip of a totalitarian regime, remains a person. Of course, from the point of view of decolonization practices, this is one of the principles when we go from generalizations, from depersonalizations to actual personal stories and living voices.
Also, working with the collection of Soviet monumental art – monuments, sculptures, monuments that were moved from the public space of Lviv to us, dismantled as part of decommunization processes, we present them as monuments that have received a new life in our Museum. Being in the Museum, they can finally speak not only from the perspective of monuments and their ritual functions but also tell the story of their creation, about their creator, the story of their ritual service, their decline and disappearance from public space. The last point was often accompanied by scandals and discussions. We show different perspectives, which is also one of the hallmarks of decolonization practices. Multivocality and diversity are necessary components of decolonization practices.
One of the projects worth mentioning in the context of this report is our cooperation with contemporary Ukrainian artists, without whom the modern Museum and collections are impossible to comprehend, which is also a sign of decolonization practices. One of these is the project of Kateryna Lisovenko – “Garden”. She is a monumental artist, and in her exhibition she proposes to move the monuments I mentioned to the garden, thus depriving them of their totalitarian past and imagining that, perhaps, in the distant future, they will become garden sculptures. Her paintings are placed in our “Colonade of Tyrants”, which was supposed to depict world tyrants, but we use this colonnade for artistic interventions.
Here it is worth noting that we, as the Museum, as curators of the exhibition, emphasize that in the context of decommunization, the interpretation of the Soviet heritage in the Museum is also, in a certain way, artistic vandalism, because Kateryna, as an artist, decided to reinterpret them in this way. When this happens in the Museum, it is not vandalism, because no one hides at night, does not secretly demolish monuments, and does not pour paint over them. Here the artist is “naked”, open, and openly interprets the Museum, which becomes a space for the intersection of different opinions. We show one perspective of these monuments, but this does not mean that there is no other. In the same way, we are rethinking the Soviet past, not hiding it far away in the foundations, as if it never existed, but inviting to a dialogue. This is also one of the principles of decolonization practices.
Another project in this context is a joint project with the Normalno studio (an association that works with artists with Down syndrome). We had “ArtiStock”, as part of the European Heritage Days, where Zhenya Golubientsev, an artist with Down syndrome who interprets the Second World War, presented his drawings on this topic. In particular, he is interested in cemeteries, burials, and memorials. He also read explanations for his works. It is possible that this project is one of the most important for me personally in this way. We gave our Museum to the artist, where he could realize himself professionally. Especially in the context of the fact that people with Down syndrome were repressed by totalitarian regimes, and great empires ignored their problems in every possible way. Our Museum, which tells about totalitarian regimes, organized such a project, which is very important for our team as a kind of confrontation. We want our Museum to be a platform for the realization of specialists in completely different fields, as well as for our various visitors. I believe that such a project can also be attributed to decolonization practices. Again, we never looked at it as “let’s decolonize the Museum.” In my opinion, the Museum, from the very beginning until today, is an absolutely decolonizing project in its essence. For us, this happened by default. We are the Museum of the Independence period and cannot be “colonizing” by nature.
At the same time, as I already mentioned, I would like to talk about colonization. If we are located in Lviv, we have complete freedom to be the kind of Museum that I see as a director – a modern one that talks about human dignity and freedom, makes sense of totalitarian regimes, and shows different sides, thoughts, people’s lives in times of disaster, raises complex philosophical questions. Collects a collection of Soviet monuments, and interprets and preserves them. Despite this, I would like to talk about my colleagues from the Luhansk Regional Museum of Local History, who evacuated to Lviv after the beginning of the Russian invasion. They were forced to leave their Museum, their colleagues, and their collection because they could not evacuate it, which has been under occupation for 1.5 months. Even later, when they were taken away by the military, it was primarily about saving a life, not about the collection. This Museum, like Starobilsk itself, was occupied from the first days and real colonization practices began there.
Until February 24, we cooperated with colleagues, and one of our projects was the study of the ATO/OOS exposition – the russian-Ukrainian war from 2014 to February 24, 2022, where we traveled with colleagues to the museums of the Luhansk region and researched what museum workers collect and how they collect it they present in exhibitions how they understand the war, of which they are direct neighbors. In their museum, conferences were held on the topic of the Holodomor, the Holocaust, as well as research on the native land, and its personalities, because it is a museum of local history. I will add that he is moving for the second time: in 2014 from Luhansk to Starobilsk, and now to Lviv. And now, when we observe what is happening there, we see real colonization. And the exhibition “Our Traditions” presents the history of “Mother Great russia” with the so-called traditional symbols of the russian Empire.
This is presented as a holiday that takes place in the museum: “we are happy that we have the so-called “liberation”. And we are returning after this misunderstanding called the independence of Ukraine to mother russia”.
So we see that museums are becoming centers of propaganda and this is a direct sign of colonization. And presenting propaganda copy is another colonizing approach to reach a larger audience.
The team of the Luhansk Regional Museum of Local Lore participates in various activities at the level of the central cities of russia and their management. The exhibition “Ordinary Fascism” – our Ukrainian flags are in the window here, maybe they were taken from the expositions about the ATO, which we studied during our trips. These collections, which were there, very quickly changed their meanings. Under the rule of Ukraine, this was evidence of the war that is taking place directly in the Luhansk region, and now it is served under the guise of “ordinary fascism”. Or, for example, a message about the transfer to the museum of a photo of some russian liberation figure. This character is glorified and transformed into a deity. Heroization of individual characters is another example of colonization practice.
In this way, the museum becomes a platform for propaganda, for glorifying the “heroes” defined by the central state course. And this is only one example that was traced.
Now we are more focused on the continuation of our projects: we have resumed the recording of witnesses of our profile topics – Nazi and communist terror, and we will also record witnesses of the modern war taking place on the territory of Ukraine, in particular, we will record museum workers, how they feel about this war.
I thank you for the opportunity to think about it, consider it, and present it, but, unfortunately, there will be more and more such examples in the occupied territories. Now we pay more attention to helping our colleagues to survive. Since March 3, the museum crisis center has been engaged in raising funds and providing them to museum workers who have found themselves in difficult life circumstances but continue to stay in Ukraine and collect collections. In particular, we mediate between those who provide help and those who need it.
Investigating colonizing practices is not our central focus, as our primary objective is to win and survive. Although in itself survival in the conditions of genocide, in particular the cultural one that is taking place, is already opposition to colonization. Although, of course, it is important and it would be good if someone undertook to investigate and monitor it.
Perhaps, after my report, such an initiative or person will appear or volunteer, and we will be happy to cooperate. This horror that is happening in the occupied territories – the persecution of the cultural people who create meaning – is colonization and the darkness that has come to our lands. We also know about the facts of kidnapping and torture. It is also part of colonization practices. The evil empire does not tolerate people who make sense – it has a general course and no one has the right to question it.
Therefore, speaking today about the example of our museum in the creation of decolonization practices, and the situation of the Luhansk Regional Museum of Local History in the temporarily occupied territory, as an example of colonization practices, I want to once again draw attention of the international community, museum colleagues, to the fact that russia is a terrorist state. And we must make every effort to stop the war because it is not only a war against Ukraine but also a war against the democratic world, its values, and world culture, of which Ukraine’s culture is a part.
And I want to end with a thesis that may seem unusual for Europeans, but for the past six months – absolutely organic for Ukrainians. In addition to those who are engaged in our protection professionally, for all the rest – in particular, museum workers, and workers in the cultural sphere, the biggest opposition is to continue doing their work. Despite the news, despite the lack of sleep, despite the sirens, and lost relatives and friends. Drink morning coffee, go down to bomb shelters when necessary, and continue there – write, create, document, save. Standing on guard of the cultural code and living fully is our most powerful confrontation and the main focus of our Crisis Center. Stand, no matter what.
From decolonization to colonization is one step – and this step is the denial of the other, or oneself.