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Curators in Ukraine face deadly obstacles as they protect their country's treasures

A visitor looks at icons exhibited at the National Arts Museum of Ukraine in Kiev in 2014.
Sergei Supinsky
/
AFP via Getty Images
A visitor looks at icons exhibited at the National Arts Museum of Ukraine in Kiev in 2014.

Updated February 25, 2022 at 4:50 PM ET

Curators of Ukrainian museums are facing a set of heartwrenching logistical issues all too familiar to the directors of cultural institutions in places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan: How do you protect the treasures of your country in the midst of horrific bombardment by missile strikes? What decisions do you make to save art when your employees and your loved ones are unsafe?

"At our museum, we should now be preparing for the 11th annual Book Arsenal Festival to be held this May," wrote the director general of Kyiv's Mystetskyi Arsenal National Art and Culture Museum Complex on Friday in an anguished artnet.com editorial. "But instead our team must focus our efforts to ensure the safety of our staff and our families, as well as guard our collection and our museum objects: paintings, graphics, and fine art. "

As she wrote those words, Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta said she was worried about colleagues spending the night in underground train stations and the civilian casualties already occurring. But preserving the paintings that are part of her country's heritage also weighed heavily on her mind. "Works by Kazimir Malevich, Vasyl Yermylov, Alexander Bogomazov, and Anatol Petrytsky, and Viktor Zaretsky, to name only a few," she wrote.

"My heart goes out to her," says Patty Gerstenblith. She's a law professor at DePaul University, the founding president of the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and all too familiar with the panic experienced by curators in the first throes of war.

"I hope that they certainly, first and foremost, the people themselves, the curators and other arts professionals, others involved in cultural heritage feel that they themselves, first and foremost, are safe," she told NPR, before laying out the professional challenges facing Ukrainian curators, beginning with the starkest: the immediate danger of damage and destruction that's caused incalculable damage in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

"Particularly in indiscriminate bombing," she says. "My understanding is that Russia is using cruise missiles and other types of aerial bombardments, including in civilian areas, which is clearly prohibited by international law. So the museums and other cultural institutions are clearly at risk, whether they're being targeted [or not]."

A man checks a display at Kyiv's Museum of Soviet Occupation in 2007. In years past, pro-Russian socialists have protested in front of the museum.
Sergei Supinsky / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
A man checks a display at Kyiv's Museum of Soviet Occupation in 2007. In years past, pro-Russian socialists have protested in front of the museum.

Gerstenblith is also worried about specific Ukrainian institutions and collections she sees as particularly vulnerable. "I'm thinking in particular of some of the ancient collections like the Scythian gold treasures that are probably at risk for being moved from Ukraine to Russia, which is also an additional violation of international law," she says. "It's my understanding that there are there's at least one museum in Kiev that commemorates the Maidan uprising, and this is something that is probably at risk for destruction, not so much removal, but that Russia may in fact want to destroy the cultural remains, the mementos, the documentation of that type of democratic effort in Ukraine."

"Ukraine has a pretty well-known historical tradition in folklore," adds Brian Daniels, director of research and programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. "Ukrainian folklore in museums and institutions is the site of anti-Soviet opposition. And you know, I'm very fearful for those institutions, especially because there is a certain kind of ideological conflict going on here as well, in which museums are going to be implicated."

The director of the Ukrainian Museum in New York City, Maria Shust, says she just wrapped up an exhibit on Ukrainian independence in collaboration with the director of the Kyiv-based Ukrainian Museum of the Second World War. "None of us can believe this has happened. It's so unthinkable," she says. "Museum directors have been trying to safeguard their collections and putting them into safer places. But you know, they really didn't have that much time to do a very thorough job of that. And in a case like this, where it seems like President Putin is trying to destroy Ukraine, you know, he's not going to care whether he destroys the history of Ukraine. We here in the United States really can't help, with items that have to be physically protected."

In the meantime, Gerstenblith expressed her belief that arts institutions around the world should cancel any planned cultural exchanges with Russia. "I don't think this is a time for cultural exchanges and cultural collaborations to be taking place," she says firmly. "So this is something that museums in the West may not be happy about doing, but I think that they need to take a stand." She added that the Western art market should also prepare to self-police against the illegal trade of Ukrainian artworks or looted archaeological artifacts.

Both Gerstenblith and Daniels agree that while particularly at-risk Ukrainian works should be evacuated, the sad truth is that it's probably too late at this point for most of them to be transferred to safer parts of the country or abroad. "We're simply beyond the point where that's feasible," Daniels says, likening Ukrainian curators' appeals for help to those of Iraqi cultural workers when they faced the approach of ISIS. "And you know, there was this dawning moment of realization among them that that just wasn't going to happen," he told NPR.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.