Solidarity with Ukraine, and practical action from museums as Russia invades 3 Mar 2022

Museum and cultural bodies internationally have united to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since hostilities began a week ago. The International Council of Museums expressed concern for staff in the war zone, pointed to resources for protecting collections and condemned the ‘violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine’. The Getty Institute said that the ‘unfolding cultural catastrophe’ means that millions of artworks and monuments are at risk – pointing to the Ivankiv Museum, north of Kyiv which has already been ‘deliberately burned to the ground’. It had contained 25 works by the Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko, now reportedly destroyed. Early in the invasion, Oleksandra Kovalchuk, Acting Director of the Odesa Fine Arts Museum, told The Art Newspaper that with Russian troops landed in the port city, “museum staff did their best to protect the collection while risking their lives”. Recent accounts are also emerging from the heart of the crisis: Dr Fedir Androshchuk, Director of National Museum of Ukraine is currently guarding his collections from potential looting. He writes: “I am very proud of my colleagues. Many of them came to the museum and helped to dismantle the permanent exhibition, pack objects, and store them in the basement. After this, two archaeologists and two young historians, my young colleagues, headed straight to the front.”

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta, DG of the Mystetskyi Arsenal National Culture, Arts and Museum Complex has written a letter appealing to international partners to ‘publicly share any successful stories of co-operation with Ukraine’ in the cultural sphere, as well as displaying the Ukrainian flag colours as an expression of solidarity. Cultural organisations and museums across the world are taking up this symbolic approach – but a highly practical response has also begun, especially from museums in Eastern Europe, building on partnerships developed in peace time. ICOM Poland is working on a plan to evacuate museum employees, and is also discussing the evacuation of objects. The National Museum in Warsaw is co-ordinating work to welcome families of employees of the National Gallery of Art in Lviv, and other museums are working on refugee programmes, or sending supplies into Ukraine. In its statement, the MA also highlights that Ukrainian museum workers may be especially vulnerable: “many…have previously been involved in human rights movements and many museums provide space for the promotion and discussion of human rights. This puts museum workers at particular risk in the current situation.”

As international businesses from oil companies to Apple withdraw from Russia, it’s clear that the same will be true for art and museum connections: the German organiser of one pan-European touring exhibition ‘Diversity United’ currently showing at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow has called for it to be ‘closed immediately’. Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko is also calling for a ban on Russian artists at international events from the Venice Biennale to art fairs. The situation continues to change rapidly, but with Russia currently shifting to more indiscriminate bombing of non-military targets, civilians and cultural heritage are in the line of fire. The Auschwitz Memorial said “As we stand at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, it is impossible to remain silent while, once again, innocent people are being killed purely because of insane pseudo-imperial megalomania. We express our absolute solidarity with the citizens and residents of the free, independent and sovereign Ukraine and with all Russians who have the courage to oppose this war”. New York Times, Apollo, maxwell museums (press summary) Auschwitz Memorial Museum, ICOM (full statement), Wall Street Journal, Art Newspaper (full set of articles on Ukraine), Evening Standard, Art Newspaper, (appeal to international partners), Getty Institute, Art Newspaper (Ivankiv Museum), Los Angeles Times, Art Newspaper, (San Francisco projections), Museums Journal (practical action from museums in Eastern Europe), Art Newspaper (call for exhibition closure), Guardian (fear for art and monuments), Twitter (account from National Museum of Ukraine)