Words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
How one woman is leading Ukraine’s Museum Crisis Center in the race to preserve the country’s vast cultural legacy from permanent destruction.
One year ago, on February 24, 2022, Russian forces launched their invasion of Ukraine.
At 8:00 am Olha Honchar—director of Lviv’s Territory of Terror Memorial Museum—was at work early like any other day. That was when she heard the air raid sirens blaring for the first time across her hometown; the moment life changed forever. Having spent her decades-long career studying the crimes on art at the hands of the Nazi and Soviet regimes during their respective occupations of Ukraine, the scale of the threat facing her country’s cultural legacy was immediately clear.
“To be a museologist at war is to think not only about yourself, about your safety, and the safety of your family, but also about [the safety of the country’s] museums,” she said. “We are responsible for [preserving] this heritage.”
Honchar says she spent the first few hours of the invasion on the phone to her colleague Olesya Milovanova, who worked at the Luhansk Regional Museum of Local History, a city in eastern Ukraine that is home to the country’s largest collections of sacred Polovtsian statues. The city was already seized in March, 2022, days after the invasion started, leaving little time for evacuations and for effective efforts to protect the museum’s artifacts to materialize. In September, Russia formally gained possession of all the artifacts in the Donetsk Regional Museum of Local History alongside the Luhansk Art Museum and the Luhansk Museum of History and Culture after Vladimir Putin signed a decree of annexation.
“The main question I was faced with became clear to me,” Honchar said. “How can we best help our fellow museum workers who are integral to the fight against the occupation?”
Beyond the immeasurable suffering and loss caused by the war, which has displaced millions and left many more living under precarious circumstances, the last 12 months have also seen cultural destruction on a mass scale, eradicating entire collections of art, demolishing historical monuments, and devastating some of Ukraine’s most prominent museums and galleries. As of February 15, 2023, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has verified damage to 240 sites, including 105 religious sites, 18 museums, 86 buildings of historical and artistic interest, 19 monuments, 12 libraries. These are, of course, just those that have been confirmed. There are countless more artifacts, including paintings, prints, textiles, manuscripts, and sculptures, that have been destroyed without a trace.
“To be a museologist at war is to think not only about the safety of your family, but also about the safety of the country’s museums. We are responsible for preserving this heritage.”
The cultural losses of war are not singular to Ukraine. Conflict has time and again erased irreplaceable cultural landmarks and artifacts with artistic and historical value in war zones across the world. More than 10% of the historic buildings of Aleppo, Syria, have been demolished, and at least 40 museums have been “affected” by war across Syrian territories, according to UNESCO. In Iraq, out of the four sites currently on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including Ashur, Hatra, Samarra, Erbil Citadel, the first three are considered to be in danger, meaning that their cultural and historical characteristics of interest are at risk of annihilation. It seems that, as the scale of human loss reaches incomprehensible levels and the ecological damage from bombing and shelling intensifies, the extent of cultural destruction inevitably increases, too.
Speaking from firsthand experience, Honchar is adamant that the cultural preservation protocols must be amended to accurately respond to the dangers of contemporary warfare. “In the areas where bombs have been dropping on us and our museums since the first days of the war, we must conduct surveys with analysts, speak with museum staff members, interview directors and local authorities, and discuss with our Ministry of Culture to derive new methods to preserve our culture,” she told Atmos, referring to questions like: What existing protocols do we need to update? How do we go about bomb-proofing valuable artifacts? Where can we store them in order to guarantee the survival of our artistic history?
Honchar’s first step was to launch The Museum Crisis Center, an organization dedicated to preserving Ukraine’s buildings, sculptures as well as local artworks and fine prints. One of the ways it achieves this is by shipping one-off artworks to safe houses or moving statues into shelters to protect them from bombings.
“By March 3, 2022, we had started providing financial support for museum workers who remained [in areas under siege] to preserve collections in their cities, during evacuations or under occupation,” said Honchar. “This is the main focus of our mission with the Museum Crisis Center: to support local people. After all, they are carriers of unique knowledge. Without them, there is no hope of saving our museums or exhibitions.”
During the first few weeks of the war, the Museum Crisis Center’s efforts were concentrated on financially and emotionally supporting museum workers of Luhansk Oblast “as that was the first [region] to be occupied,” Honchar said. The organization encouraged individuals evacuating war zones to take art works with them to safety if they were able to. As the war intensified, so too did Honchar’s efforts, extending financial support for gas, food, medicine, and water to individuals and communities unable to evacuate high-risk areas.
“We are re-documenting destroyed artifacts in order to preserve and eventually communicate our collective experiences. One day, we will tell the whole world about it.”
In situations where works of art cannot be evacuated to safety, Honchar is now beginning to lean on new technologies utilized during her time at the Territory of Terror Memorial Museum. The hope is to create online versions of existing museums using 3D scans of Ukraine’s artifacts, sculptures, and works of art. Not only does this future-proof the content of the country’s museums, it will also make exhibitions and permanent collections accessible to a wider audience, who can download the curated 3D scans without stepping foot inside a building.
The plan is not without its risks. “The war is not only waged on Ukraine’s physical sites, but online too,” said Honchar, referring to Russia’s multiple cyber-attacks over the last few years. “There are often attacks on various sites and servers. So, we are saving three or four different versions of everything, be it documents, books, painting or simply museum charter documents. Once we are done, everything will be available on a flash drive. But of course not everything can be restored.”
Beyond distributing practical aid and preserving existing collections, the Museum Crisis Center is going one step further: to create a new archive that chronicles the lives of museum workers and their attempts to remember and restore their culture during times of war.
“We are beginning to really document the war [on our terms],” said Honchar. “In The Okhtyrka Municipal Local History Museum in northeastern Ukraine, for instance, we have started interviewing museum workers about the reality of working on cultural preservation efforts during war, including our fight for survival, our dedication to museum restoration, and our radically changing line of work. We are also re-documenting destroyed artifacts in order to preserve and eventually communicate our collective experiences. One day, we will tell the whole world about it.”