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Ukraine and the Future of the Museum

A book review of sorts.

Our Army, Our Protector, Maria Prymachenko, 1978

Figure 1: Our Army, Our Protector, Maria Prymachenko, 1978

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Preface or disclaimer

I almost gave up writing this brief text a number of times because the task seemed too large and because my thoughts and feelings expanded into a web-like form wide and deep, rather than along clear vertical or horizontal lines easily visualised and transposed into words.

I can only make connections between my Book Club pick for March, The Future of the Museum, and the Russian invasion in Ukraine based on the news I consume, which is in recent days is the BBC, SKY, RTE, New York Times, and The Times (UK). And I should be open about my view. Categorically, I believe this invasion is wrong, immoral, illegal, and unethical, and while this is not a nuanced text about politics, nor should it be perceived as black and white. I have deep sympathy for the Russian soldiers sent to their unnecessary deaths in Ukraine, and for Russian people around the world who are victims of their government’s control and power. This text links to reputable new sources, though I cannot take any responsibility for the content provided by these parties.

Brief Overview

The Future of the Museum (28 Dialogues) is a Pick'N'Mix compilation of interviews between András Szántó and high-profile museum directors assembled during various COVID-19 lockdowns, and published by Hatje Cantz in December 2020.

Wide-ranging, jargon-free, and often inspiring, it is the kind of book I see students and museum enthusiasts gravitating towards. It is a book where Black Lives Matter and the Coronavirus Pandemic loom large, and while I would not initially have believed the book was "of its moment", the events on mainland Europe in the past seven days have possibly prematurely aged the publication overnight.

The problems identified, solutions and goals suggested, and strategies of inclusion and ambition described by the museum directors (ranging from Hans Ulrich Obrist to Mami Kataoka), all remain relevant and useful as possible blueprints for the future. But as a European and arts professional it is difficult, right now, to not feel like the past week has plummeted those who value democracy and freedom, into a fraught dark age.

Cultural Heritage

Providing space for my thoughts on the invasion should not feel completely inappropriate in a book review on the future of the museum given that the invasion intersects with key concerns expressed in the above title, particularly the subject of memory and community, and what museums stand for.

Nor is the link between what is happening in the Ukraine and the subject of museums opportunistic or tokenistic. 1. Because cultural heritage is a direct target and victim of military attacks, and interrelated 2. Because cultural heritage and museums house historical artefacts and cultures, which are part of the process of nation-building, and identity-building; cornerstones (arguably) to democracy.

While the Ukraine is not a country included in this publication, it will face, like all historic and contemporary war-torn countries, challenges to repair its cultural infrastructures and also to memorialise this invasion and needless loss of life. Europe - and the Ukraine - already has a significant number of memorable, meaningful, informative, and cathartic memorials and museums to victims of previous wars, and any open tenders for public monuments, memorials, or museums (in short, emblems of our heritage, history, inheritance) are always met with widespread media coverage and critical debate in the home countries.

If the importance of this interrelationship between war/conflict and culture/heritage is still in doubt, we need only look at the death of five people at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial as a stark reminder, stretching from WWII to today, of the divergent symbolism of heritage sites for both victims and oppressor. And we should listen to present-day Ukranian Holocaust survivors, who are in a position to provide a perspective on oppression and the targeting of religious and cultural sites.

“It feels so wrong for war to come again. Why should Putin do this to us? We are outraged!” 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Igor Davidovich told The Times. (Source: NewsTalk)


Watching the invasion of Russia on the Ukraine, and the contempt that senior Russian officials have for human life and western democracy, I feel helpless.

A feeling never far away for most of us during the past two years, this feeling of helplessness is not nothing, but it is nothing compared to what those in Ukraine feel, and those in Russia, including Russian soldiers, carrying out duties because they have to; because they cannot say no.

My small brain and bank of emotions cannot understand the forms of violence, confusion, fear and loss which conflict brings. Violence against people. Against animals and nature. Against culture and heritage. Against health and education providers. Against people incapable of defending themselves.

It is difficult to remember, when we feel helpless, that help does exist, that there is still some power left for agency. I am in awe of the way in which civilians in Ukraine have stood up to defend their country, and I am in awe of the speed at which Ukraine’s neighbours, particularly Poland (a country not oppression-free) have facilitated these refugees.

Memory and Community

In his book Szántó poses similar questions across his interviews; these function as an engine in the piece. Two questions repeat throughout; paraphrased here: what is a museum today; and what should a museum be in the future? And two words recur in answer: Community. Memory.

"I think a museum is meant to engage the arts in inquiry about the history of humanity." (290) Adam Levine, Toledo Museum of Art
"Your task is to steward the collection and the collective memory within it, to hand it over to the next generation unscathed and, ideally, in a better state than you found it in." (280) Axel Rüger, Royal Academy of Arts, London
"Museums are memory banks of our civilisation." (264) Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art
"I define the term “museum” as a physical and intellectual and imagined location that is fluid and has the possibility to bring people together. It is the custodian of critical conversations, objects, and people related to the past, present, and future." (248) Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

Museums then are sites of public history, where commemoration, mourning, dialogue, learning and experiences take place. They should exist, not for History, with a capital H, propounding one narrative, but be dialogic, allowing for multiple perspectives and aesthetics.

Is this achievable?

In the recent past, Museums have been targeted by the public, as well as by their own staff and the artists they promote, for their ties to unethical patrons (Sackler Family, Warren Kanders etc.), employee rights (MFA Boston), and lack of representation in decision-making positions in their organisation. As such, there is an expectation that if they are to advance ideas of creative freedom and inclusion, they need to embed these as practices in their operations. How realistic this is, I can't comment, as running a museum is an expensive business and I don't know how realistic it is that they are blemish free. However, as a rejoinder (somewhat) I think it is equally important to reflect on Adam Levine's question,

"Whether a museum can do all the things we are now asking it to do, and still be a museum, is a legitimate categorical question" (290).

When museums are offering courses in citizenship (The House of the Seven Gables), operating food banks (Queens Museum), providing disaster emergency services (San Bernardino County Museum) and more... what really is the role of the museum, and museum staff in society? Like any other corporation, are they fulfilling the duties that our government or local council is failing to fulfil? Is this acceptable? Have we been operating double standards? Asking too much of our museums and not enough of our local elected politician? Underpaying our public servants, and allowing our tech moguls to evade taxes for too long?

What does a refugee look like?

Historic photojournalism has perhaps had a negative influence on how we imagine refugees should act or look. The European migrant crisis (the migrant is in crisis; not causing a crisis, in my view) in the past decade, often racialist in tone, which in part fuelled the xenophobic sentiment underpinning Brexit and far right growth, is a repercussion of the work of photojournalism, which is often aestheticised, bringing up difficult-to-answer questions on consent between photographer (and by extension, us, the audience) and the subject.

Ukrainian refugees, arguably, look different to what we have seen before. Perhaps this is because of mobile phone technology and the preference for video footage and testimony, over static imagery. Witnessing civilians taking up arms, speaking simply to their hand-held phone camera with determination and eloquence, presents a galvanised, heroic front, that allows the individual to speak for themselves. What is particularly striking here, is that these events and video diaries are happening in real time, and each time they are published, they assert the freedom and individuality of the person, over that of a blanket "refugee" label.

War, conflict and colonial expansion are nearly never about claiming territory only; they are about shredding communities, families, values, aspirations, voices and histories, which are all carried within individuals. They are about dehumanising people so that the perpetrator can carry out their violence with less guilt and shame, and also extend the logic that if I can dehumanise you (a you, which is now without a voice, culture, creed, or history) then I am not guilty of destroying a human; just a life. We know this is the strategy of the oppressor, from the prison-like interiors of domestic violence to full-scale military attacks. The attacks on museums, museum staff, knowledge, freedom, cultural artefacts and creative communities and audiences, is part of a military strategy.

The Future

"I do hope we will get better at this. There’s a lot to be done in telling truthful histories - histories that are painful and celebratory, told from multiple points of view, histories that reckon with our past as well as our present" (65) Anne Pasternak.

Although the Brooklyn Museum's Anne Pasternak is primarily speaking about racism and sexism; her statement can be applied more broadly. Change is coming. Diversity is coming. Pluralism is coming. Reparations are coming. New histories are coming. While the offence in the Ukraine looks like a step backward (and it certainly demonstrates a nineteenth-century military mentality) the defence by those in Ukraine and the resources at the disposal of Ukraine's allies is defiantly twenty-first century; although often wielding Molotov cocktails, the hands that wield, and the will, look towards a future, not a past like the Russian government.


Should we feel helpless?

I want to end this text with links to a number of resources from my community, ICOM and CAA, where I have membership. Resources for museum and heritage professionals, they also suggest the future of the museum; a future informed by toolkits for reparations, decolonialism, increased equality, protecting heritage from climate disaster, evacuating objects during war, and more.

I also want to end with reference to Figure 1, a work by widely-admired Ukrainian folk artist Maria Primachenko, a quantity of whose work, is believed to be destroyed in recent days. Suitably it is entitled Our Army, Our Protectors and it shows men and women united in traditional Ukranian folk dress.

If you have the means, please consider donating to reputable charity who is providing support to Ukrainian people and those immediately impacted by this conflict.


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