Museum-University test 1, Kyiv
“School of Remediation”
Ergonomy and deaccelaration in the History Museum, Kyiv.
A two day micro-institution:
Sitting together at the frontline of the museum around a table with a set of objects collected at the fleamarket the day before. The borderline of the museum. You’ve paid your entrance fee and you walk up the steps into the main hall. Before you can access the temporary exhibition, you find yourself watching and maybe participating in a seminar. This seminar is the first test of the Museum-University. A series of chairs denote a new department in the making. Three tables are placed together. A small pin board – hardly obtrusive – enables a few key words to be translated and presented: Kiev Biennale/Museum-University/Welcome!/Collage/Contested, Who is/What is the Outsider/the Outside of a Museum/Source Community/Tools Work/Space/Ergonomy/Specialist/Sociologist/
We send a signal out to the visitors who enter the museum. We invite them to sit down with us at the table, and several do. Some stay for the full four hours. An Italian economist, a young man from Kyiv searching for an intellectual partnership, two very young women, hard to say if they are art students or not.
The group is heterogeneous: artists, historians, linguists, students who do guided tours at the Pinchuk art centre in town, members of staff from the history museum. We speak English. There are only a couple of people who can’t speak it, and I can’t understand any Ukrainian or Russian.
To set off the inquiry, I ask participants to go individually to the fleamarket in Petroska on Saturday morning. We are to search for ‘contested’ objects, artefacts that generate complex meanings, that operate on the edge of controversy or ambivalence, whatever their period or materiality. Each person works with a double desire: to collect something that fits the description and something they want to own. I obsess about finding a fur coat, like I’d need it in Berlin but also in Kyiv. By the end of the first day I know deep down that I want to live in Kyiv, to move to the city, to rent an apartment and negotiate a new situation with artists and intellectuals. The Museum-University is a first test, an experiment to see how thoughts are moving and how bodies relate to museological space. In some ways the body issue is the most important.
Our collected objects collected include:
– one Russian dinner plate with painted pansies
– four plastic shopping bags produced in the 1990s with various graphic designs and patterns
– two versions of cardboard files for placing documents (with Russian name tags)
– one Russian postman’s bag made from thick canvas with a metal lock and handcuffs attached to the handle
– a set of 6 Bakelite cheese knives in an arc shaped holder
– three porcelain doll’s limbs: two legs and an arm with a broken finger
– a thick rough slice of beeswax
– one red and black teapot commemorating Lenin’s life (with dates of birth and death)
– one trolley symbolic of the first President Kravchuk and called a “Kravchuka”
– two t-shirts, on one: ‘Make Pirogi not War’ of Hawaian/Chinese origin, and one with two photographs of the same family wearing sunglasses.
– 6 Soviet drinking glasses by the designer M
– one small piece of lead placed in a small handmade net bag made of green nylon fishing tackle
– one metal top-piece for a shoe with various indented signs and numbers
– a picture book on the massacres at Katinka
– a black Astrakhan coat
– a black and blue enamel pendant
– a floppy doll in dark plastic with a frightened expression
– a giant bubble blowing toy with a rabbit lid
– a wind-up clock
– a book with instructions for sewing clothes for overweight women
– illustrated cards with recipes
– one plate with red and gold decorative rings
– one painted tin for storing milk-based sweets
– one small glass bottle used for medical ‘leeching’
– one plastic fashion ring possibly made by prisoners
– one glass painted gherkin to hang on a Christmas tree
On the first day of the Museum-University we meet at a small restaurant near the History Museum. We have been to the fleamarket and are coming together for the first time. A short while later we set up our ‘lab’ backstage on the top floor of the museum in a temporary exhibition space. We spend several hours looking at the different objects and discussing them, each purchaser explaining why he or she bought what they did. We decide to place three tables at the entrance to the museum. These tables and the twenty odd chairs are retrieved from the disused café area of the museum. In the same dark area near the toilets in the museum’s basement is a new depot: the gathering ground for objects sent in by people from the frontline of Ukraine’s war. Shrapnel, shards, and oddly formed artefacts are placed on surfaces waiting to be inventorised.
I can’t read the texts in the museum, but I’m told that they present a particular perspective on Ukraine’s history, something that is far from neutral. None of the texts are translated into a second language. But luckily there are more objects than texts: neat displays and quasi heraldic constellations of photographs and old utensils, carriages, agricultural implements, and reconstructions of bourgeois homes. In one room a man plays the piano, in another, a woman in nineteenth century dress smiles attractively and begins to describe the environment on display. In nearly every room a woman of fifty plus sits calmly in the corner of the room on an easy chair, handbag placed on her lap, calmly watching the visitors. Sometimes she’s arranged the space to accommodate her needs: a window will be partially open to let in a light breeze, a mirror lies on a sill, a book or a drink is at hand. She turns the lights on as visitors enter the room. It’s a dense and exhausting experience for most of them. The director explains to me that ‘Excursi’ or guided tours leave people shattered. She has divided the entrance ticket by departments so one can visit less at one time.
Around the table at the Museum-University we discuss national ‘common’ knowledge. I question migrancy and collections. What happens when a visitor does not share the ‘common’ knowledge but brings another set of references to the experience? Is this ignorance to be corrected? Are members of the public in danger of misreading an essential ingredient of Ukrainian historical facticity? What hierarchical sub-text underlies the difference between a national citizen of Ukraine and a non-national, foreign visitor? For whom is this museum intended today? What was ‘common’ knowledge during the soviet period and what is it in today’s ‘globalised’ world?
I think about the reflections of non-common visitors. What to do about stagnant