As recently as February 23, Hanna Rudyk was preparing a major exhibition at Kyiv’s Khanenko Museum. Then came the Russian attack and the curator fled to Berlin, where she was conducting a project on decolonization as part of the SPK fellowship program at the Museum of Islamic Art.
How did the war affect your work and life in Ukraine? What were you working on in Ukraine at the time before the war?
My family and I first moved to the city of Lviv in Western Ukraine. I came to Germany on April 11, together with my two younger kids.
The war changed everything. All our plans for life, work, children’s studies, training and travel became the past on the 24th of February. Everything had to be reconsidered.
At the national Khanenko Museum I have been working for almost 20 years. Although the main focuses of my work at the museum are the development of education strategy and curating of Islamic art collection, every few years I prepare a project on the history of the museum, as this is another area of my research. 2022 was to become a very special year. We had planned to celebrate the 170th anniversary of the birth and 100th anniversary of the death of Varvara Khanenko, the outstanding Ukrainian art collector and philanthropist, the founder of the museum.
I was curating a big exhibition project that involved another four national museums of Kyiv and was aimed to reconstruct the unique Khanenkos’ art collection. On the very eve of the war, 23rd of February, I was visiting our partner museum to select items for the exhibition. There were also plans to complete an archive research on the theme, to write the scripts for a radio series and a TV programme, and to compile a book about Varvara Khanenko. Russia’s invasion and full-scale war canceled out most of these plans.
How did you find out about the SPK scholarship program when you came to Berlin?
I decided to apply for the SPK grant when I was staying in Lviv. I do not remember exactly where I saw the announcement. As many other Ukrainians then, I was fervently multiplying any information on any kind of support for our people. When I learned about the grant for Ukrainian scholars from SPK, I thought this is a good opportunity for me to apply and to do what is really important now for Ukraine and its museums: to get ready to engage into decolonization discourse and movement. I believe, we are all aware now of decolonization quality of this horrible war.
You are now participating in a fellowship at the Museum for Islamic Art – what exactly are you doing there? Were you able to continue your research without any problems?
I am working on a research project dealing with the decolonization of museums. I am interested, first, in the shifting of the museum narratives in the light of new social, political and ethical challenges the Museum for Islamic art in Berlin is facing. In particular, I analyze the museum’s exhibitions, both current and planned, and their key messages to public. I close read the museum’s publications of the recent years and talk to the museum staff responsible for decisions concerning the museum’s concepts and contents. This is a new project, the idea of which I developed in Lviv, reflecting on how I can be of maximum use to Kyiv and Ukraine. The topic of the project has been long overdue for the Khanenko Museum and other Ukrainian museums. But the cliché of plans and overlapping current processes did not allow me to focus on it before.
What is the working environment like and how is working with the collection at the Museum for Islamic Art?
The Museum of Islamic Art has been truly supportive of my work. I feel deeply thankful to the museum director Stefan Weber and the staff, and especially to Roman Singendonk, the coordinator of my engagement and the curator of the museum’s innovative outreach programs addressed to the communities of origin.
I enjoyed working with Berlin colleagues. Even though the Museum of Islamic art in Berlin is much bigger than the Khanenko Museum in Kyiv and stronger in terms of research capacity, I felt completely „on the same page“ when talking to the museum staff. Museum people are usually very committed people, filled with enthusiasm and overloaded with tasks. There were many things that delighted me in their approach to work, also there were things that surprised me.
I am not dealing directly now with the museum collection in terms of attribution of artworks or provenance research. However, my theme embraces these two and other fields of the museum work to consider them in regard of decolonization ideas and movement.
Have you been able to gain any new insights during your work here in Berlin?
Yes, many. I am a novice in museum decolonization issues, this is my first personal practical experience in the field.
Were you interested in the museum’s collection before you came to Germany?
For many years already I had an idea of this celebrated collection as we have a few publications of it in our research library in the Khanenko Museum: some of them older and some really recent. Besides, before 2022 I have already been two times to Berlin to learn more about this collection and its archives.
What will be the next steps in your work? What are your plans for the immediate future?
I am now concluding my report on the Museum of Islamic Art project moving on to work with other museums in Germany and Europe. I plan to look at experiences with decolonization of narratives of non-European cultures in museums in the Netherlands and Poland. This bigger project has already been confirmed by one of the German donor institutions.
How do you think Western museums and Western cultural institutions could help Ukraine preserve its heritage?
I think the main thing they can do is to support the Ukrainian agenda in all areas of public discourse. Germany, both its government and society, struggle to accept the monstrous reality of the Russian war in Ukraine, as well as to accept economic consequences of this war for the whole Europe. In addition, even more valuable is the moral stance of unequivocal support for Ukraine from opinion leaders, to whom many German museums and other cultural organizations belong. Staying on the side of the truth, speaking and acting to the best of one’s ability in accordance with this position is what German cultural institutions can help and are already helping Ukraine to a great extent.
At the same time, the direct technical assistance German cultural organizations have been providing to Ukrainian museums, was and is, of course, is of great value for the preservation of cultural heritage.
Do you believe that culture, science and art will be able to build bridges between people and overcome the difficulties of the future?
Any truly open discussion, built on a willingness to understand each other and work out a common solution, builds bridges between people. I do not think that culture in the narrow sense of the notion, as a particular area of human activity, is any less prone to be a tool of manipulation than other areas. However, the high critical and creative potential of culture (including science and art) suggests that as an area of free discussion, culture can be particularly productive for the development of a more solidary and happier society.
What is your perspective after the end of the fellowship? Do you think you can return to Ukraine and seamlessly continue your work?
As mentioned above, I plan to continue my work in Germany, expanding the subject of my research. I am here together with two minor children, and this is the key reason why I am not returning to Kyiv for the time being. Yet, I very much hope to return to Ukraine immediately or very soon after the completion of a wider project on decolonization in European museums. I do hope that by then Russia will be defeated and the war will be over. By that time, the ideas and experience I process during my research will make up a kind of a toolkit for revising narratives and approaches of the Khanenko Museum as well as other museums presenting non-European cultures in Ukraine.
Valeria Schiller and Liuba Dyvak are art historians from Kyiv, Ukraine. When the war broke out, they fled and landed… weiterlesen
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