The Museum is Open for Renovation is project by DE NE DE initiative. It aims to make museums more open to the public and to train museum workers in new forms of work.
Since 2015, the project has helped museums to change. Since the beginning of the full-scale war, they have got a new mission – saving museums. The project received the House of Europe’s support for this purpose twice.
We spoke with Leonid Marushchak, the project’s leader, to find out how the Museum is Open for Renovation’s activity changed after 24 February and their plans after the victory.
What was before?
The story of the Museum is Open for Renovation project is closely connected to the Revolution of Dignity and Russian aggression in 2014. The following year, Leonid Marushchak, a historian from Vinnytsia, and his colleagues from the Ukrainian initiative DE NE DE tried to understand what had happened and how Russia had managed to attack Ukraine. As a result, a question occurred: ‘How well do we know the east of our country?’.
‘Personally, for me, 2014 was marked by some disappointment in myself. At that time, I had a lot of close people in Crimea whom I could easily call and ask what exactly was going on and understand causal relationships, Leonid Marushchak explains.
But with the east, it was problematic, as I had no direct contact with people in Donetsk or Luhansk that I could call in the same way.
That is why with a few other people, we were wondering what was going on there, why it had happened that way and what would happen next. It was not an option for us to lose Donetsk and Luhansk’.
Leonid felt that he could find the answers in the east itself. It was unclear how to do it when you do not know whom to ask questions: ‘what was before?’, ‘what is happening now?’ and ‘what will be in the future?’. So DE NE DE decided to organise field research and expeditions to find answers. At that moment, it was much more complicated than you could imagine.
Our first visits to the east were peculiar. Imagine: it is 2015, the cities just got de-occupied, and the situation is still tough. We came in big groups of young people, mostly modern Ukrainian artists. We spread around the cities looking for answers to our questions.
Finding points of contact between the cities and their history was difficult. DE NE DE found three: museums to answer the question ‘what was before?’, the streets for the question ‘what is happening now?’ and City Councils to tell ‘what will happen in the future?’.
‘Markets were the only accessible places where we found most information about city life and its modernity. Those are the biggest communication centres of Ukraine, and we cannot deny that,’ Leonid Marushchak assures.
Back then, while searching, they figured out that museums could provide answers to all three questions the participants of the initiative were interested in. So they wanted to delve deeper into the museums of the east, to hold events for workers and visitors there on a regular basis.
For a few years, the project participants conducted expeditions in the eastern cities and contacted museum workers. They ‘renovated’ the institutions: helped to reorganise the work, looked for new formats of interaction with the visitors, updated the material base, and held educational events for the museum workers.
Over time, it became clear that the project was moving in the right direction as the museum sphere needed modernisation. On the whole, at the beginning of 2022, the Museum is Open for Renovation had more than 80 active participants among museums all over Ukraine and 200 more that joined from time to time.
The name reflected the need for modernisation and was created thanks to one of the museums with which the initiative started.
‘In 2015, I went to Sloviansk with Zhenia Moliar, the project’s team member. We were looking for a place to hold an event about de-communisation. We chose the local history museum, Leonid remembers. I remember it clearly: we came at 15.45, knowing it would close at 16.00. But we were told that the museum was already closed because there was a bus at 16.00 and the workers had to catch it.
And I was so pissed off! So that is why we decided to add this openness to the name, as it should be. Problems cannot be solved when you do not voice them.’
What is happening now?
In 2022, the Museum is Open for Renovation planned to expand its activities and cooperate with a few museums in the south and the west of Ukraine. But since 24 February, we have to literally save the museums.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to talk about the project’s activity now. The information is confidential, and spreading it will only harm the museums. However, Leonid is sure that after the victory, they will be able to make all the details public. In short, the Museum is Open for Renovation continues to take care of the museums and help with their requests.
‘Unfortunately, we cannot tell you a lot, Leonid Marushchak explains. But I can provide an example of Toretsk, Donetsk Oblast, a city located just five kilometres from the frontline. The city is on the brink of a massive communications disaster. There is electricity from time to time, but no water. There is also a huge House of Culture built exactly 50 years ago. It has a winter garden, the seedlings for which were brought from the botanical garden in Abkhazia, Sukhumi. Note the symbolism: at first, Russia occupied Abkhazia and is now trying to destroy Ukraine.’
In recent months, the Museum is Open for Renovation has been trying in every way to save the garden: they carry generators, blowers, polycarbonate film, and provide moral support to the employees of the House of Culture. As Leonid says, it is fundamental for them:
‘Obviously, while people are constantly being killed, nobody, especially locally, will provide any money for culture. But it is fundamental for us because not only the House of Culture is an object of modernism that needs attention, but also all those plants. We cannot just silently observe them disappear.’
Despite such confidentiality and the impossibility of learning about the project in detail, House of Europe decided to support the Museum is Open for Renovation as part of a larger effort to safeguard cultural heritage in Ukraine. According to Ilona Demchenko, a House of Europe programme manager, it became possible because the organisation knew about the previous achievements of the initiative.
‘Leonid Marushchak asked us to support their efforts financially, Ilona Demchenko says.
The project’s general aim was clear for us: to help the museums in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and later on Odesa, Mykolaiv, and Kherson. That was needed urgently, so House of Europe had to make unusual decisions, and had the blessings of the EU for that. We compensated the costs of packaging materials, transportation, and remuneration for the team’s work.
It was crucial for us to support this initiative. We admire the team’s efforts because their work is very difficult and sometimes even dangerous.’
Leonid is sure that the project would have been impossible to implement without the support from House of Europe:
‘House of Europe are the only ones who, in our case, understanding who we are and what we do, gave us money for institutional activity. Even knowing that we cannot talk about what exactly we do.’
Spheres of the Museum is Open for Renovation’s activity have been expanding ad hoc after 24 February 2022. After the de-occupation of Trostianets, the local history museum needed help, and the project decided to respond.
‘One of the first facilities that suffered in Trostianets was a huge museum complex based on the 18th-century architectural monument ‘Manor of Koenig’, Leonid Marushchak says. There is a local history museum in one of its outhouses. When the Russians came to the city, they simply shot at the door of the museum to come inside. And by a nasty coincidence, it was the only original door in this estate that had survived everything before.’
Right after the de-occupation, the project participants came to the local history museum in Trostianets to assess the extent of the thefts and destruction. Leonid paid his attention to the scattered remains of the door. They decided to send it for restoration, but the experts said that the door could not be restored.
‘We did not believe it and invited Frankivsk that should be protected initiative which deals with the restoration of doors, Leonid Marushchak notes. They said that those remains could become a ready-made museum exhibit. Now, the initiative makes an exact reconstruction and adds the original elements that were best preserved.’
What will happen in the future?
Even during the full-scale invasion, the Museum is Open for Renovation is thinking about the future of the museum sphere and is getting ready to launch an educational project jointly with the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. It will be a one-year programme for ten museum workers and two managers in the field of culture that will include learning English and taking monthly trips to countries that have experience working with museum funds and collections.
‘We chose the participants that have undeniable experience working in crises, Leonid Marushchak explains. They proved to be very efficient. It gives faith that these people will be engaged in it for the rest of their lives. So it would be great for them to get back to their work with a new way of thinking after the end of the war.’
Leonid sees a great need to involve more young people in the museum industry, as the institutions were and still are pretty conservative. It looks like it is difficult for the workers to understand that we do not assess them from the personal point of view but want to tell and show that there are other forms of work.
For now, the project’s main aim is to preserve the things the Ukrainian museum fund has and to continue making museums more open to people. And the war cannot hamper this. It just adds new challenges.
I always tell the museum workers: “Show me the door in your museum which I have to enter in order not to be told to piss off when I start suggesting doing something not the way you used to do for decades”.
Sofiia Panasiuk, photos — personal archives of Leonid