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Issue 232

Olha Honchar Guards Ukraine’s Treasures

The director of Ukraine’s Museums Crisis Centre discusses her work to preserve her country’s cultural heritage

BY Andrew Durbin AND Olha Honchar in Features , Interviews | 04 JAN 23

Andrew Durbin: As the director of Lviv’s Territory of Terror Memorial Museum, which documents the crimes of the Nazi and Soviet regimes during their occupations of Ukraine, you must have been keenly aware of the scale of the threat facing your country’s cultural institutions and artefacts when the Russian Federation fully invaded on 24 February.

Olha Honchar: Before the invasion, I had read all the protocols concerning security and the preservation of heritage in conditions of war, which were internationally drafted and agreed by Ukraine as part of the 1954 Hague Convention. Afterwards, I realized that it doesn’t work, and it’s not clear how to preserve heritage when missiles are being aimed at you and your museum. This is what we are seeing now in Ukraine: the Russian army deliberately bombing our theatres, museums, libraries and archives. How to preserve heritage when bombs are flying at you is a big question, which concerns not only Ukrainians, but the whole world. We need to review these retention policies.

AD: What do you feel needs revising?

Olha Honchar, 2022. Courtesy: Valentyna Klymenko

OH: We need completely new road maps and recommendations for contemporary warfare, which should be created based on the Ukrainian experience by interviewing Ukrainian museum workers and cultural experts in the field.

AD: Shortly after the invasion, you formed the Museum Crisis Center (MCC), which works with museums and other institutions around Ukraine to preserve the country’s heritage – from shipping valuable works of art to safety, to bomb-proofing statues. How did you organize museum workers so quickly?

OH: In the first days of the war, I thought about where I was in relation to the front. My primary concern was the preservation of my own life; second, the lives of my relatives, who had to evacuate from Brovary, my hometown, which was under attack at the start of the war; and, third, the safety of the Territory of Terror Museum. In the months since the invasion, we have done everything possible – even, at times, the seemingly impossible – to provide people with funds and safety in the terrible conditions in which we have found ourselves. My huge network of friends and partners throughout Ukraine, many of whom are from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – two of our primary areas of focus – played an important role in the creation of the MCC. Then, our colleagues in the museum sector joined and expanded this network from the Donbas to ten additional regions. Our organization now includes more than 100 museums and more than 800 museum workers who are all supported by the MCC.

AD: And most of this work is based in Lviv?

Olha Honchar, the initiator of the Museum Crisis Center, in her office, 2022. Courtesy: Valentyna Klymenko; photograph: Katerina Sergatskova 

OH: In the first days of the war, Lviv became a great shelter for many Ukrainians, a point before crossing the border into Poland – and the European Union. It became a centre of humanitarian aid for other regions. Many international partners who joined us in Ukraine first arrived in Lviv. Everyone asked us how they could help further. Since the rockets did not fly at us immediately, only a little later, we got together and started working to help museums, as we continue to do. But the MCC team is hybrid – we are based in Chernihiv Oblast, Ivano-Frankivsk, Kyiv, Lviv and Uzhhorod – and we work in a hybrid format, communicating online and in person.

AD: As you and I speak in November 2022, Russia has launched an unprecedented number of rockets against Ukrainian infrastructure, leading to rolling blackouts and fears of a deadly cold winter without heating, light and water. Has your work – and your tactics – changed as a result?

OH: We have started readying ourselves for nuclear and chemical attacks. We’ve now purchased all the equipment required for this, thanks to international grants and support. We’ve also bought fire logs, coal and wood stoves, and generators. We are trying our best to keep electronic devices powered up for our working processes to continue. We are carrying on with our museum work, focusing on documenting the evidence of war. We are still interviewing witnesses to these recent atrocities, especially museum workers. Also, we have not forgotten about the witnesses to the crimes of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, whom we continuously record because they are now predominantly elderly. Unfortunately, our work at the Territory of Terror Museum slows down during blackouts. But, at the MCC, it is important that we continue to fundraise and send money to Ukrainian museum workers in need. We have new regions and new areas of risk – mostly in Southern Ukraine, where the circumstances are currently worsening.

Olesya Milovanova, director of the Luhansk Museum of Local Lore (above) and Olha Honchar, initiator of the Museum Crisis Center (below) deploy a trophy Russian parachute – an exhibit of the future Victory Exhibition, 2022. Courtesy: Valentyna Klymenko

AD: What are some of the links you’re seeing between what’s happening now and the situation in the 1930s and ’40s, when both the Nazi and then Soviet regimes sought to suppress and destroy an independent Ukrainian culture?

OH: The malevolence of the Nazi and Soviet regimes survives today as imperialist and ethnonationalist evil. People of culture, people who create meaning, have found themselves under persecution in the occupied territories – just as they have in the past. We know that the Russian army and its related mercenary groups have killed people of culture, tortured, persecuted them, including museum workers. Museums that haven’t been bombed are being turned into centres of propaganda. And those that were crushed and destroyed were then looted by the occupiers. Such methods of war, which we saw in the 1930s and ’40s, are happening again today.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 232 as part of a dossier with the headline ‘Forms of Resistance’.

Main image: Olha Honchar, the initiator of the Museum Crisis Center, in her office, 2022. Courtesy: Valentyna Klymenko

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.

Olha Honchar is a culturologist and an anti-crisis manager. She is Director of the Territory of Terror Museum in Lviv, Ukraine.