Rescuing art in Ukraine with foam, boxes and cries for help

LVIV, Ukraine — A month after the Russian army invaded Ukraine, photographer Roman Metelskiy stood on the platform of this western city’s domed modernist railway station, surveying trains filled with women and children evacuated from the east. But he was waiting for a carriage in the other direction. East, West, was full of Bubble Wrap.

Few Ukrainian cultural institutions had prepared for a full-scale invasion. Museums, churches, castles and libraries had no materials or guidance on how to preserve the country’s valuable art.

“We had to start from scratch,” Metelskiy said. “We were asking for packaging materials. For financial support. For tips on how to store and pack things.”

So, with the government on a war footing, he and other arts professionals formed an ad hoc preservation committee, the Center for the Rescue of Cultural Heritage, over coffee in early March. (In this Habsburg city, Mr. Metelskiy explained, “everything happens over coffee.”)

“We were quite shocked,” Metelskiy said. “We thought the instructions already existed.”

Ivan Shchurko, a member of the Lviv regional parliament who was at the cafe meeting that first day, recalled feeling scared and disoriented as they searched for help. “We were looking for people with the same interests, the same values,” he said.

They contacted a dozen Polish museums and palaces, and on March 27 a train arrived from Warsaw loaded with cardboard boxes and bags of Styrofoam pearls. Another emergency shipment arrived on April 4, containing wrapping materials and protective gloves from Norway and Denmark. Other supplies came from libraries in Germany, Latvia, and Estonia, and from museums in Britain and Slovenia.

Teams in Lviv packed the packaging materials into vans or the backs of their cars, transporting the supplies across the country to vulnerable institutions in Chernihiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia. By June, Mr. Shchurko and Mr. Metelskiy presided over mounds of foam-core boards and reams of plastic wrap filling the lobby of a university library: humanitarian aid of a more cultural kind.

“In times of war, there are two irreversible losses: the people and our culture,” said Mr. Metelskiy. “The rest can be rebuilt.”

As the Ukrainian military steps up its counteroffensive in the east this summer, heritage specialists in the west are engaged in a related battle: preserving Ukraine’s monuments, museums, historical collections and religious sites. The Russian invasion is a culture war to the core, and heritage sites have been damaged by both errant bombing and targeted destruction. Ukraine accused Russian-led forces of looting the occupied cities of Mariupol and Melitopol. Regional museums outside the capital Kyiv and the northeastern city of Kharkiv have been burned to the ground.

But where Ukraine’s soldiers have relied on a central chain of command, its civilian army of academics, curators, archivists and architects says it has had little guidance.

Officials of Kyiv and regional administrations have certainly taken steps to keep the country’s heritage intact. The national culture ministry has organized workshops, obtained commitments from international partners and maintained a public database of damaged and destroyed monuments for future legal claims.

“Before the large-scale war, we were not prepared for such a barbaric action, although the ministry was doing everything to protect our cultural sites,” said Kateryna Chuyeva, deputy minister of culture, during a March briefing on the destruction. of Churches and Historical Archives of Ukraine. “But what we are witnessing now in western Ukraine is that people are very committed to defending and protecting cultural sites.”

The ministry has been scant on details about how many collections it has helped evacuate, citing the exigencies of war. However, interviews with museum directors and other heritage leaders in Lviv and Kyiv had a common refrain: if you wanted practical necessities, you had to find them yourself.

“Our officials who cut us off and leave the cultural sphere with minimal resources, make us work even harder,” Metelskiy said.

So, by coordinating through WhatsApp groups and WeTransfer archives, and raising funds on crowdfunding platforms, they have made significant strides in preserving endangered icons and works of art, and they have done it mostly for themselves.

“It’s very difficult, but it’s a great opportunity to help my colleagues,” said Olha Honchar, 29, director of the Territory of Terror Memorial Museum, which documents the city’s Nazi and Soviet past. “From the first day of the war, we understood that the Lviv region would become a refuge and that the Lviv museums would be mediators of the donor countries.”

In early March, Mrs. Honchar establish a non-profit organization which has channeled financial support to more than 750 museum workers in eastern and southern Ukraine. The payments, mostly under $100 and delivered through a smartphone app, have helped keep arts institution employees afloat as their salaries go unpaid.

While European cultural institutions welcomed the Ukrainian refugees, those who remained needed immediate humanitarian assistance that those art institutions were not prepared to provide. Foreign donors were reaching out, but they wanted spending controls that people caught up in war couldn’t provide.

“We need packing materials,” said Ms. Honchar. “But we also have to help the people who work with these packaging materials. We must support the human potential of culture in Ukraine.”

Lviv, which passed from Austrian to Polish to Soviet control in the 20th century, has seen its heritage threatened before. The Nazis looted the city’s art collections during World War II; a drawing by Dürer now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington it was kept in a library in Lviv until 1941. After World War II, the Soviet authorities suppressed not only abstract art, but also art with Ukrainian nationalist themes and art religious, including baroque statues. by Johann Georg Pinsel, the city’s most important Habsburg-era artist.

Now Pinsel’s twisted saints on the facade of Lviv’s St. George’s Cathedral are wrapped in gray plastic bags, wrapped with twine and tape. When asked about those who threatened the cathedral’s works of art, Roman Kravchyk, the archpriest, touched the jeweled crucifix he wore around his neck and murmured, “May God have mercy on his souls.”

Ms. Honchar and her colleagues in Lviv have helped evacuate collections from some smaller regional museums to the relative safety of western Ukraine. Some institutions in Kharkiv and Chernihiv also managed to transfer parts of their collections here. At least one museum in Odessa had the foresight to organize a major traveling exhibition in January to save its holdings.

Lviv’s National Art Gallery, the country’s largest art museum with more than a dozen branches in the city and surrounding region, made only cursory preparations before the invasion. At first, few thought the war would reach this far west, but a missile fell about 200 meters from one of the institution’s castles, with a fragile collection of Chinese and Japanese ceramics on its premises.

Vasyl Mytsko, a senior museum official, expressed the evacuations with a dark optimism born of Ukraine’s tumultuous history. “In the Ukrainian language,” he said during an air alert, “we have a saying: We had no happiness, so unhappiness helped us.”

The museum funds they are safe for now. The painting collection prizes have been moved to various undisclosed locations. But many of Pinsel’s gilded statues remain, draped in simple black tarps.

Moving art is a dangerous business, and not just because in a war zone it can be more dangerous to move a collection than to leave it in place. Such evacuations require official approval, which was nearly impossible to obtain once the invasion began. Several museums in Kherson, now under assault as Ukraine tries to recapture the city from Russian occupation, were ready to move their collections to safer locations but were unable to get the necessary signatures.

“They were abandoned, I would say,” Metelskiy said, when asked about the dilemmas museum directors face. “There was no order, no direction of what to do. And they couldn’t make a decision for themselves, because if they did and something went wrong, they would be criminally liable. And now these places are occupied or destroyed.”

In the absence of central planning, Ukraine’s cultural figures were based on horizontal connections. In Lviv, that meant taking advantage of contacts with institutions across the border, in Poland.

Liliya Onyshchenko, head of the Historical Environment Protection Department of the Lviv City Council, approached her Polish colleagues in search of hundreds of water mist fire extinguishers, essential protection for the countless wooden churches in the Lviv region. Fire blankets were another critical question; Monuments across the city are now wrapped in protective materials shipped from Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and other Polish cities. (Some valuable monuments are also surrounded by cages or scaffolding so that if a shock wave breaks them apart, the pieces will stay together.)

“You cannot understand that such a thing is possible in the 21st century, especially when the library burned down in Mariupol,” Ms. Onyshchenko said. She has dedicated her entire life to cultural preservation and takes it all very personally. “You give birth and raise a son,” she said, “and then a barbarian comes, who in a single day takes your son from you.

“It is the same with cultural heritage. You are working on it, restoring it, doing it in great detail, with love. And then a missile and it’s gone.”

Others in Lviv have looked to the United States and the Ukrainian diaspora. The Center for the Rescue of Cultural Heritage partnered with a nonprofit organization in Washington, the Foundation to Preserve the Sacred Arts of Ukraine, which provided some of the initial funds to transport boxes and foam.

Two Ukrainian-speaking curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (one Ukrainian and one Polish) recorded videos on how to wrap a painting correctly (with cotton tape between the face and the plastic) and how to transport it safely (hands on the sides). of the frame, never the top).

One of the commitments made by the conservationists on the Lviv march is that no one should be caught flat-footed like them. “We also understand that our expertise in the field of heritage preservation will be invaluable to the world community,” said Mr. Shchurko, standing in front of the stacked cardboard boxes of his organization.

“The war crystallized everything, made everything brighter,” Shchurko continued. “We have always understood and said that our heritage is valuable. But the feeling of how important and valuable it is to us – this feeling comes only with losses.”

Oleh Chuprynski contributed reporting from Lviv.

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