The National Museum of Ukraine in the city of Lviv was once a busy and active place. Tourists and visitors streamed in and out in large numbers every day, enjoying the opportunity to explore its impressive collections of valuable artwork, religious manuscripts, and other cultural treasures. But the museum is now closed until further notice. Meanwhile, its employees are working as rapidly as they can to protect their Ukrainian heritage and move the museum’s medieval paintings and other priceless treasures into safe storage spaces below ground.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the country’s response to it, has impacted every facet of Ukrainian life. Its precious Ukrainian cultural legacy is in grave danger, as the flames of war spread and threaten to engulf everything in their path. “Today we see how Russia is shelling residential areas (and) even people that are evacuating,” National Museum Director Ihor Kozhan told CNN. “They guaranteed they wouldn’t but now we can’t trust them. And we need to take care of our heritage because this is our national treasure.”
Russian forces burn #museum with paintings of Maria Prymachenko.
A history museum in Ivankiv town, Kyiv Oblast, was destroyed by a Russian attack, according to Ustyna Stefanchuk, an art collector. The museum had about 25 works by famous Ukrainian artist Prymachenkoю pic.twitter.com/sVJD8Eru6h
— Shah Basit (@journoShahBasit) February 28, 2022
The Risk to Ukrainian Heritage is Real and Lviv is Getting Ready
Kozhan’s concern for the safety of Ukraine’s cultural heritage and artifacts is certainly justified. On February 27, the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, which is located in the town of Ivankiv just north of Kiev, was burned to the ground following the passage of Russian forces through the area, reported Daily Art Magazine .
Local officials have accused the Russians of intentionally firebombing the museum. But whether the museum was purposefully targeted or simply caught in the crossfire, the cost of its destruction was still significant. This museum housed a collection of paintings by the internationally acclaimed Ukrainian 20th century folk artist Maria Prymachenko, whose skills and vivid and colorful style were praised and admired by art world luminaries such as Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.
A Dove Has Spread Her Wings And Asks for Peace , 1982, by Maria Prymachenko ( Daily Art Magazine / Fair use)
Top five this week | The Museum of Local History in Ivankiv, Kyiv region, has burned down during Russia’s invasion. It held 25 works by the Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko, all of which have reportedly been destroyed https://t.co/inU24GNipH
— The Art Newspaper (@TheArtNewspaper) March 6, 2022
Luckily, a local man heroically entered the burning building and saved about 10 of her paintings, all of which have now been hidden away to prevent their theft or destruction. But as many as 15 of her works may have been destroyed in the fire. This has caused great sadness in the country, since Maria Prymachenko is recognized as one of Ukraine’s greatest cultural heroes.
Andriy Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv is scrambling to protect Ukrainian Heritage. ( Vic / Adobe Stock)
National Museum in Lviv Scrambles to Protect Ukrainian Heritage
This is exactly the type of tragic outcome curators at the National Museum in Lviv are hoping to prevent, as they scramble to empty their galleries and exhibit halls before the war reaches their region. Museum workers are busy packing books, paintings, manuscripts, and other artifacts in any type of box or container they can find, including cardboard boxes donated by supermarkets and hand-made crates hammered together from pieces of scrap wood.
These valuable items of Ukrainian heritage are being prepared for what museum officials hope will be safekeeping in the museum’s basement. It is possible the items may be moved to other locations later, if fighting intensifies and the risk of destruction increases.
Elsewhere in the city of Lviv, staff and congregation members at historic churches are removing sculptures, paintings, manuscripts, and other religious artifacts and keepsakes to protect them from destruction or theft. The huge stained-glass windows at Lviv’s Latin Cathedral survived World War II, and to protect them from the latest threat church officials have ordered them to be covered over with steel plates. The city’s many historic statues are being encased in bubble wrap, which may not prevent them from being toppled but could protect them from scarring caused by stray bombs, grenades, or bullets.
Collateral damage is a fact of life in war, and cultural treasures are often lost as a result. The best chance to protect against that possibility is to prepare ahead of time, as cultural leaders in Lviv are attempting to do. If fighting does eventually reach the extreme western part of Ukraine, where Lviv is located, by that time it will be too late, as people will be too busy trying to survive to worry about the fate of heritage sites and cultural institutions.
The stained-glass windows of the Latin Cathedral in Lviv have been covered with steel plates to protect them from the ravages of war. ( Serhii / Adobe Stock)
Protection Efforts Aside, Ukraine’s Cultural Legacy Remains Threatened
In recognition of its rich cultural legacy, the city of Lviv’s historic center has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site . Proud of that designation, citizens, cultural authorities, and city leaders are hoping to save as many of Lviv’s artistic and historic treasures as they can.
But storing striking works of art and rare historical artifacts in allegedly safe places may not be enough to protect them. In times of war the social order may break down and anarchy may ensue, leading to rampant lawlessness and making security impossible to guarantee.
Following the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, plunderers and looters took advantage of the breakdown of law and order and stole or destroyed 80 percent of the 170,000 items kept in supposedly secure storage at the National Antiquities Museum in Baghdad.
This was a devastating loss, as the National Museum collection included artifacts and treasures left behind by many of ancient history’s most prominent empires and civilizations, including the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Akkadians, Persians, ancient Greeks, and Romans. The plunderers also torched the nearby National Library, and tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts and books dating back as far as the Ottoman Empire were lost in the conflagration.
Statue in Lviv, Ukraine, covered in protective cloth in attempt to protect it from the war. ( Serhii / Adobe Stock)
Acutely aware of such dangers, Ukraine’s cultural authorities are making plans to evacuate valuable Ukrainian works of art from besieged cities across the country. They would them be brought to presumably safer locations, such as Lviv. “We are ready to help in any way we can, for all the museums in the country now in danger,” Kozhan said.
Should the fighting continue to spread, however, it is possible that no location in the Ukraine will be completely safe from shelling, bombing, or looting. In the end, a quick and lasting peace offers the best hope for preserving Ukraine’s rich cultural and historical legacy . If no negotiated settlement is forthcoming, however, many more losses will certainly be experienced, adding yet another level of sadness to the unfolding human tragedy.
Top image: Ukrainian heritage is already endangered by the crisis. Here shows the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum shown burning (left) with artwork of Maria Prymachenko (right) destroyed. Source: The Art Newspaper
By Nathan Falde