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Germans, Ukrainians team up to save culture

Torsten Landsberg
September 8, 2022

Since the beginning of the war, German and Ukrainian art historians have been meeting online to discuss the protection of cultural assets, as well as personal experiences.

 Arkhip Kuindzhi Art Museum, building with a musing roof, shelled walls
The Arkhip Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol was destroyed during the Russian occupation in MarchImage: Alexey Kudenko/SNA/IMAGO

"We can count the days without shelling on the fingers of our hands," said the deputy director of a museum in heavily damaged Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine. The museum itself was badly impacted by the blast wave after an explosion in a building across the street.

Until February 24, 118 people had been working here, she said. Currently, there are only nine people left. Reports like these show the extent of the war in Ukraine, not only for the people but also for the country's art and cultural assets.

Since the beginning of the Russian attack on Ukraine, art historians and employees of museums and cultural institutions from Germany have been meeting regularly online with colleagues from Ukraine.

"In the beginning, it was about getting first-hand information: What happens to the objects, colleagues?" Kilian Heck, an art historian at the University of Greifswald, told DW. Heck initiated the meetings, the first just a week after the invasion — also to counter his own feeling helplessness. "There was a complete bewilderment that needed to be channeled."

Aid transports on the ground

For a long time, the participants met weekly, most recently every two weeks. Two participants helped to translate into both languages. The first meetings were mainly characterized by descriptions of the situation and offers of help to fleeing colleagues; the focus soon shifted to the active organization of aid transports.

Sandbags piled high around a statue, building with a flag in the background
Sandbags have been piled high around statues on Mykhailivska Square in Kyiv, to protect them from blastsImage: Ty Oneil/SOPA Images/ZUMA/picture alliance

"We realized that not that many people are leaving the country, but that they need help on the ground to protect the facilities, cultural assets and infrastructure," said Heck.

Since then, the meetings have also served the purpose of agreeing on the necessary measures and material resources without any detours. This gave rise to the initiative Ukraine Art Aid Center, which, despite its German name Netzwerk Kulturgutschutz Ukraine, should not be confused with the association of the same name launched by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, also in March.

The private network promises "uncomplicated help for war-threatened museums and cultural assets in Ukraine," and has long been supported primarily by private donations, especially from major donors. The experts working in the network do so on a voluntary basis. The mood at the meetings is sometimes enthusiastic, with some participants from Ukraine confident the Russian aggressors will ultimately lose.

War on Ukrainian culture

The lists of necessary items needed by the cultural institutions are long: fireproof blankets, packaging materials for transporting objects to less contested areas in the west of the country and air-conditioning equipment to protect cultural assets from humidity or heat, to name just a few. The latter are now once again in particular demand in view of an uncertain winter, as are scanners and 3D printers to be able to digitize holdings in case they are destroyed.

The Russian attack has also unmistakably targeted Ukraine's cultural heritage. There is talk of targeted shelling of cultural institutions, and a website set up by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy listed more than 500 cases of war damage to cultural sites at the beginning of September. Photos show bullet holes or bomb impacts on the facades of museums and churches. Russian troops are said to have transported cultural goods from the occupied Ukrainian territories to Russia.

Criticism over deadline for financial aid

In order to protect the cultural assets, the network has already organized more than 20 transports with relief goods, also with the support of public funds. The German government made € 1.5 million ($1.5 million) available for measures to protect cultural heritage in Ukraine.

As DW has learned, there has been criticism — also at the political level — of the fact that the funds are tied to the current budgetary year. The sum must be "spent" by the end of 2022, according to the bureaucratic requirements.

Men carry a destroyed sculpture down the steps in front of a building
Museum workers have preserved many works, including one of philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda in KharkivImage: Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images

What is not used up by then can no longer flow into the protective measures. However, what is being said is that it is "ambitious" to purchase and settle accounts in a timely manner during a war situation, which is why an emergency fund that is exempt from deadlines would have been the more sensible measure. Heck is more reserved, but also sees it as a "challenge" to exhaust the funds in good time.

Mourning the loss together

In addition to the active aid measures, the interaction during the online meetings is significant, as it offers a forum for expressing the suffering endured by the Ukrainians. One employee of a museum in the southeastern city of Pokrovsk, near Donetsk, reports on the Coffee in the Museum initiative, in which Ukrainian colleagues provide each other with psychological support, also online, to help come to grips with the events of this year. Recently, they mourned the death of a colleague together.

Saving Ukraine's art from bombs

"The meetings are a bit different every time," said Heck, who added that they've held 20 online meetings to date. "In addition to cultural assets, it's also about very personal experiences. It's shocking when colleagues speak about murders or rapes." He himself did not initially expect the meetings to continue for months.

This article was originally written in German.