1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Ukraine rushes to save cultural heritage

March 17, 2022

As museums across the country evacuate art and cultural treasures, the curators of the Ukrainian pavilion at the Venice Biennale smuggled works to Austria by car so the show can go on.

A monument is seen covered with sand bags for protection
A monument in Odesa was covered with sand bags for protection Image: Liashonok Nina/REUTERS

As Russian missiles continue to hit Ukrainian cities, killing hundreds of civilians as residential buildings are getting shelled, another casualty of war is art and culture.

Though most museums and galleries were shut down in the wake of the initial Russian invasion, Ukrainian cultural workers have struggled to save artworks and artifacts that remain exposed to the attacks.

UNESCO World Heritage sites have been spared for now, but major cultural institutions have been destroyed, including the Mariupol Drama Theater, turned to rubble on Thursday as hundreds of people were said to be sheltering in the basement.

Meanwhile, the Sviatohirsk Cave Monastery in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine — one of the oldest monasteries in the country, dating back to 1526 — was badly damaged by Russian shelling this week.  

Now cultural protection has become a growing part of the war relief effort, both within Ukraine and internationally.

Protecting contemporary art on the front lines

From the first day of the invasion, an artist collective known as "Asortymentna kimnata" (Assorted Room), based at the Ivano-Frankivsk Contemporary Art Center in western Ukraine, has been scrambling to evacuate and preserve works from grassroots art spaces with little funding or support.

"Asortymentna kimnata was created to support local art, and now we have to not just support it, but to preserve it," said Anya Potyomkina, curator of the gallery.

The collective has created several storage bunkers at undisclosed locations and has had requests for evacuation support from galleries in Kyiv, Mariupol, Odesa, Zaporizhzhya and beyond. More than 20 collections were placed in shelters within the first 10 days of the invasion.    

Olga Honchar, the cultural manager and director of the Lviv Territory of Terror Museum — which explores the tragic chapters of Nazi and Soviet violence in mid-20th century Ukraine — organized the Museum Crisis Center soon after the invasion, with support from the European Commission and German cross-cultural association MitOst. The immediate goal, she told DW, has been to support museum staff who are no longer getting paid and are "left without money for basic necessities such as food, water and medicine. [Since]  March 3 until today, we have helped almost 200 people, including 30 museums in 8 different regions."

The Museum Crisis Center has also given financial support for packaging and preservation of exhibits, with priority given to museums from small towns and villages in the East and South of Ukraine at the epicenter of Russian attacks.

Honchar said that "our tradition of preserving our identity and resisting is not new." Such resistance is especially vital in the wake of the Russian invasion.

"Putin is ordering the bombing of museums, libraries and other cultural and artistic buildings," she said, adding that "the goal is to wipe out Ukrainian culture and identity."

The Emergency Art Fund is another example of Ukraine's fight to maintain its identity, having been established to "deal with the consequences of the Russian invasion and threats the war poses on the Ukrainian art community." The fund organizes emergency grants and administers donations and overseas residencies so Ukrainian artists can continue their work.

Evacuating artworks across borders

Meanwhile, a team from the Ukraine Venice Biennale Pavilion drove artworks from Kyiv to Austria so the display could go ahead in Italy next month.

"In times like this, the representation of Ukraine at the exhibition is more important than ever," said the Ukrainian Pavilion curators Maria Lanko, Lizaveta German and Borys Filonenko in a statement. "When the sheer right to existence for our culture is being challenged by Russia, it is crucial to demonstrate our achievements to the world."

Four people stand in a gallery backgrounded by paintings
The curators of the Ukrainian pavilion at the Biennale with artist Pavlo Makov (2nd right)Image: Privat

The key work is a sculpture by Kharkiv-based artist Pavlo Makov, "Fountain of Exhaustion," consisting of 72 copper funnels arranged in the form of a pyramid through which water struggles to travel, symbolizing exhaustion.

Steel funnels packed in a box
Funnels from the Ukrainian Biennale artwork were evacuated from KyivImage: Maria Lanko

On the second day of the invasion, Maria Lanko and members of her team managed to evacuate the key parts of the sculpture in her car from Kyiv. She spent over a week traveling between cities before making it to Austria, and is now in Milan with an architect trying to create the platform that could not be carried out.

The determination to be present at Venice is "an opportunity to remind the world that Ukraine is an independent nation with its own identity," the curators told DW. "And while our people fight for this right on a military front, we take on the cultural one." 

Meanwhile, 63-year old Makov is still sheltering in Kharkiv on the frontline of the invasion. He is also selling works on his website to raise funds to buy weapons to defend Ukraine.

Preserving Russian art amid invasion

Besieged Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine is close to the Russian border, meaning the city was attacked within days of the invasion.

Cultural institutions were quickly impacted, including the Kharkiv Art Museum, where workers are trying to save one of Ukraine's most valuable art collections by packing them into storage. Many works are by Russian artists.

"It's an irony of fate that we should be saving Russian artists, paintings by Russian artists from their own nation, it's just barbaric," said Maryna Filatova, administrator at the Kharkiv Art Museum.

With all the museum windows and doors shattered after Russian military bombed a nearby target, the museum's 25,000 works are now vulnerable to humidity and cold temperatures.  

Polish cultural solidarity

Under the banner of the Committee for Aid to Museums of Ukraine, Polish cultural institutions have also come together to protect cultural heritage in their besieged neighboring country.

Poland also suffered the destruction of cultural property during the Second World War, including the looting and annihilation of Warsaw by both the Nazi German and Soviet occupiers.

"No nation or state should ever again suffer similar losses," the committee said in a statement. "Today, unfortunately, there is a threat of this happening to Ukraine."

For Pawel Ukielski, deputy director of the Warsaw Rising Museum and co-founder of the initiative established soon after the invasion, that past damage to cultural heritage in Poland was not just a byproduct of war but was "intentional destruction," he told DW.

He says that Russian president Vladimir Putin may have similar intentions, having claimed that "there is no Ukrainian nation, no Ukrainian identity" — meaning cultural heritage could be targeted to prove his point.  

The committee's response is to offer support to all museums and cultural institutions in Ukraine to secure and relocate their collections. Ukielski said that a first shipment of special packaging materials to protect museum collections is currently arriving in Lviv.

The Committee for Aid to Museums of Ukraine also plans to provide assistance in the documentation, digitalization and inventory of collections, and welcomes international partners to join the effort. 

Ukielski says that the creation of a digital registry of cultural goods is a vital step in the process, including in the event of the looting of museums. 

Edited by Elizabeth Grenier


Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.