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 March 17 as hundreds of people were said to be sheltering in the basement.
Meanwhile, the Sviatohirsk Cave Monastery in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine — the oldest monastery 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. "We care that we do not lose visual art objects either in the rear or near the front line. After all, this war is also, of course, a war of cultures," said Alyona Karavai, a co-founder of the collective.
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 a museum crisis fund called "Ambulance Museum" soon after the invasion, with support from the European Commission and German cross-cultural association MitOst. The goal, she said, was "to protect the local heritage."
Nearly 20 museums in four regions have since received 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. In addition, the Emergency Art Fund was set up to "deal with the consequences of the Russian invasion and threats the war poses on the Ukrainian art community" by organizing, for example, emergency grants, administering donations and overseas residencies so 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."
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. 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. Meanwhile, 63-year old Makov is still sheltering in Kharkiv on the frontline of the invasion. He is 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.