Artist and teacher Rymma Mylenkova has long wanted to understand how to best use public art in urban spaces as a social-development tool. In the past month, the question has become ever more urgent. Mylenkova is Ukrainian, in Philadelphia as a Fulbright Scholar at Penn’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design. She’s also working with Mural Arts Philadelphia.
Her parents remain in Ukraine, having recently left their home 20 miles from the Russian border for safety in the western part of the country. The distance from her family is hard at such a time, Mylenkova says, but she’s channeling that energy into a passion project: getting exposure in Philadelphia for the work Ukrainian artists back home have created during this war.
“Art is important,” she says. “It uses the same language and folk symbols for thousands of years, and they’re embedded in our modern narratives, in our DNA. Even if we change the narrative, those micro units of our culture, they still us give us the same building material.”
Of course, the narrative on Ukraine has changed dramatically in the month since Russian president Vladimir Putin authorized military operations in the country’s largest cities. Its toll weighs heavily, not just the lives lost, but also the displacement and fear the war has caused. Penn art historian Renata Holod understands firsthand some of those feelings.
Holod was born in Rohatyn in western Ukraine, and her cousins still live in the country. “They tell me that for now it’s OK, but they’re afraid,” she says. “I’ve also heard from two scholars I’m working with on a project who are in Kyiv. They’ve sent their kids to Moldova, and they’re hiding in the basements of their apartments. It is truly atrocious what’s happening.”
In wartime, saving human lives is a top priority. But secondary considerations often include protecting the cultural heritage also under siege. This has already played out in Ukraine. Priceless artwork and structures have been destroyed, yet people have gone to great lengths to save whatever they can.
“Imagine that your home was on fire. As soon as you get yourself and your family out, as soon as you make sure that everyone is physically safe, there’s often conversation about going back for the important family objects,” says Brian Daniels, director of research and programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center. “That’s the instinct in these situations. Museum curators and other professionals, they’re not first responders trying to save human lives, but they are the keepers of the cultural memory of the entire nation.”
The artwork and books
Those working to preserve priceless items in Ukraine join a long history of such efforts. “When the Louvre was evacuated during World War II, the conservators and curators, they stayed with the collection to make sure it wasn’t stolen and to make sure it received the care it needed,” says Daniels. Fears about harm befalling the famed “Mona Lisa,” the lore goes, prompted those protecting the painting to keep 24-hour watch.
More recently, in places like Afghanistan and Syria, archaeologists and others have acted to save artwork and ancient heritage from destruction and looting. Sean Quimby, director of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at the Penn Libraries, offers another example, of the lengths taken to save a 14th century Haggadah, the book Jewish people follow during the holiday of Passover.
“This Haggadah was removed in the 15th century from Spain when the Jews were expelled. It was taken to the Ottoman Empire, where Jews felt more secure,” Quimby says. “It came under threat again during World War II when the Nazis invaded, and there are varying threads from here; one says the library director hid it in the shelves, another says it was hidden in a mosque.” Whatever happened, the book survived, ending up in Sarajevo, where it endured another threat during a siege in the 1990s. Today what’s become known as the Sarajevo Haggadah is displayed at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Such stories are emerging from Ukraine, too. The curators of the Venice Biennale’s Ukrainian pavilion announced on social media that they had driven parts of the exhibition across the border. A group of volunteers, spearheaded by academics at Stanford University, Tufts University, and the Austrian Center for Digital Humanities & Cultural Heritage, is working to save Ukrainian cultural heritage online. And The Washington Post reported basement bunkers full of artwork.
Why do people risk so much for these items? Quimby initially posits it’s about reverence for what they are and what they hold within. But then his thoughts shift. “The story of the Sarajevo Haggadah is exceptional. In the case of Ukraine, I keep coming back to national identity,” he says. “More specifically, the way that cultural heritage, and archives in particular, can serve as rallying points for its construction.”
Modern archival administration developed after the French Revolution to promote transparency and accountability in government and to build a shared sense of nationhood. “We know that Putin is explicitly seeking to rewrite history here,” says Quimby. “What easier way to do it than to remove the evidence of that history, to deny nationhood by erasing the documentary evidence of it. That makes me worry for Ukraine’s cultural heritage.”
That’s precisely why Mylenkova is doing what she’s doing now with her compatriots’ artwork, exhibiting it at the Wilma Theater, projecting it on the wall of Philadelphia’s Ukrainian League building. “A hundred years ago, Ukrainian artists were trying to depict the ideas of independence, about how the culture of a smaller country can survive the attacks of a larger culture,” she says. “This is the circle, the spiral that develops between Russian and Ukrainian culture. But now we hope to break this circle with the support of the whole world.”
Places also constitute an important component of cultural heritage, and here, too, the war puts them at risk. “Ukraine has seven World Heritage properties,” says Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor Lynn Meskell. “It has 17 sites on the tentative list. That means they could be inscribed at any point.”
Yet, Meskell says, politics and money have gotten in the way of meaningful action on the part of UNESCO, the United Nations arm tasked with protecting such cultural heritage sites. As of this writing, Russia was still slated to host the upcoming World Heritage Committee meeting in June. “The agency charged with global heritage protection and part of the U.N. family is, to date, reluctant to censure Russia within World Heritage or remove them from the role of committee chair,” she says. “I’m just so shocked and ashamed.”
Holod herself has an archaeological project in the Ukrainian steppe looking at burial mounds created by a nomadic people called the Qipchaq. “The steppe, it’s the most amazing kind of place,” Holod says. “As far as the eye can see it’s a rolling grassland, except for these artificial mounds.” Her partners on that work are the colleagues she mentioned sheltering in their basements in Kyiv.
Stories like that, of the people in danger, fuel Meskell’s dismay. An archaeologist by training, she’s spent a significant part of her career looking at the benefits and costs to countries of having UNESCO World Heritage sites listed. She also recently finished a project asking civilians in Syria and Iraq what they need in the aftermath of their conflicts.
“This crisis, it’s an attempt to erase a nation,” she says. Perhaps for that reason specifically, she suggests it’s necessary to ask ordinary citizens in Ukraine what they need right now. “It’s first and foremost about people and that’s what we should be appalled by. Cultural remains are secondary,” Meskell says. “But people are risking their lives, as they did in the Middle East, to protect this heritage.”
Daniels says a month in, the effort on the ground is more coordinated than at the start of the war. He and colleagues in the U.S. have offered support from afar, and they’re trying to think ahead to what help might be needed in six and 12 months from now. They’re in constant communication with their counterparts in Ukraine.
For her part, Mylenkova remains optimistic, determined to show those around her the strength of the Ukrainian people, the importance of keeping alive that heritage. “The culture is embedded in everything: religion, tradition, art, words, literature,” she says. “We cherish it. It has to survive.”
Brian Daniels is director of research and programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He is also an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences.
Renata Holod is the College for Women Class of 1963 Term Professor Emerita in the Humanities in the History of Art Department in the School of Arts & Sciences. She is also curator in the Near East Section of the Penn Museum.
Lynn Meskell is the Richard D. Green Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences, and in the Department of City and Regional Planning and the graduate program in Historic Preservation in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design. She is also curator in the Middle East and Asia sections at the Penn Museum.
Rymma Mylenkova is a Fulbright Scholar at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design.
Sean Quimby is associate university librarian and director of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts and the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the Penn Libraries.