Museums Disasters Ukraine

Kiev’s cultural sites caught in the crossfire as protests turn deadly

The National Art Museum of Ukraine and the Ukrainsky Dom have been at the centre of violent skirmishes

Fires erupted in Maidan (Independence Square) when security forces attempted to remove anti-government protesters' camps. Photo: @euromaidan

As events in Kiev appeared to spin out of control today and veer towards civil war, cultural leaders issued appeals to assess the impact of the violence on the city’s heritage. Several of Kiev’s major cultural sites have been caught in the midst of the on-and-off street battles that have gripped the city since January. After nearly a month-long lull, the fighting again turned deadly Tuesday, with 13 people reported killed, including two police officers.

At the time of posting, the National Art Museum of Ukraine nearby was still blocked off and closed to the public behind a police cordon on Hrushevskoho Street, the epicentre of a standoff that began as a peaceful protest in November and exploded into anti-government violence in January. Paintings have been hidden to protect them from the soot of fires set for warmth outside the museum walls. According to local reports on Tuesday, Berkut riot police were camped out in front of the museum. A spokeswoman for the museum told The Art Newspaper last week that as a protective measure, staff continue to spend the night at the museum and that they have advised the police on how to avoid damaging the institution.

By Tuesday evening, the Facebook page of the Ukraine branch of the International Council of Museums (Icom) reported that Ukrainsky Dom (Ukraine House), which had been seized by protesters last month, had been recaptured by security forces, reigniting fears about the fate of the collection there. The government building houses the Kiev History Museum and had been previously served as a museum dedicated to Lenin in the Soviet era. “What is happening inside is unknown,” the post on the Icom Ukraine’s page read.

When the building was first taken by protesters on 25 January, it sparked a flurry of panicked posts that night on Icom Ukraine’s Facebook page. “The unthinkable is happening,” a post read. “Ukraine House is surrounded by activists of Maidan [Independence Square]. The museum collection has become hostage of a situation that can spin out of control at any minute.”

Later, in a detailed account of the night’s events, Aleksey Kopytko of the Ukrainian Center for Museum Development described efforts to keep both sides mindful of the museum’s stores, as protesters threw stones at police, who responded with fire hoses in the -15°C cold. He wrote that doors were found unsealed and boxes opened and he witnessed two minor attempts at looting during the chaotic night, but the situation was quickly brought under control.

“Everyone was quite agitated after the skirmishes,” Kopytko wrote. “But as soon as they heard the request to leave the room because it houses a museum collection, they would stop, sometimes ask a few questions about the museum, then turn around and leave.”

The National Art Museum of Ukraine has been closed to the public behind a police cordon on Hrushevskoho Street, the epicentre of a standoff
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