Charlotte Foster


Meet the experts working to preserve Ukraine’s cultural history

Meet the experts working to preserve Ukraine’s cultural history

As the war in Ukraine wages on, officials are growing increasingly concerned about the preservation of the country’s art history and cultural heritage. 

As historic museums and buildings are being bombed by the Russian offensive, while precious artefacts are being stolen and looted. 

"We have museum buildings destroyed, with all collections turned into ashes — it's quite a barbaric situation," curator and art historian Konstantin Akinsha tells ABC RN's Sunday Extra.

"[The] other side of the problem is that in little towns which are occupied by Russians, we have the first cases of random looting of museums."

Recently, Scythian gold artefacts dating back to the fourth century BC were stolen from a museum in the southern Ukraine town of Melitopol.

Officials in Ukraine said Russian soldiers were accompanied by an unknown expert "in a white coat", who carefully extracted the ancient gold artefacts from cardboard boxes hidden in the museum's cellar.

"This is one of the largest and most expensive collections in Ukraine, and today we don't know where they took it," Melitopol mayor Ivan Fedorov said at the time.

Mr Akinsha, who is an expert on the cultural destruction of World War II, says he is now “reliving” what he learned during his studies “in real time”. 

He has been in contact with many curators and artists throughout the conflict, and reports that many museums have been unable to evacuate their collections in time. 

Moving them outside of Ukraine would be highly political and would require permission from national authorities. This has meant some of those looking after art have been forced to pack up the collections and live in the museums' cellars.

According to Ukraine officials, more than 250 cultural institutions have been damaged or destroyed since the conflict began in February. 

Since the start of the war, members of the ALIPH Foundation, an international alliance that works to protect cultural heritage both during and post conflict, has been helping cultural heritage professionals and museum directors in the Ukraine.

 They have sent crates, packing material and fireproof blankets to institutions to help protect collections and respond to their needs.

"The storage facilities themselves need to be up to standard … [they] need to have proper humidity control, be away from the elements and the packing boxes need to be of a certain calibre in order to protect the artefacts because these artefacts are, of course, precious and fragile," said Sandra Bialystok, the communications and partnerships officer for ALIPH Foundation.

Despite the huge challenge of protecting these cultural works, Konstantin Akinsha said their preservation is uniting the people of Ukraine. 

"In individual towns and villages attacked by Russians and occupied by Russians, people are trying to save objects from the local museums, hiding them in their houses," he says.

"Because for them, this heritage is extremely important – it's part of their life.”

Image credits: Getty Images

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