The ATO Museum in Dnipro – Between Trauma and Propaganda
By Elżbieta Olzacka (Jagiellonian University, Kraków)
During one excursion of the Transregional Academy “After Violence: The (Im-)Possibility of Understanding and Remembering”, we visited the Diorama “Battle for Dnipro” and the ATO Museum located in the same building. The diorama was opened in 1975 on the 30th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War. Both places are now part of the Dmytro Yavornytsky National Historical Museum of Dnipro.
The diorama is dedicated to the one of the largest military operations of the Second World War, which took place in the Dniepropetrovsk region in autumn 1943. The giant painting was originally created as a unique monument, commemorating the Soviet soldiers’ heroic deeds during the crossing of the river. Its restoration carried out last year has allowed not only for technological modernization, making it one of the most modern museum exhibitions in Ukraine, but also for displaying a new historical narrative that tries to deal with the myths of the Great Patriotic War. What’s particularly interesting is that the new narrative overlaps with the old literally at the moment when the historical image is physically obscured by a modern, panoramic screen, which displays a fictionalized document emphasizing the multitude of the victims of this dramatic battle and the war effort of local, often unarmed soldiers.
On the ground floor of this building dedicated to the war from the last century, a new exhibition was created in 2017. The Museum of the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” is the first museum in Ukraine dedicated to the ongoing war in Donbas beginning from spring 2014. The museum consists of four interconnected parts. The first is a street exhibition, “Donbas Ways”, which is devoted directly to military operations in the east of Ukraine. The exhibition consists of authentic items brought from battlefields, such as an ambulance, combat vehicles and a Ukrainian Army checkpoint. The other part of museum is the internal exhibition, “Battle for Dnipro”, divided into several spheres associated with the local battalions, volunteers, medics, journalists, chaplains, and refugees. In a separate room, there is the “Hall of Blessed Memory of Dnipropetrovsk Region’s Heroes”, dedicated to the fallen, where personal items, such as chess pieces, books, icons, a letter from a mother and a damaged mobile phone, were placed next to their photographs. The most emotional part of the museum is the video hall where a 360-degree panoramic multimedia exhibition is displayed. The video tries to create the effect of full immersion in the center of events together with the Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers, frontline journalists, and fleeing civilians. It also touches on the issue of Russian TV propaganda, as well as the reaction of international public opinion. The film is prepared in two language versions – Ukrainian and English. We watched the latter during our excursion.
Photos: Elżbieta Olzacka and Michal Korhel
The diorama and the new exhibition are connected by the name “Battle for Dnipro”, indicating, on the one hand, the locality of the events and their importance to the local community. On the other hand, we could also see here an attempt to include today’s military effort into a wider national history of Ukrainian liberation struggle, and to show contemporary warriors as continuators of these efforts. According to Sharon Macdonald (2003), it was characteristic of nineteenth-century museum institutions to shape the viewers’ sense of stability, their awareness of progress and a coherent and strongly rooted identity by creating an “objective” scientific point of view on past events. Similarly, the new exhibitions can be read as a stage for exhibiting new national myths legitimized by “authentic” stories and objects.
At the same time, we could interpret the ATO Museum through the concept of a “performing museum”, where “theatrical tropes”, such as audio and video testimonies, interactive displays, architecture, sound and interactive exhibits, which augment the historical artefacts, are used not only to create an affective engagement, but also to invite or even force the visitor to perform the role of witness (cf. Sodaro 2018). This ethical aspect is also visible in the museum we visited. Authentic artefacts brought from Donbas – often deformed and damaged by explosions – as well as the personal effects of those who died evoke strong emotions. Video footage in particular may substitute a rational view of reality with a representation that allows the visitor to empathize with the experiences that befell the participants of the dramatic events. Therefore, the museum compels the visitor not only to learn about the evidence and testimonies of the conflict in Donbas, but also to engage in a moral confrontation with the issues of violence, military aggression, as well as with the need and moral right to fight for the defence of the homeland.
It is this emotional narrative that hinders an objective assessment of the events, which split opinions within our group and even caused some controversies. The title of our excursion was “The Construction of Trauma”, but for some of us the places we visited were associated instead with the “Construction of Propaganda” – both related to the new perception of history and the ongoing war in Donbas. The confusion is already apparent on the plaque which displays the name of the museum, where, in Ukrainian, we can read that this is a museum of the “Civil feat of Dnipropetrovsk region in ATO events” (Громадянський подвиг Дніпропетровщини в подіях АТО) and, in English, “Museum of the Russian Aggression in the East of Ukraine”. For some of the participants in the excursion, the museum turned out to be chaotic and disordered, and the understanding of the meanings of some of the exhibits was hindered by a lack of informative descriptions in English. Some doubts were also raised by the representations of nationalist groups involved in the conflict. At the same time, the excursion triggered interesting discussions on the problems of representing recent and ongoing events during the conflict, the process of creating historical continuity by “weaving” new narratives into old ones, as well as symbolic violence and the hierarchies of power and knowledge related to the reception of various visitor groups. For me, the opportunity to observe the various perceptions of people from different countries, with different views and backgrounds, was a particularly valuable experience.
Macdonald Sharon, 2003, “Museums, National, Postnational and Transcultural Identities”, Museum and Society, 1 (1).
Sodaro Amy, 2018, “Affect, Performativity and Politics in the 9/11 Museum”, Liminalities. A Journal of Performance Studies 14 (3).