Part of Ukraine's finest cultural heritage is currently kept at Moesgaard Museum, where around 1,000 artefacts from four institutions and museums in Ukraine are featured in the special exhibition ‘RUS - Vikings in the East’.
In connection with the exhibition, Moesgaard has worked closely with researchers and staff at museums in Ukraine.
"We are both appalled and affected by the current situation in Ukraine and our thoughts go out to our colleagues over there and their families," says Moesgaard's director Mads Kähler Holst.
Artefacts from 16 museums in 9 countries
In the museum's special exhibition about the Rus Vikings, artefacts are exhibited from a total of 16 museums in 9 countries, including Ukraine. The exhibition does not contain Russian artefacts and Moesgaard does not cooperate with Russia, as the museum already in 2020 decided that it was too cumbersome for both political and bureaucratic reasons.
The special exhibition ‘RUS - Vikings in the East’ is about the Scandinavian connections in the east during the Viking Age, where a number of Vikings went east via Ukrainian and Russian rivers and reached the Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire. With ‘RUS - Vikings in the East’, it has been the goal for Moesgaard to tell a new Viking Age story.
"The Vikings' journeys in the east are less well-known than their Western conquests and tell a completely different story of an incredibly complex world with a wealth of different cultures and the people with whom they came to interact closely. It is also a story about how the Vikings themselves changed due to their encounter with other peoples and tribes, and how completely new peoples and cultures came out of it, first and foremost the Rus people. It is a powerful story with long-lasting traces that we can still relate to today,” says Mads Kähler Holst.
The complex past
Part of the story told in the RUS exhibition is an important and controversial part of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. For the Ukrainians, it is central to forming their own independent historical identity.
“At Moesgaard, we try to give our guests a knowledge of the historical depth behind many events, as well as a feeling that we as modern people are parts of larger contexts. In recent days and months, we have seen a very direct use and abuse of history, with individual elements singled out and twisted to serve specific political goals. Putin is trying to use history to legitimize the invasion of Ukraine,” says Mads Kähler Holst, who wants to give museum guests an understanding of the complexity.
“We try to give our guests a sense that the past was as complex, contradictory and changeable a world as our present. And anything but unambiguous. One cannot derive simple, direct consequences for the present from history. The current crisis shows us that understanding the complexity of the past is a safeguard against rigid interpretations of our own world and against the abuse of history, ”says Mads Kähler Holst.
Eyewitness account from Ukraine
There are many initiatives to help and support Ukraine in various ways. As a museum responsible for cultural heritage, Moesgaard has chosen that this is how the museum best helps Ukraine, i.e., by sharing the stories that the museum receives from colleagues in Ukraine with the public and by joining forces with our contacts and networks whose purpose it is to take care of the cultural heritage - also internationally.
Thus, below Moesgaard shares an excerpt from an eyewitness account which the museum received from Fedir Androshchuk, Director of the National Museum of Ukraine; a museum from which Moesgaard has borrowed over 200 artefacts for the special exhibition about the Rus Vikings.
"In these days and hours, our thoughts go to him and his colleagues at the museum in Kyiv," says Mads Kähler Holst.
The Russian invasion and the Ukrainian cultural heritage
By Fedir Androshchuk,
Director, National Museum of the History of Ukraine
The targets of the Russians are, above all, Ukraine's military units and state authorities. But certain military matters are also within the area of cultural heritage. The famous island of Ormön (Ostriv Zmijnyj), known since antiquity as Leuce, was recently bombed by Russian troops from the Crimea. And the town of Gammalsvenskby (Zmiievka) is located within the Kherson county, which has also been attacked by Russian troops from Crimea.
I am aware of four Ukrainian museums in Vinnytsia, Zhytomyr, Sumy and Chernihiv, all of which have succeeded in removing artefacts from their permanent exhibitions and hiding their collections. In Vinnytsia, the museum's buildings are now partly used to house internal refugees. So far, I have not heard that any of the mentioned museums have been looted or shelled.
At first, I hoped to be able to salvage the museum collection in Kyiv by sending the most valuable artefacts by plane to Sweden, but I received no response from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. As far as I understand, the lack of response is an attempt to limit the spreading of panic. There are no guarantees that the Ukrainian cultural heritage will not be looted and transferred to Russian museums, especially given that Kyiv has a separate place in Putin's interpretation of Russia's history and the country's origin. Many finds made in Ukraine in the 1800s-1900s are already found in two of the finest Russian museums. And there is also evidence that artefacts from previous archeological excavations in Crimea have been sent to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.
It should be reasonable to demand some form of state guarantee from Russia with regards to the Ukrainian cultural heritage.
Fortunately, just prior to the invasion, we managed to lend a selection of fantastic artefacts to the current special exhibition Rus - Vikings in the East at Moesgaard Museum near Aarhus. But many artefacts are still in the museum (in Kyiv.red) and may end up in Russian hands.
Prior to the invasion, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy had no clear plan for the country's museums. Since Soviet times, there is applicable instructions that tell museums what to do in case of armed conflicts - to take down and store artefacts according to a certain priority and documentation. The problem is how to follow the instructions when there is a no time or resources. You cannot force employees to come to work in situations like this. Many have fled with their families. But I am very proud of my colleagues. Many of them came and helped take down the museum's permanent exhibition and stored the artefacts in the basement. After this work was completed, two archaeologists and two historians, my young colleagues, went straight to the front.
At the moment, I see my task as such - to stay at the museum until the defense works. Looting is the biggest threat. I, my deputy director, a colleague and two armed police officers have been at the museum for 72 hours. Additional challenges have arisen - the drainage system and water supply do not work, but we have some food and drinking water. The museum is in a rich cultural heritage area close to three fine churches, but also near possible targets of attack such as the Ukrainian security agency and the country's border troops. That says it all.