We will communicate differently about Chornobyl,” Vitalina Martynovska, Director of the National Chornobyl Museum

These days we recall the events that disfigured more than one fate. Thirty-seven years ago, Ukraine suffered the worst tragedy of all time – the Chornobyl accident.

It would seem that the lessons of Chornobyl have been learned forever. However, it is not like that. Unfortunately, not for all people.

Tanks raise clouds of radioactive dust in the exclusion zone, trenches are in the Red Forest, a number of nuclear facilities at Chornobyl NPP site are under the muzzles of tanks and machine guns. Who would have thought that this is possible in the 21st century? Further, the situation got worser: artillery shelling of the Neutron Source in Kharkiv, powerful explosion in Kyiv near the site of USC Radon (radioactive waste storage facility), occupation of the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.

Moreover, every time Ukraine and the world are only one step away from a new Chornobyl.

Director General of the National Chornobyl Museum Vitalina Martynovska pays great attention to nuclear terrorism. This is embodied in the exposition “Nuclear Terrorism: Investigation”, which started in December last year. You can read in an exclusive interview of the editorial board at Uatom.org website about how the museum survived the outbreak of the full-scale war, how they prepared for evacuation of the exhibits, and what expositions appeared after that.

Vitalina Martynovska, Director General of the National Chornobyl Museum

– Mrs. Vitalina, recently you applied to SSTC NRS with a request to carry out a radiation survey at the National Chornobyl Museum. For what purpose? After all, the museum has been operating for over 30 years.

The fact is that all the exhibits were examined at the stage of the creation of the museum. However, we did not have an official document about this.

Just recently, during the scientific audit of our permanent exhibition, I noticed that the collection of embroidered products (towels, curtains, napkins) placed at a height of four meters looks very suspicious. I asked our engineering team to get to them and check their condition. Moreover, I was not mistaken – the towels really needed restoration.

I think this collection is very interesting. There are 49 items, 39 of which are towels. They were collected during a scientific expedition to Polissya, shortly after the Chornobyl accident.

Therefore, when we applied to the National Research Restoration Center of Ukraine with a request to restore the collection, they replied: “Do you have an official document confirming that it is safe to work with these exhibits?”

We received such a document after the radiation survey by SSTC NRS. It clearly states that no exhibit in the Chornobyl National Museum is radioactively contaminated. Thus, specialists of the National Research Restoration Center of Ukraine started their work.

– What expositions are presented in the museum today?

On the ground floor, there is a temporary exhibition “Nuclear Terrorism: Investigation”. It started in December last year. We have been preparing for it since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.

It contains information on the main nuclear facilities on the territory of Ukraine and how they were affected by the war. In addition, you can learn about the occupation of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, the atrocities of the russian military and the consequences of their staying in the exclusion zone within the thematic blocks of the exhibition.

The exhibit we are most proud of is the Ukrainian flag. On 24 February 2022, it was defiantly torn down by rashists from the administrative building of Chornobyl NPP. The blue-and-yellow flag was secretly kept in the office of shift supervisor Valentyn Heiko during the occupation. After the de-occupation, it was transferred for storage to our museum.

The main exposition of our museum is located on the second floor. As you already understood, it is dedicated to the Chornobyl disaster and the events that occurred at Chornobyl NPP. The exposition occupies about 1000 m2; it contains more than 10 000 exhibits. The artistic solution of the exposition has not changed over the past 27 years.

– Tell us about the work of the museum on 24 February, the day the war began

I was entrusted with the duties of the Director General of the National Chornobyl Museum on 21 February 2022.

On 24 February, as I remember now, I had an agreement with the treasury service on the transfer of electronic keys to me. However, I did not sleep from 4:40 AM, a powerful explosion in the Boryspil region inspired into action, probably, the entire region. As an ordinary person, I felt completely confused. The situation with the museum remained unclear. Total uncertainty.

The first thing that came to my mind was the need for determining the algorithm of actions. I began to phone museum colleagues whom I knew before and consulted with them: “Have you received any document from the Ministry of Culture on the procedure for storing the exhibits?”

The Chornobyl Museum has 22000 museum items. It has the status of the national museum and is included in the list of those storing a part of the Museum Fund of Ukraine.

Unfortunately, I received little useful information from colleagues. Therefore, having met with the specialists of the National Chornobyl Museum, we began to figure out how we should act further. Many questions arose: what measures should be taken to evacuate the exhibits? If you really evacuate them – then where? In what? Where can I get packing materials?

– Were all museum specialists involved?

No. First, we approved the internal evacuation procedure, we made a decision on the exhibits that first need to be moved to the fund storage. Then we approved the list of employees who will participate in this. Nine specialists were involved.

Next – it was necessary to get packing materials somewhere. We turned to the volunteers who helped the museum workers at that time, and asked them. They helped us. Hard work was started after that. It was well coordinated and efficient – everyone was maximally focused, there was no time for a slow start.

To date, the most valuable exhibits have been extracted from the main exposition: paintings, icons, early printed publications. I hope we can get them back soon… 

– When did the museum start accepting visitors again?

   From mid-April 2022, probably. I remember exactly that on 26 April, we were at the workplace in full force – the Minister of Internal Affairs Denys Monastyrsky and the Minister of Energy Herman Halushchenko visited us. Since that time, the work of the museum has not stopped.

How did museum attendance change during the war?

In previous Covid years, the attendance of the museum was not especially high, but in 2022 there were days when we had no visitor at all. The situation began to improve only with the passage of time.

5000 people in total visited the museum in 2022. However, given the fact that there is the full-scale war in Ukraine, this is not so surprising.

The lack of electricity has become a challenge for the museum since autumn. Therefore, we started looking for the best solution for lighting of the main exhibition. As a result, we have developed a list of new services: excursions with flashlights, excursions with led-candles.

A little later, our authorized governmental body (the Ministry of Internal Affairs – ed.) provided the museum with a small generator. Later, the humanitarian headquarters, which worked with museum workers, helped to get a more powerful one.

–What are the main functions of the museum during the war in your opinion?

Cultural and educational work is one of the main areas of our statutory activities. You have no idea how many times last year our scientists were asked questions about taking iodine in the event of a nuclear accident.

– And which expositions are more interesting for the visitors: the Chornobyl accident or the occupation of the exclusion zone and possible consequences?

Actually, it is hard to say. Young people are definitely more interested in the exhibition on the ground floor. The one that is related to the war in Ukraine.

As I have already said, the artistic design of the main exhibition (on the second floor – ed.) has not changed for 27 years.

Last year, we prepared the Museum Modernization and Development Concept (for the period by 2025 – ed.) adopted at the level of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. An action plan for its implementation has been developed. We will continue the process as soon as will be approved.

There are several target audiences of our museum. We need to find common ground with all of them. Young people prefer modern technologies, multimedia equipment, and virtual reality. In general, the transition from passive contemplation to direct participation is more interesting for a younger audience. However, not all of this is understandable to the accident liquidators and their families. Our task is to find the “golden mean”.

At the same time, the modernization of the museum consists not only in changing the artistic solution of the exposition. The building, in which we are located (the former fire station – ed.), is a cultural heritage object of local importance and needs to be restored. It would be logical, if artistic decision would be changed after the restoration.

– Please, tell us about the new exposition “Destroyed Borders: Radiation Survey in the Kyiv Region”. When does it start and how long will it last?

   Shortly after the radiation survey of the National Chornobyl Museum, I had a phone call from SSTC NRS and was offered to cooperate.

The specialists of the Center carried out a radiation survey in the Kyiv region in summer and autumn. We will actually present its results as part of the new exposition. It starts on 25 April and will last until the end of 2023.

In my opinion, our museum is exactly the very place where this information should be presented. It is relevant here and it will help relieving tension in the society regarding the consequences of the staying of rashists in the exclusion zone.

At the same time, SSTC NRS experts prepared the event “NON-lecture: Wartime Radiation Hazard”. It will take place on 25 April at 17.00 PM. I promise it will be interesting. Museum visitors will be able to not only communicate with the Center’s team that directly participated in the survey, but also see modern dosimetry equipment and receive thematic booklets.

–What cooperation areas with SSTC NRS are you planning in the future?

Examination of new exhibits that are continuously added to the museum is a priority.

– What do you think about the cooperation with the Fukushima Memorial Museum – did you have such an experience?

Colleagues of the National Chornobyl Museum cooperated with the Japanese part long before I joined the museum. We are currently planning to sign a memorandum of cooperation with the Fukushima Memorial Museum. The draft memorandum is under approval of our Japanese colleagues.

– How often do foreigners visit the museum? Did you host any public persons?

The percentage of foreign visitors reached over 50 of the total flow before the Covid epidemic and the war in Ukraine. A lot of high-ranking officials also came, among them: the President of Argentina Carlos Menem, the President of the European Commission Romano Prodi, the Head of the Norwegian Parliament Kirsti Grendal, the Foreign Affairs Minister of New Zealand Winston Peters, the Prime Minister of Japan Tarō Asō, Royal Highness Prince of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Michael of Kent and others.

– What other events will be held at the museum on the commemoration of the 37th anniversary of the Chornobyl accident in addition to the events held jointly with SSTC NRS?

We will have a whole range of events. Actually, they have already started and will continue in April. First, these are traveling lectures for schoolchildren from the Podil district. In addition, we have a social day (free entrance to the museum for disfavored categories of the public – ed.), open lecture on the lessons learned from Chornobyl jointly with NNEGC “Energoatom”, screening of documentaries, memorial events jointly with the Podil District State Administration in Kyiv, as well as opening of the exhibition “Prypyat. Time Machine”. This is a kind of a “live photo album” with augmented reality.

– How should we communicate about the Chornobyl disaster 37 years after the accident in your opinion? What should be the focus?

I am convinced that we need to change approaches in communication. The National Chornobyl Museum is a museum of sorrow today. The main thing we are talking about is trauma. My position is to talk about how we dealt with this trauma. Each of us has a future: you, me, the exclusion zone, Ukraine.

Uatom.org Editorial Board