Christine Reich, director of research and evaluation at the Museum of Science, Boston, visited Central Asia a few weeks ago. (She appears, right, with a docent at a museum in Tajikistan). In this post, she shares observations and reflections about museums she encountered there.
Imagine you work for a museum in one of the most powerful republics in the world. Then one day, seemingly overnight, the republic dissolves. How would your museum respond? This very scenario occurred 20 years ago with the disbanding of the Soviet Union. I recently had the opportunity to visit the five ‘stans of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) and experienced firsthand how this disruptive event influenced the museums in these five nations.
Founded in 1991, the ‘stans are relatively young. Similar to young adults at the age of 20, these nations are in the process of forming their identities, which are built upon yet distinct from that of their parent nation— the Soviet Union. This identity-shaping is reflected in the countries’ national museums, which often seek to connect these newly formed countries to glorious empires of the past. In Tajikistan, a museum emphasizes the region’s historic connections to the empires of Persia and Alexander the Great, while in Uzbekistan the museums highlight the territory’s past as the birthplace of the great conqueror Tamerlane.
While the ‘stans are similar in their status as young nations, their political climates are quite different, and this difference is evident in the content of their museums. Nowhere is this better exemplified than through a comparison of the museums in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Over the past 20 years, Turkmenistan has been a dictatorship that is ruled by a cult of personality. Images of the immediate past and current president are ubiquitous. Multiple museums are home to galleries filled with pictures of the current president as he engages in all kinds of activities: riding a bike, steering a yacht, teaching children how to use computers, wearing traditional clothing, cooking outdoors, and my personal favorite—fixing someone’s teeth (he used to be a dentist). These pictures were the same in each museum, and like the omnipresent images of the president that existed in all cities and towns, the presidential portraits in these museums always left me with the distinct feeling I was being watched.
Unlike Turkmenistan where the government has been relatively stable (albeit authoritarian) since the time the nation was formed, Kyrgyzstan’s recent history has been rife with conflict and instability. April 2010 marked the occurrence of a revolution that both ousted an unjust dictator and initiated a violent, inter-ethnic conflict. Kyrgyzstan’s Historical Museum did not shy away from this struggle, but rather embraced it. Amidst the Soviet-era bronze sculptures that portrayed the glories of the Bolshevik revolution, the Historical Museum mounted a new exhibition that depicts the events of the April 2010 revolution. Images in this exhibition did not glorify the revolution, nor did they denounce it. They were human images of loss and struggle, depicting the pain that comes from losing someone you love as well as the joy that emanates from knowing that freedom may be close at hand. This Sunday, October 30th, the existing, interim President in Kyrgyzstan did not run for re-election and the country held open elections. This was a first within the five ‘stans. Due to this exhibition, I found myself watching the election closely, wishing peace and stability for a country that is now near and dear to my heart.
As I visited the museums of the ‘stans, my first reaction was to dismiss many of their practices as they were antithetical to my own personal view of museums as democratic institutions. Over time, I became less judgmental and eventually came to the understanding that it is difficult for a museum to serve as a democratic institution when it does not exist within a democracy. Despite the (at times overt) political agenda of many of the museums, all the museums I visited had powerful stories to tell. Each provided insights into the political climate of the nations, the future aspirations of the people, and the history with which they chose to identify. Slowly, I realized that similar to our own museums, these museums were both shapers of and shaped by the societal context in which they exist.
Thus, I began to wonder, if someone from the ‘stans visited the United States tomorrow, what would he or she see in our museums? What national identity do we portray in the objects we choose to exhibit, and in the historical stories we choose to tell (or not tell)? What do our museums betray about our political climate? I leave these questions for you to ponder.