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Explosions Near The Museum

18.05.23 05.11.23

extrait de la vidéo Explosions Near the Museum

Five Belgian Museums and ICOM Belgium join to present Explosions Near the Museum, to raise awareness on the theft of Ukrainian museum collections.

In a collective action, five Belgian museums - Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels; Domain & Royal Museum of Mariemont, Morlanwelz; STAM, Gent; In Flanders Fields, Ypres; and M Leuven, Leuven - present together Explosions Near the Museum, a new video work by Ukrainian artists Yarema Malashchuk and Roman Khimei, starting on May 18th 2023, International Museum Day (ICOM).

This year’s international museum day is dedicated to sustainability and well-being. The present initiative aims to remind us that museums are guardians of communities’ identities, sources of community building and well-being. Protecting civilians and respecting shared heritage is essential for sustainable democracies. Explosions Near the Museum is both a factual reflection on the plundering of the Kherson Regional Museum and a tender statement of the importance of cultural heritage and the care and commitment of museum work.

The artists captured image and sound in the city of Kherson itself, just recently liberated, and inside the Museum, situated 2 km from occupied territory and 6 km from the positions of Russian troops. This Museum of regional history housed one of Southern Ukraine’s largest and oldest collections of antiquities, with over 173.000 objects spanning seven thousand years, from Scythian gold to World War II weaponry. But between 24 and 26 October 2022, two weeks before Kherson was liberated by the Ukrainians, the museum was looted by Russian occupational forces, in a strategic theft of centuries of Ukrainian history.

The New York Times reported on January 14th 2023: ‘The plundering is hardly a case of random or opportunistic misbehaviour by a few ill-behaved troops, Ukrainian officials and international experts say, or even a desire to turn a quick profit on the black market. Instead, they believe the thefts are a broadside attack on Ukrainian pride, culture and identity, consistent with the imperial attitude of Russia’s president.’ Human Rights Watch reported: ‘This systematic looting was an organized operation to rob Ukrainians of their national heritage and amounts to a war crime.’

In the video (13’38”, in English with French and Dutch subtitles), the artists look at the empty plinths and display cases of the Kherson museum and recall the former contents - paintings, gold, silver, ancient Greek artefacts, religious icons, and even historical documents of shared Russian and Ukrainian history - while the sound of shelling is heard in the background. The work is a strong statement of love towards absent cultural heritage and hope in times of loss. With every absence the artists reflect on the meaning of the artefact through their label description, evoking them, indicating their initial use, but also dwelling on the elegant shape of an amphora or the fact that a stele of the - 5th century has been found 128 years ago by a villager in a specific village, to be remembered just as well. ‘We plan to install again …’ is the silver thread through the work. Once in a while they add ‘that is, if we find it’ or ‘I hope the text will not be damaged and we will be able to read it again’.

The artists wanted to show this work as an intervention in local history museums around the world. ICOM Belgium and the participating Belgian museums gratefully welcomed this idea, stating: ‘This is a highly touching work of art, impressive for its fragility and resilience, efficiently revealing the horror of a war in the near background, and uncannily activating the importance of cultural heritage through its void. It makes once again clear how this war is not only killing people and destroying cities, but also the cultural fabric of a country. We want to give Ukraine the attention it is due and hope that the Kherson Museum’s collections - as all other looted Ukrainian collections - will be returned soon. This work also serves to call attention to all other locations around the world subject to wars and heritage destruction’. With this joint presentation, museums show their ongoing attention to the losses war causes to mankind, and stress the importance of localised cultural heritage as part of the hardware and the software that make communities, nations and all of us.

The video will be installed amidst permanent collections of the participating museums:

  • At the Art & History Museum, in the middle of its ancient Greek section, to highlight the importance both the Brussels and the Kherson museum attach to the (Greek) antiquities, a shared European heritage;
  • At the Domain & Royal Museum of Mariemont, in its Hainaut regional archaeology section, to highlight the direct relationship between local history and heritage preservation in museums;
  • At STAM, in the ‘Treasury’, to emphasize the dramatic contrast between a museum deprived of its treasures and this lavishly decorated 17th-century office room;
  • At In Flanders Fields Museum, at the end of the permanent exhibition where a drapery shows a list of armed conflicts that, since the "War to End All Wars", have taken place or are raging somewhere in the world;
  • At M Leuven, in the forum, where the audience will be invited to visit Jill Magid’s installation ‘The Migration of the Wings’, which also explores the theme of looted art as a weapon of war.

Explosions Near the Museum can be seen in:

* Art & History Museum, Brussels Jubelpark, 10 parc du Cinquantenaire, 1000 Brussels May 18th - November 5 th 2023 | Tuesday – Friday 9.30-17.00, Saturday-Sunday 10.00-17.00

* Domain & Royal Museum of Mariemont, Morlanwelz 100 Chaussée de Mariemont, 7140 Morlanwelz May 18th 2023 – January 7 th 2024 | Tuesday – Sunday 10:00-18:00

*STAM, Ghent Bijlokesite, Godshuizenlaan 2, 9000 Ghent May 18th – November 5 th 2023 Monday – Friday 9.00-17.00 | Saturday-Sunday & school holidays 10.00-18.00, closed Wed.

*In Flanders Fields, Ypres Lakenhallen, Grote Markt 34, 8900 Ieper May 18th – June 30th, 2023 | Monday - Friday 10:00-18:00, Saturday - Sunday 10:00-17:00

*M Leuven, Leuven Vanderkelenstraat 28, 3000 Leuven On May 18th 2023 | 20:00-21:00 (including introduction, followed by a museum visit)