How Ukraine is moving to protect its cultural heritage - updated 7 April 2022

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 "In almost every museum, workers are sleeping, staying for days to be close to the art, to be able to make some last minute decisions."

We have all watched in alarm as the events in Ukraine have unfolded, and as colleagues in Ukrainian museums have hurriedly secured collections in basements and cellars, sometimes risking their lives to go to work.

This is a short overview of what we know so far, and what the cultural heritage community is doing in Ukraine itself, and internationally to safeguard the lives of museum and heritage workers – and where possible collections and historic sites.

What Can We Do - resources and funds

Signposting Help - tell us about opportunities for displaced cultural heritage workers

Speed of conflict– the beginning

An article originally published in the New York Times points to museums being taken by surprise by the start of the conflict. Director of the Museum of Freedom, Ihor Poshyvailo says that by the time he considered evacuating prized objects, the roads were already clogged with refugees. In any case, with Ukraine’s vast size, thousands of museums and population of 44 million, removing objects from war zones is only going to be a solution in a minority of cases.

As the first week of the war progressed, it became obvious that placing objects in basements has been the main practical intervention for many. In a twitter thread, Swedish archaeologist Asa M Larsson quotes from a letter from Dr Fedir Androshchuk, Director of National Museum of Ukraine, giving a snapshot of the risks many are taking:

“There are established instructions, dating to Soviet times, on what museums should do in case of armed conflict - to take down and hide objects in a certain order of priority and documentation. The problem is how to do all this with a lack of time and resources. You cannot force employees to come in and work under such circumstances. Many are fleeing with their families. But I am very proud of my colleagues. Many of them came to the museum and helped to dismantle the permanent exhibition, pack objects, and store them in the basement. After this, two archaeologists and two young historians, my young colleagues, headed straight to the front.”

Loss of museums

Early in the conflict, the small Museum of Local History in Ivankiv, near Kyiv was burned down by Russian action. It contained 25 works by Ukranian folk artist Maria Prymachenko, and much of the museum’s collection has reportedly been destroyed. The Times says that a few were saved by the bravery of a local man who ran into the burning museum:

“He was on the street. When he saw the smoke from the museum he ran, broke the museum window and went into the fire. He couldn’t take everything out but he knew the most famous paintings were by Prymachenko. Since he only had a few minutes, he just took these paintings, and a few other works of art.”

Days later, a missile which killed five and seemed aimed primarily at Kyiv’s broadcasting infrastructure also damaged the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial. Whether as targets or collateral damage, cultural heritage is therefore already in the line of fire.

In late March, the decimation of Mauripol included the destruction of the Kuindhzi Art Museum.

Many of those who care for collections are also concerned about the possibility of looting (Fedir Androshchuk and colleagues are currently living in their museum in the hope of deterring this risk) – and that some collections based around the politics and sovereignty of Ukraine may be particular targets.

Urgent Appeal for Materials from the Center to Rescue Ukraine's Cultural Heritage

ICOMOS Ukraine has established a Heritage in Crisis Working Group. The Center to Rescue Ukraine's Cultural Heritage has been launched in Lviv, Ukraine and appeals to international organisatons, museums, and cultural instituitions for help with much needed equipment and materials. Updates are being posted to the official page of the Center on social network Facebook, or call (067) 618 2520, (032) 258-23-04 or (067) 675-93-84. 

There are shipments of materials being organsied from various countries including the Netherlands and Italy (through the Cultural Heritage International Emergency Force).

ICOM France also sent 15 tonnes of donated packing and conservation materials to Ukraine in late March.

We'll be posting updates and information on our social media channels to help raise awareness.

The response from museums and cultural bodies in Eastern Europe

Many have been forced to flee their country - particularly to Poland, where, as Museums Journal described in detail, a well organised response from museums and ICOM Poland has been arranging everything from shelter for people to the possible evacuation of collections.

The National Museum in Warsaw is co-ordinating work to welcome families of employees of the National Gallery of Art in Lviv, and other museums are working on refugee programmes, or sending supplies into Ukraine. ICOM Poland is working on a plan to evacuate museum employees, and is also discussing the evacuation of objects.

In its statement, the MA also highlights that Ukrainian museum workers may be especially vulnerable: “many…have previously been involved in human rights movements and many museums provide space for the promotion and discussion of human rights. This puts museum workers at particular risk in the current situation.”

What can we do? 

With a network of partners and colleagues across the world, IIC is being vigilant for ways to help and alive to the challenges on the ground.

Support for conservators displaced through war, conflict and disaster

IIC (itself founded from the ashes of war) is keen to move fast and flexibly for its members, including those displaced or seeking refuge from war, conflict and disaster. Its stipends can be used to assist or co-fund scholarships, internship costs as well as more practical support. The next round of our Opportunities Fund opens on 31 March, but as highlighted in our new announcement, will now accept applications at any time with a swift response where there is urgent need. Read full details of how to apply or donate to the fund here.

In someone cannot afford IIC membership in order to apply for a grant, we will do all that we can to help applicants when they get in touch. Contact us to discuss at New donations to the fund expand our ability to step up and help more conservators and cultural heritage professionals.

The International Taskforce for Displaced Scholars

This group held its inaugural meeting on 27 February – you can read about its plans here. It consists of scholars and students who hope to leverage their positions at academic institutions to mitigate some of the effects of displacement on our international colleagues. While the Task Force began forming among Slavic and Eurasian Studies students and scholars based in the US and Europe, its framework is not restricted by geography, discipline, or rank. Prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, forty-five students and scholars representing eight countries and dozens of institutions attended the first meeting.

The group now how has a home online here - register to take part.

Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO)

SUCHO is a group of cultural heritage professionals – librarians, archivists, researchers, programmers – working together to identify and archive at-risk sites, digital content, and data in Ukrainian cultural heritage institutions while the country is under attack. They are using a combination of technologies to crawl and archive sites and content. The team currently includes academics from a number of university departments internationally, including Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.

Save the Ukraine Monuments - The SUM initiative

The group welcomes offers of help, and its website includes tutorials on how to participate. Full details here.

The EU funded project 4CH led by Instituto Nazionale Di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) set up a task force to help digitise and preserve artefacts and to ensure that the digitise version is stored out of harm’s way. The SUM initiative – Save the Ukraine Monuments is organised by Professor Franco Niccolucci, Director of VAST-LAB, with the support from the European Commission, the Ukrainian embassy to Italy and the Italian Ministry of Research, as well as many Ukrainian ministers involved in cultural heritage, digitisation and research. 

Nordic museums launch fund to save Ukrainian cultural heritage

The Nordiska museet foundation has opened a fund to raise money from Sweden and other Nordic countries, initially in aid of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, in Kiev, where the group is in contact with the museum director.

They add: “The money will be used for reconstruction as soon as possible, and to ensure the safety of the staff and collections. In a further step, other museums may also receive assistance. “

Read the full statement (includes instructions on how to donate)

Gerda Henkel Foundation

The Gerda Henkel Foundation is making €2m available for scholarships abroad and for humanitarian assistance. It includes:

  • Up to €1m for the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation programme for researchers threatened by war or persecution in their home countries.
  • Up to 500,000 euros will be allocated to the non-profit organisation MitOst e.V., which is busy coordinating humanitarian assistance measures in Ukraine and its neighbouring countries.
  • A further 500,000 euros will be made available for an in-house scholarship programme from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, initially for those who are receiving grants now or have in the past, allowing them to stay at research institutes and universities in Germany and Europe.

This initiative is aimed not just at Ukrainian citizens but also at researchers from Russia and Belarus who for political reasons are no longer allowed to work, are being threatened, or have to leave their country. Gerda Henkel Foundation

French Government launches €1m relief fund

The French government has announced a relief fund of €1m for fleeing Ukrainian artists and cultural workers, also open to dissident Russian artists. Its culture ministry says that artists, arts professionals and their families will be eligible for residencies for a period of three months via the existing PAUSE programme, which helps foreign researchers, scientists and intellectuals who are at risk in their home countries. A majority of the funding will support an emergency telephone service in Ukrainian and Russian organised by the Agency of Artists in Exile, the remainder will help applicants find residencies. Source: Apollo, Art News

The Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation - employ an Ukranian curator scheme

The Berlin-based Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation has established a funding programme, enabling any German museum to offer work to Ukrainian and Russian refugee curators.  The financial support will cover the role for a one year period.  Source: The Art Newspaper

Network of European Museum Organisations

NEMO is gathering resource signposting from museums across Europe, ranging from Storage and Housing to job offers - the page is being added to regularly here.

Signposting help – tell us about opportunities and resources

Over a million people have already fled Ukraine, and it may be months or years before some can return, especially given the growing damage to infrastructure in the capital. We therefore face a situation where Ukrainian cultural workers will need to rebuild their existing work in other countries, or apply their skills in new ways.

We welcome IIC members and friends to signpost funded Fellowships, internships and placements, so we can add them IIC’s Jobs Board. Here is one example from the University of Graz. Please contact us at with information and leads. 

What else is happening

Response from the international community

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta, DG of the Mystetskyi Arsenal National Culture, Arts and Museum Complex has written a letter appealing to international partners to ‘publicly share any successful stories of co-operation with Ukraine’ in the cultural sphere, as well as displaying the Ukrainian flag colours as an expression of solidarity. Cultural organisations and museums across the world are taking up this symbolic approach – ranging from London landmarks lit up in Ukrainian colours, to projections of Ukrainian artworks in California.

Ukrainians have expressed how much they appreciate this moral support; but most also realise that cultural bodies with capacity to do so will need to balance this with grounded action.

Organisations with an interest in protecting cultural heritage in times of war

A number of international bodies have a specialist interest in cultural protection:

ALIPH announced on 7 March 2022 an initial fund of USD 2 million to protect Ukraine's cultural heritage and is already supporting a dozen museums and their collection through the financing of, among others, inventories, the purchase of protective equipment, or the reinforcement of storage security. ALIPH is also working with partners to set up an emergency support programme for heritage professionals.

UNESCO is reinforcing protective measures for endangerd heritage and is in touch with Ukrainian authorities to identify and mark culrural sites with the Blue Shield emblem of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

The Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI) has also released a statement saying that it intends to start assessing and mapping cultural sites at risk, and are looking to develop plans with its partners to host displaced and at risk scholars.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, along with ICCROM, which promotes First Aid and Resilience for Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis are working with partners to provide support.