Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The History Museum

The front of Museum, behind cafe; rear view of building (below).

The History Museum is near the university, behind a small cafe (with a large sign) frequented mostly by students. The once-elegant building is in need of renovation. The exhibits are in need of care. You enter through a small vestibule with a chronology of events posted on the wall, and then walk into a natural history exhibit of stuffed animals and birds, interesting but unconnected to anything. They must be the special interest of a local taxidermist.

You then go into two rooms with a few pre-War momentos but mostly World War II documents, newspaper and magazine articles, some great photographs, and some artifacts and memorabilia, all in need of preservation and professional display. Articles and photos are tacked on the walls, with little explanation. They fascinate, but that's as far as a visitor gets.

Behind the WWII exhibit is another larger room, with beautiful large windows and a high ceiling. Perhaps it was once a living room, in the early 20th century, and is now meant to be a replica with authentic period furnishings. Nothing is stated, this is surmised, from the looks of it.

A lovely grand piano stands alone and forlorn, surrounded by unopened boxes and stacks of furniture, half-packed tables, chairs and bureaus, and the beginnings of an exhibition set. The stage is up, but the show is on hold. It looks like the museum ran out of money in the middle of a project and the ambitious effort stopped dead in its tracks. The piano is a witness to faded hopes.

The volunteer director, along with some other adults and children with her, was pleasant and eager, but not very informative. The friend I was with, Tonya, didn't have much information either. I've had a hard time returning to the place. There's a sadness about it.

There seems to be little interest in the plight of this museum. There is no evident public effort to preserve this or any other historic buildings. You can see the ancient granduer, can sense a mystery, but you really have to look, to pay attention. Otherwise it is just another drab building among many. And no one cares.

Or rather, historic preservation is not a priority. Survival in tough economic times is more important than preserving the past. Spending money on urgently needed roads, transportation, and comnmunications infrastructures is more important than spending money on old buildings, not that there is any money to spend on anything. For individuals and families, the priorities are sufficient food, clothing and shelter, plus water and heat. Charity is almost unheard of, philanthropy almost nil.

So historic preservation is another idea that floats, waiting for a better time. Someone, some group, needs to create community awareness and interest, and even a sense of urgency. Once the buildings go, the stories go with them, never to be revived. But fixing buildings nowadays, and presenting their histories, has to wait on fixing the economy, and maybe on eradicating the greed and corruption that runs rampant and unchecked.

So things keep going the way they have always gone. Nothing happens.

When I was a little girl I wanted to paint the old houses along my route to school with a fresh coat of paint so they would look pretty. I imagined what they would look like in bright new colors. Walking around Starobilsk has revived this childhood fantasy. The little girl in me wants to fix things up. I am actually amazed I retrieved the image, that it is still alive.

Around we go in this circle of need, ideas and survival. And survival wins most of the time. I understand it. It is the way it is.

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