HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — From ritual cloths to an 18th century wooden painting, the carefully collected and curated artifacts help tell the story of a nation and its people.
“There's a sense of preserving and safeguarding within the Ukrainian community and the Ukrainian nation,” said Olga Liskiwskyi, executive director of the Ukrainian American Archives and Museum. “We've had a deeper appreciation of what it means to be Ukrainian.”
Inside the museum, just outside Detroit, Liskiwskyi understands what is there on a personal level.
“My parents came over after the second World War, and they all endured many hardships getting to the United States,” she said. “They lived through war-torn Ukraine between the Soviets and the Nazis.”
In a different century, it’s now another war, which is threatening lives and cultural institutions in Ukraine – the symbols of what it means to be Ukrainian.
“Aren't you the same as Russians or Polish or whatever?” Liskiwskyi recalled people asking her. “And you have to go through this whole elevator speech of what is a Ukrainian.”
That’s not so much the case, anymore.
Now, there is a concerted effort both here, and at other museums around the U.S., to help protect Ukrainian cultural art and artifacts.
“There have been so many recent major conflicts where it's been harder for museums to assist and so I almost think there's been a little bit of a pent-up response that's happened with Ukraine,” said Brian Daniels, director of research and programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.
Daniels, an expert on wartime cultural preservation, said museums are advising their Ukrainian colleagues on how to best protect cultural treasures from destruction.
“This ranges from putting sandbags up on statues to being able to move at-risk collections to safer locations inside Ukraine,” he said.
Here in the U.S., it also involves helping digitize and hold Ukrainian collections in computer servers outside of the country, so that a record remains, should the worst come to pass to the actual physical artifact.
“When a perpetrator really intends to do civilians harm, as we're seeing in this conflict, the preservation of culture becomes an act of truly radical resistance in trying to actually maintain one's cultural memory,” Daniels said.
Back at the Ukrainian American Archives and Museum, that cultural memory is not fading away.
A special exhibit at the museum, called “Treasures of our Homeland,” opened before the war. It was set to wrap up in January, but when the war began, they decided to extend the exhibit until the end of the year.
“To stake our claim that we are Ukrainians,” Liskiwskyi said, “and we are different.”