Catastrophic Kitsch: The Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum

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To date, I have made seven trips inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Until just relatively recently though, I had never taken the time to see the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv.

I suppose I just assumed it wouldn’t be necessary… why visit the museum, when I was already on my way to see the real thing? But I stand corrected: not only is the Chernobyl Museum utterly fascinating (and highly photogenic too), but it serves as the perfect compliment to visiting the Zone.

The museum (official website here) is located in the Podil – or ‘Lower Town’ – area of Kyiv, just a block or two from Kontraktova Ploshcha Metro. Built inside a former fire station, crews were dispatched from this site to respond to the nuclear accident in 1986. The museum tells a very human story. I have previously written about my cynicism regarding tourism to Chernobyl; how the debris of gas masks and personal effects seems sometimes rather staged (I think I called it a Disneyland for ruin photographers), whereas the true history inside the Zone is best read from its urban architecture and built environments. Well, it turns out the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum contains many of the pieces otherwise missing from the story.

 

Portraits of workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum, Kyiv.
Portraits of workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum, Kyiv.

The first hall of the museum: chaotic, cluttered and colourful.
The first hall of the museum: chaotic, cluttered and colourful.

The museum takes an apple tree for its logo, representative of genealogical roots, families, and fallen fruit that stands for displaced lives. The walls are covered in photographs, in documents and homewares. Uniforms – replicas, not the radiation-soaked originals – hang from ceilings; while a cross-sectioned power plant model gives a colourful lesson in the production of nuclear power.

Any and all attempts at documentary narrative are nevertheless served with a strong side helping of kitsch – a glamorisation that felt sometimes out of place with its subject matter. Ghastly figures in gas masks loom at visitors, while lights pulse through shades of purple, pink and blue across walls of faded portrait photographs. Religious iconography blends with radiation warning signs. A broken helicopter rotor dangles in mid-air, suspended over a display case featuring a mutated pig foetus. In the second hall, the ceiling is comprised of hundreds of metal panels lit with spotlights from all angles… it almost feels like being inside a disco ball, or the control room of some futuristic space craft.

 

A light-up display of a power plant in cross-section teaches how nuclear power is harnessed.
A light-up display of a power plant in cross-section teaches how nuclear power is harnessed.

Mannequins in gas masks greet visitors at the entrance to the second museum hall.
Mannequins in gas masks greet visitors at the entrance to the second museum hall.

For all its futurism though, the museum remains aggressively archaic in administration. We have taken groups there several times now, on our tours of Kyiv and Chernobyl; entry for one costs 10 hryvnia (about a third of a euro) per person, and if you want to take photos there’s another 30 hryvnia to pay. Rather than have a separate ticket for photographers though, a badge, a lanyard or something logical like that, they simply give you more tickets: one paper slip for regular visitors, four slips to denote a photographer charged at four times the regular price.

Paying for a group of 12 people then, eight of whom want to take photos, means I’m handed a pile of 36 paper tickets at the cash desk. A few steps later, at the top of the stairs, I hand them back to another member of staff: a stern older woman in a cardigan, who somehow always manages to miscount them. The rest of the visit is punctuated by inquisitions. A camera clicks, and the woman appears from thin air pointing fingers and growling “No Foto!” until I am fetched, and once again we go through the 36 tickets, counting off cameras and guests one by one.

 

The museum's symbol, an apple tree, is seen here growing from an empty child's cot.
The museum’s symbol, an apple tree, is seen here growing from an empty child’s cot.

Rescue workers and power plant employees float in midair, suspended around a clock frozen to the time of the accident.
Rescue workers and power plant employees float in midair, suspended around a clock frozen to the time of the accident.

One time we paid for a guide – not audio, but real flesh and blood. Museum guides can be hit or miss for me, too often feeling overly rehearsed, robotic. I would rather be left alone to read the panels than have some bored-looking employee recite them for me… and for the first few minutes I suspected this was another such experience. However I was pleasantly surprised when, five minutes in, she launched into a theory linking Chernobyl to the Biblical Book of Revelation.

[The theory, if you haven’t heard it, hinges around the fact that ‘Chornobyl,’ in Ukrainian, is the name for the wormwood plant… and in Revelation 8:11 ‘Wormwood’ is given as the name of a falling star that will poison the earth and seas. There’s more to it than that, but I’ll save the rest for another day.]

 

A map of the Chernobyl region illustrates the scale of the disaster.
A map of the Chernobyl region illustrates the scale of the disaster.

Meanwhile, small displays around the museum show folk instruments and homewares, symbolic of the lives and lifestyles that were lost.
Meanwhile, small displays around the museum show folk instruments and homewares, symbolic of the lives and lifestyles that were lost.

In recent years, the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum has all but twinned itself with Fukushima. Japanese folk art fills the entry hall, along with photographs and maps of the Fukushima plant. As a result this museum reads not as an anti-Soviet place, a museum focussed solely on the tragedy at Chernobyl; but by inviting consideration of other disasters it presents a global anti-nuclear message.

“Mankind should not meddle with technologies we are as yet unable to control,” the guide told us at the end of her presentation.

When her tour had finished, I asked the guide how she felt about tourism to Chernobyl itself. Until now none of our group had mentioned that just the previous day we had walked the empty streets of Pripyat, and seen with our own eyes the locations pictured in the exhibits. I was concerned – and I think the others were too – that perhaps we would be chastised as ghoulish tourists, thrill-seekers venturing into a place of tragedy. Instead, however, she welcomed the idea.

 

Bright lights and futuristic interiors create a disorientating effect inside the museum.
Bright lights and futuristic interiors create a disorientating effect inside the museum.

A suspended crib is filled with children's toys – a metaphor for the many young lives affected.
A suspended crib is filled with children’s toys – a metaphor for the many young lives affected.

“People need to see it,” she said, “they need to understand what happened there, the scale of the tragedy, so that no such thing can ever happen again.”

I am not usually a fan of museums. I prefer to do my own research in the field, to get stuck into real, physical history rather than experiencing someone else’s static representation. But this one… this is worthwhile. With all its colour and noise – as fabulous and clumsy as a disco acid trip – the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum has humanity in spades; it honours Chernobyl’s loss by answering death with kitschy sentiment.

 

Some exhibits felt unnecessarily macabre – but in context, they build a powerfully unsettling effect that drives the tragedy home.
Some exhibits felt unnecessarily macabre – but in context, they build a powerfully unsettling effect that drives the tragedy home.

"Christ is Risen!" – the blending of gas masks and religious symbols makes for a jarring experience.
“Christ is Risen!” – the blending of gas masks and religious symbols makes for a jarring experience.
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  1. Who can forget that lady in the cardigan. You think she’s nowhere to be seen so you discreetly sneak a photo & next thing you know, she appears and goes “No foto!”

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