The Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum is Both Kitsch & Compelling

To date, I have made three trips inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. But before my latest visit, I’d 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 Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

The museum (official website here) is located in the Lower Town area of Kyiv, just a block or two away from Kontraktova Ploshcha Metro Station; built inside a former fire station, from which crews were dispatched to respond to the accident in 1986. It tells a very human story. I have previously written about my cynicism regarding tourism to Chernobyl – how the apparent human elements such as gas masks and personal effects seem perhaps inauthentic, 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 all those missing pieces.

 

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 personal documents and personal effects. Uniforms – replicas, not the radiation-soaked originals – hang from ceilings; while a cross-sectioned power plant replica offers an educational light show demonstrating how the whole process works. The effect is one of bringing life into the disaster, and of repopulating the empty streets of Pripyat with the bodies that once filled it.

For all its human elements though, the museum still retains a strong element 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 black and white 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.

We paid for a tour guide on entry. I have had some disappointing experiences with stiff, robotic museum guides in the past (the worst, at the Pleven Panorama in Bulgaria) – guides who rote recite data, who know their subject so absolutely as to leave no room for discussion. For the first few moments, I suspected that this would be another such experience; so imagine my surprise when, only five minutes in, she launched into a conspiracy theory linking Chernobyl to the Biblical Book of Revelation.

[The premise 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 natural disaster which would poison the earth and water. It’s a fairly remarkable theory, and I actually plan to write a full post about it soon.]

 

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.

Another unexpected twist was the way the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum had almost twinned itself with Fukushima. Japanese folk art filled the entry hall, along with photographs and maps of the malfunctioning Fukushima plant. As a result, this museum read not as an anti-Soviet place, a museum focussed solely on the tragedy at Chernobyl; but by inviting consideration of the broader scope of nuclear accidents worldwide it gave a strong and universal 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 that informed the museum’s 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 horrors. 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 here, the scale of the tragedy, so that no such thing can ever happen again.”

I am not usually a fan of museums, as I prefer to do my own research in the field – to get stuck into real, physical history, rather than simply reviewing someone else’s representation of it. But I can honestly say that the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv is one of the best I have ever visited – and with all its colour, life and noise, it makes a truly excellent accompaniment to visiting the grey, dead and silent streets of Pripyat. I’m only embarrassed that I didn’t visit sooner.

 

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.

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.
"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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