Museums as Sites of Citizenship: An Open Discussion

Today, twenty months into the full-scale war in Europe, museums and cultural institutions across the continent are seeking to reshape their work with youth. To facilitate these efforts, we arranged an open expert discussion on European museum cooperation in the field of citizenship education on 12 October 2023.

The event, which encouraged educators to define priorities for international cooperation in order to face joint challenges, gathered around eighty museum professionals, culture managers, teachers and education experts from Ukraine, Norway and Poland.  

Our director, Ana Perona-Fjeldstad, noted that to address the current upheavals in Europe, museums need to encourage active conversations on national memory, foster inclusive dialogue, and help to transform traumatic experience.

Indeed, according to Ihor Poshyvaylo and Lesya Onyshko from the National Museum of the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, there is a pressing need for museums to shift away from their traditional role as passive temples of arts and artefacts, focusing instead on their mission as hubs of democratic culture. Ukrainian museums, in particular, are looking to question the colonial narrative, facilitating complex discussions and raising controversial issues. 

At the same time, Ukrainian museums often lack an understanding of how their educational programs can help heal trauma. Many focus on memorialization and on the past, foregoing any positive personal stories of survivors or the transformation of traumatic experience. Khrystyna Chushak from the Lviv In-Service Teacher Training Institute, our head expert in Ukraine, explained that Ukrainian teachers can be reluctant to touch upon complicated and controversial issues. They do not wish to expose their students to traumatic situations and don’t know how to address these issues in the classroom. However, if difficult issues are not discussed in classrooms, children will look for answers on their own. This is where museums come in: they can facilitate their search and the ensuing discussion. 

Many schools in Ukraine offer small museums linked to local heritage and memorialization of historical events. These are often run by history teachers or librarians. Such school-based initiatives frequently rely on outdated approaches: passive story-telling and immobile display. However, children need to touch things and participate in activities. As Anne Lene Andersen from the 22 July Centre pointed out, children are particularly attracted to objects. Cooperative practices with children as co-authors would be very useful here. While larger museums are already striving for modern educational approaches, smaller local museums need more support.  

Museums in Poland and Norway can be a source of useful examples in this context. They actively work with addressing controversial issues through educational activities for schoolchildren. Such educational activities call for reflection, personal growth, and action. Stine Furan and Anne Lene Andersen from the 22 July Centre talked about arranging different school competitions to gain the students’ attention. At the POLIN Museum, says Lucja Koch, educational campaigns (such as the Daffodils campaign) are actively used to engage schools and raise awareness about traumatic events. These approaches can be very relevant for Ukrainian museum educators, and – as always – we gladly provided a platform for this exchange of experience.  

According to Svitlana Osipchuk from the War Childhood Museum in Ukraine, children have an avid interest in finding their agency amidst the war and understanding how they can impact what is happening around them. Through working with children, museums can help teachers work with complex history. Our open expert discussion provided numerous contemplations and suggestions on facilitating this complex process. 

The event was co-organized by partners in Ukraine, Poland, and Norway: