National Railway Museum cancels Trans-Siberian exhibition amid invasion of Ukraine

Image: The train inside Fabergé's the Great Siberian Railway egg was set to feature in the exhibition (Moscow Kremlin Museums)

The exhibition, featuring loans from museums, galleries, archives and libraries in Russia, is the latest event to be cancelled as a result of the ongoing invasion.

The National Railway Museum is the latest in a string of cultural institutions making changes to its operations following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It has announced it will not go ahead with its planned exhibition ‘Trans-Siberian: The World’s Longest Railway’, which was due to open in March 2022, having initially set for a 2021 opening which was delayed by the pandemic.

The exhibition was produced in partnership with JSC Russian Railways, and was to include a smaller display at the Science Museum in London.

The exhibition was set to include loans from museums, galleries, archives and libraries in Russia and the UK, including a Great Siberian Railway Fabergé Easter egg, model carriages of a Trans-Siberian Express train and documents and drawings from the archives.

The museum said in a tweet yesterday evening said: “In light of these distressing events, we have decided not to proceed with our upcoming exhibition Trans-Siberian: The World’s Longest Railway.”

The cancellation is the latest in a long list of moves by cultural institutions in support of Ukraine. On Saturday Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton, which was due to host The Russian State Ballet of Siberia, announced it had taken the decision to cancel performances of the Russian State Ballet.

Staff at Ukraine’s museums and galleries have been working to move art and objects to safe locations amid the invasion and international museums are scrambling to recall loans to the country, detailed in a report by Artnet.

Museum workers in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries are also mobilising to help colleagues in Ukraine. The Museums Association reported on the international effort to protect museum staff and evacuate objects.

Some Russian institutions have also shown their support for Ukraine. The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow announced that it had stopped work on all exhibitions. In a statement on the museum’s website, it said operations would not continue “until the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased”.

The museum, founded in 2008 by Roman Abramovich and former partner, Russian-American art collector Dasha Zukhova, wrote: “We cannot support the illusion of normality when such events are taking place”.

Abramovich yesterday announced his intention to sell Chelsea Football Club after a 19 year ownership, and questions have been raised in parliament about sanctions against the oligarch.

Destruction of Ukraine’s cultural sites

The Ivankiv Museum, in the Kyiv region, burned down on Sunday. Reports from UNESCO in Lithuania and Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs say the building was either set ablaze or caught light as a result of shelling. Inside, 25 paintings by Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko were reportedly lost.

Bombs also struck the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial in Kyiv, which commemorates the killing of Jews by the Nazis in World War Two in which one of the largest massacres of the period took place.

The US Holocaust Museum said it was “outraged at the damage inflicted” and that the loss of life in Ukraine was its primary concern.

Video footage also suggests that yesterday part of the Karazin National University, established in 1804, was destroyed by a Russian missile attack.

Further institutions are at risk as Russian forces move in include Luhansk, home to the Luhansk Art Museum and Stakhanov Historical and Art Museum, and in Kyiv, home to the National Art Museum of Ukraine, National Museum Kyiv Art Gallery, and the Jakubovski Museum among many more.

Ukraine is also home to seven UNESCO world heritage sites, including the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, which was constructed in the 11th Century ,and Lviv’s Old Town, the historic centre of the city.

Warnings from ICOM and UNESCO of further destruction

UNESCO said in a statement that it is working to assess damage in Ukraine across education, culture, heritage and information and is to implement emergency support actions.

The Director-General, Audrey Azoulay has called for the “protection of Ukrainian cultural heritage, which bears witness to the country’s rich history, and includes its seven World Heritage sites – notably located in Lviv and Kyiv; the cities of Odessa and Kharkiv, members of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network; its national archives, some of which feature in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register; and its sites commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust.”

“We must safeguard this cultural heritage, as a testimony of the past but also as a vector of peace for the future, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve for future generations. It is also to protect the future that educational institutions must be considered sanctuaries.”

In a statement, UNESCO cites the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two (1954 and 1999) Protocols, which includes obligations to refrain from inflicting damage to cultural property.

It also called also for the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2347, which condemns the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, including the destruction of religious sites and artefacts, and the looting and smuggling of cultural property from archaeological sites, museums, libraries, archives, and other sites, notably by terrorist groups.

UNESCO said it is “gravely concerned with the damages incurred by the city of Kharkiv, UNESCO Creative City for Music, and the historic centre of Chernihiv, on Ukraine’s World Heritage Tentative List.”

Early last week The International Council of Museums also condemned the invasion, and raised specific concern about the risks faced by museum professionals and cultural heritage as a result of armed conflict.

ICOM said it is working closely with its international partners and stakeholders in the region and monitoring the situation as it evolves.

“ICOM will continue to offer whatever support it can to alleviate any potential threats the heritage of Ukraine may face in the uncertain days and weeks to come,” it said.

It also warned that outside of the immediate conflict zones, this crisis could provide an opportunity for “unscrupulous individuals to profit from the threats to heritage”.

It asked interested parties to be vigilant for potential increases in the smuggling of cultural materials coming from the region.