The director of Ukraine's largest art museum walked its hallways, supervising as staff packed away its collections to protect their national heritage in case the Russian invasion advances west.
In one partially empty gallery of the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum, employees placed carefully wrapped baroque pieces into cardboard boxes. A few meters away, a group walked down the majestic main staircase carrying a giant piece of sacred art, the 18th century Bohorodchany iconostasis.
“Sometimes the tears are coming because a lot of labor has been put in here. It takes time, energy. You are doing something good, you feel pleased. Today you see empty walls, so it feels bitter, sad. We didn’t believe it till the last minute that this could happen,” museum General Director Ihor Kozhan said Friday.
The doors of the museum in the western city of Lviv have been closed since Russia's war on Ukraine began on Feb. 24, and heritage sites across the country face danger as the fighting continues. Korzhan said he receives daily calls from other European cultural institutions offering to help as he and his staff race to preserve the museum's works.
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Anna Naurobska, the head of the rare manuscripts and books department, said she still doesn’t know where to safely store the collection of more than 12,000 items being packed into boxes.
The relocation process and the fear that the collection is in danger in the event of an attack on the city overwhelms her.
“This is our story; this is our life. It is very important to us,” Naurobska said.
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She walked into another room and held up a massive tome, tears forming in her eyes. “It’s a Russian book," she said, putting it back on the shelf. "I’m so angry.”
Like the museum, other sites in Lviv are rushing to protect works of artistic or cultural importance. The display cabinets at the Museum of the History of Religion are almost empty. Workers are assembling metal containers in the patio to safely store the remaining items before placing them in basements. At the Latin Cathedral, the sculptures have been covered with cardboard, foam and plastic to protect them from possible shrapnel.
Amid the bare walls and shrouded statues, Kozhan lamented the empty museum, which has survived two world wars.
“Museum has to live. People have to be there, and first of all children. They have to learn the basics of their culture,” he said.