Out of Place: Haunting Pasts, Withering Presents

Huub van Baar in conversation with Ilya Rabinovich

Huub van Baar: Your Museutopia project grew into a large artistic interrogation of Moldova’s national museums. What did inspire you to undertake this project?

Ilya Rabinovich: I consider the project important at the private and public level. Initially, it was primarily an attempt at investigating my own identity and the place where I was born. Before I actually saw the museums in 2008, I expected to find materials that could shed light on the situation in Chisinau in the mid 1960s and early 1970s, in the period in which my family and I lived there. My parents were Jewish and born in Moldova when it was still part of the Soviet Union. Yet, they never spoke about Moldova as a nation or about what it meant to be Moldovan. For me, however, the latter became a vital issue. I largely grew up in Israel and found it painful to have no history related to my family’s Moldovan background. I wondered whether traces were left of my family’s history in Chisinau not only during, but also before communism. A part of my family were intellectuals, others were doing business. I was particularly interested in what happened to my father’s parents. He once told me that they were killed in the 1930s, long before the Nazis occupied the country.

Visiting Moldova, and particularly the National Museum of History and Archeology, was an attempt to deal with these personal questions of identity. Yet, while visiting this museum and the other ones, I was faced with the difficulty to enter my own life story as well as with the confusing memory and identity politics of the national museums. I started to focus on these political contexts. At this moment, the project also became more than just an individual venture. Confronted with how the National Museum of History and Archeology was organized, I realized that it would be tremendously difficult to artistically reflect on its representation of history. The exhibitions released diverse kinds of emotions, ranging from ignorance, denial, and cynicism to disbelief. I simply could not belief what I saw: the communist era was far from absent. Contrary to my expectations, it was highly present, though in the shape of a ghost. If we had to belief what I saw in these museums, Moldova’s communist past haunted – and continues to haunt – its present.

Huub van Baar :Why did you decide to tum these museums into such an extensive art project?

Ilya Rabinovich: Through making photographs, I tried to raise questions about the representational parameters of the exhibitions and about the impact of how artifacts, displays, and the like were combined. What, for instance, did it mean that these museums still mobilized the same techniques of display, the same structural design, and the same kinds of aesthetics as were used during communism? The content of the museums has changed, but most of their representational frames haven’t been touched upon at all even though these museums have been revised after 1989. My project grew into a large endeavor, as I began undertaking a kind of “reverse engineering” meant to unravel the lost, yet still present ideology of these museum installations.

Huub van Baar: How exactly were you undertaking this ‘reverse engineering’?

Ilya Rabinovich: I felt the necessity to engage with these museum exhibitions in order to set down the way in which they contribute to the making of Moldova’s current identity. These museums present Moldova in stereotypical and contradictory, yet compelling ways. Moldova’s supposed origins, for instance, are presented as a wealthy, rustic society. At the same time, the exhibition techniques are related to the Soviet past and tend to tum everything upside down. As a visitor, I was in limbo about this confusing and incredible logic. As an artist, however, I saw an opportunity to productively deal with these ambivalent encounters between the visiting spectator and these identity-making mechanisms. My work has often dealt with estranging encounters in liminal spaces, such as these national museums. By using the photographic medium as a tool to reflect upon the museums exhibitions, I intended to invert the gaze. In so doing, I wanted to encourage the spectator to focus on the context of how things were done, rather than letting her or him accept and repeat the narratives of the exhibited artifacts. The other part of the “reverse engineering” was to photograph all the sites where the communist party ideological museums used to be and research the archives where the exhibit and documentation materials of the former ideological museums are preserved. I wanted to confront the today’s reality with the recent history.

The way history is manipulated to create a “different” present has always intrigued me. In Israel, I have become familiar with this well-tried mechanism. In the Museutopia project, my aim was not to look for some ultimate truth or for a true historical representation – of course, these do not exist. Rather, I aimed at analyzing the terms and conditions that made those institutes choose their particular strategies of representation. I wanted to challenge the stories they tell and the identities they create, and put them in more complex contexts.

Huub van Baar: Could you tell us more about these stories and identities?

Ilya Rabinovich: There are a number of questionable story lines. Let me give some examples. In the past, the contemporary territory of Moldova was lengthily occupied. Actually, Moldova had almost always been part of colonizing powers, such as the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Nazis, and, most recently, the Soviet Union. And even today, now it is an independent country, Moldova uncomfortably balances between the geopolitical interests of Russia on the one hand, and those of the European Union, on the other. In any case, the National Museum of History and Archaeology tells little to nothing about the consequences of having been occupied so lengthily, for instance, in terms of language, population, lifestyles, and the like. History remains very abstract and the issue of territorial and cultural changes is largely neglected. In a way, you can probably compare the situation in Moldova to the one in any other country that, between 1945 and 1989, belonged to the East Bloc. Moldova had maybe no alternative but to collaborate with the Soviet regime. Yet, both the relation with the Soviet Union and Moldova’s role in the Soviet system are not articulated.

The way in which communism is compared to Nazism is even more delicate.

Without explanation, pictures of a concentration camp are put next to a prisoner’s uniform from a gulag camp. In a caption at the entry of the exhibition room dedicated to the 1940s, the history of the twentieth century is presented as follows:

The history of mankind entered a century of epochal scientific discoveries, but also of big human tragedies. It was the century of two devastating world conflicts resulting in the death of millions of people and causing incommensurable material losses. The Second World War and the political repressions of the Stalinist period represent two of the most dramatic episodes in the history of mankind.

However, the exhibition does not at all inform its audience about what happened in Moldova during the 1930s and 1940s. Nothing is said about what happened to the Jews. Nothing of all these tragedies is told.'[l]

Exhibition room of the history museum dedicated to the period from 1940 to 1950.

Huub van Baar: Several of your photographs show the empty metal frames in which some of the museum’s artifacts are incorporated. Your work suggests that these frames of the communist past are not just relics. They are not simply the outdated frames made during communism, for we see much of the history the museum addresses through these representational frames of the former communist era. What kind of story do these frames tell?

Ilya Rabinovich: They symbolize the inability to make the clear cut from the recent Communist past. The frames represent the visual unawareness of the museums personnel. I could relate this issue to what I just told about the comparison of communism with Nazism. Personally, I believe that, if communism was such a big disaster and if you could compare it to Nazism, you should not use the frames from this period to tell these histories. I found it contradictorily. The comparison between Nazism and communism also relates to something else that I have tried to address in Museutopia. In one of the museum’s captions, communism is presented as “one of the biggest disasters” in the history of Moldova. Thus, communism is represented as abusive and harmful, and, at the same time, as something that came from outside.

Civilization and communication: telephony in the Republic of Moldova, temporary exhibition, 2008

Life in Moldova in the twentieth century. 'A stop in the universe of personal belongings', temporary exhibition, 2008.

Huub van Baar: This point seems to refer to something that I have seen more than once in Central and East European national museums. The ‘true’ nation is defended against the ‘foreign occupiers’ who terrorized the country in the past and made it difficult to let the nation flourish. Those who harmed the nation are externalized and seen as foreign forces, whereas those who were oppressed are victimized. Such a nationalistic representation of history makes it difficult to address, for instance, issues of collaboration. Do you mean that the museum victimizes Moldova as a nation, while representing communism and Nazism as intrusive acts undertaken by others?

Ilya Rabinovich: Yes, I found it outrageous to see how the museum tends to put Moldova in the victim role. Of course, it was not really like that. Throughout Moldova’s history, there were acts of collaboration that nobody wanted to talk about. The Moldovans are represented as victims that played a passive, innocent roll in its country’s history. The problem with victimization is that it makes any change for the future impossible.

Once you victimize yourself or an entire country, yopu cannot do anything to turn history into another direction. You consider yourself as utterly helpless.’

Huub van Baar: Does the victimization result into a kind of oblivion of the most delicate parts of Moldova’s history?

Ilya Rabinovich: Yes, the selection and framing of artifacts by the museums’ curators create such a situation of oblivion. Without suggesting that a true representation is possible, we could at least say that this selection and framing tell a story about the country’s past that is far from accurate. To some extent, it is a very “comfortable” moral position to put yourself in the role of a victim. You simply do not need to take any responsibility for what happened in the past. ‘

Huub van Baar: I want to relate to what you say about victimization to those parts of your work that focus on the destruction of churches and on the environmental disasters that took place during communism. Your work on the ethnography museum shows that these human and ecological catastrophes are represented as the impact of meteorites, coming from another and extremely hostile world. Religion and nature are presented as eternal values and as the cornerstones of Moldova’s national identity. Communism brought much trouble to what seems to be considered as the eternally surviving Moldovan nation.

Ilya Rabinovich: The presentation of Christianity as an antipode of communism is a common feature of both the history and the ethnography museum. This representation is not restricted to the situation in Moldova. Rather, it is a widespread practice in all the former Soviet republics. Institutionalized religion has become a key element to lean on emotionally in times of enormous economical insecurity. People are seeking for forgiveness and trying to give their life a new meaning.

Display that shows the demolition of 187 Christian churches and monasteries during communism. Only 17 churches stayed intact. This part of the exhibition is arranged in a documentary style. It wants to demonstrate the destruction of harmony and balance in nature as the result of environmental and spiritual disasters. The displayed images were taken after the events of 1989 and 1990. During the communist period these kinds of representations were prohibited. These documentary photographs are meant to illustrate the degradation of faith, and to show the connection between the spiritual degradation and ecological disaster.

Huub van Baar: But your work does not merely point to the return of religion to Moldova’s daily life. It problematizes the way in which the national museums mobilize religion in order to construct a disputable version of Moldova’s national identity. In the ethnography museum the ecological disasters under communism, the then destroyed churches, and similar kinds of things are put next to cosmological murals at which Moldova’s history is depicted. Deformed mummified animals, the images of crop failures, and the remnants of churches are exhibited in the midst of a large painting of a tree that gets violently entangled in its own branches. The disasters related to the communist era are represented as a kind of evil that ultimately resulted in a situation in which nature itself derailed. And, then, this evil state of affairs is juxtaposed to what seems to be considered as the true, idyllic nature of the Moldovan nation.

Ilya Rabinovich: Surely, both museums are promoting a national identity that is far from secular. It is an identity that is fundamentally connected with roots in the ground and that is spiritually fully Christian. You might even consider it as based on a kind of romantic idea of the natural connection between the folk and the land. In this process of representation, communism is described as only a transitory episode in the process of returning to the soil. For more than one reason, that kind of representation is highly problematic. It singles out the communist era as the one and only evil period. But, as said, there were so many times in history in which Moldova was occupied. In fact, Moldova almost never existed as an independent territorial or political entity. So, to what kind of nationalism does the museum refer? What kind of nationalism does it promote? History is also totally de-personified. Who were the founders of the nationalist movements? To all these kinds of questions, the museum exhibitions do not give an answer. Rather, they obscure them.

First exhibition in the Zoological Agriculture and Domestic Industry Museum, opened on April 30, 1906.

A statue of Lenin stood right next to the entrance, while a statue of Stalin stood at the other end of the exhibition room (1952). With the establishment of Soviet power in 1940 and the creation of the Moldovan Socialist Soviet Republic (MSSR), the Zemstvo Museum changed according to Soviet principles. In 1957, four years after Stalin's death, the institution was reorganized again and renamed The Republican Study of Land Museum. The collection and exhibition of historical materials was emphasized in order to improve "political and cultural standards and to educate the masses in the spirit of Soviet patriotism." The museum promoted ideological themes, which were displayed by means of charts, graphs, and maps. The large Moscow printing houses produced most of this cartography in large and luxurious formats.

The museum's entrance in 1953, the year of Stalin's death. The exhibition represented the first successes achieved by the Soviets. The representation of Moldova was largely sovietized and accompanied by captions, such as 'The early days of Soviet power' and 'The meeting of the Soviet liberators'. The exhibition's curator was the Ideology and Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

The complete skeleton of the so-called Dinoterium giganteum, a mammoth that would have lived on the territory of contemporary Moldova seven million years ago.

Huub van Baar: Your archival inquiries into the various pasts of the museum historicize the representation of national identity. Whereas your archival work focuses on the 1950s, it also tells something about how the ethnographic museum was organized at the moment of its founding in the nineteenth century Russian Empire. Like so many national museums established in the nineteenth century, they taught the masses about the evolution of human and non-human nature, while, at the same time, they served to incorporate the people and their histories into the national idea. As, for instance, the work of the British scholar Tony Bennett eloquently shows [2], Darwinist evolution theories and diverse kinds of nationalisms came together in complex ways in how museums throughout Europe were constructed in those days. As Bogdan Ghiu’s and Stefan Rusu’s contributions to this book clarify, issues of natural history and national belonging also played a vital role in the history and construction of Moldova’s national museums and identities. Your archival inquiries into this history focus on the moment when, shortly after the Second World War, late Stalinism profoundly influenced this hybrid mixture of natural history, evolution theories, and nationalist pedagogy. In those days the museum was called the The Republican Study of Land Museum (Respublikanskii Kraevedceskii Muzei). Thus, also in the 1950s, the relation between the nation and the land was far from absent. Due to the socialist glorification of agricultural and industrial work, it was most of all related to the issue of progress through labor, rather than to religion. Was this something of relevance for your archival work?

Ilya Rabinovich: The photographs from the museum’s archive show that really everything was enormously politicized. A Moldovan museum researcher told me that Stalin’s statue was placed everywhere, in all cultural and state institutions. It was required to be at the entrance of every single institution. As one of the archive photos shows, a statue of Stalin made out marble was standing in the entrance to the main hall. In the background, we can also distinguish a carpet with the shape of Moldova. However, the country is freely floating in an empty space. The emblems of the other Soviet republics surround the free-floating nation. Moldova was symbolically completely incorporated into the Soviet universe. The entire museum was built up by such representations. Charts, diagrams, and maps dominated them. There were only a few concrete objects present, because they were supposed to have no controllable meaning. To depict the relation between communism and its materialization everything was represented in terms of scientific progress. Charts and diagrams visualized how labor, both agricultural and industrial, allegedly turned the “land” productively into common goods.

Exhibition room number 3 of the ethnography museum displays samples of soil landscapes and illustrates the richness, diversity, and variety of Moldova's lands. This part of the exhibition shows the evolution of agricultural ecosystems as a result of productive economic activity.

Exhibition room number 4 of the ethnography museum or 'The Red Memorial room'. The displayed animals are all (almost) extinguished.

Huub van Baar: The sovietization of the museum is in sharp contrast with the current representation of Moldova on which most of your work on the ethnography museum focuses. Yet, the exhibition is still preoccupied with the cultivation of land and with the natural resources of the country.

Ilya Rabinovich: At one of my photographs, we see display cases in which different kinds of minerals and agricultural products are brought together. We see samples of typical landscapes of Moldova, including their crops. These artifacts represent another mechanism to connect Moldova’s cultivated and idyllic landscapes with the utopian idea of the Moldovan nation. It is almost cynical how, in the next exhibition room, these idylls are coming together with the display of a wide range of extinct predators, which are currently no longer living in Moldova.

This exhibition room of the ethnography museum contains four murals painted by Ion Daghi. His aim was to depict the evolution of the earth's biosphere as well as the development of life on earth. According to the museum guide, the four murals suggests that the "biosphere belongs to all inhabitants of the Earth (Terra)". Its "protection is the duty of every human being. The painter presents a beautiful and harmonious picture of our Earth at the dawn of civilization" (Museum guide published by Stiinta, 2009).

Huub van Baar: These two exhibition rooms are part of the first influential revision of the ethnography museum after the fall of communism, opened in 1994. This permanent exhibition, entitled Nature – Man – Culture (Nature – Omul – Cultura) is one of the most amazing parts of Moldova’s current national museums and also covers a large part of your photographic work. The central room of this exhibition includes four large murals in which we see one large cosmological landscape, divided into various scenes covering the four walls of this room. Whereas, in the archival materials of the 1950s, the politicization of the museum was all over the place, in these scenes any direct link with the political changes has totally faded away. Yet, your work draws scrupulous attention to these scenes for its political subtext. Could you tell more about your motivation to dedicate a substantial part of your work to this part of the exhibition?

Ilya Rabinovich:When I first entered the central room with the four murals I was amazed. There were no scientific or cultural artifacts, but, instead, these highly detailed murals. Somehow I could not understand how a scientific museum could include such an exhibition. It was as if any realistic representation was left in favor of a fantastic picture of the world. In order to better understand the background and context of this exhibition, I had a conversation with Antonina Sarbu, a local researcher. She emphasized the importance of taking into account the moment at which the idea behind the room was developed. The permanent exhibition and the central room were designed and produced in the period 1987-1994, thus, in the years when Moldova gained its independence. The concept of the room was developed in collaboration with various governmental institutions affiliated with the National Academy of Science. The period of the development of the exhibitions coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The political changes made it possible to break with the prevailing representational rules. The aim of the central room was to show the problems that the human race is facing. The concept of “Nature – Man – Culture” was based on the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. The convention’s key idea is to recognize and conserve sites that have particular significance for representing humanity and its history. The central room represents nature as the environment of every human community. Culture is seen as a reflection of that environment, and the murals are a comprehensive attempt to represent the natural environment. By showing the evolution of Moldovan communities and cultures in different historical periods, the murals would show the relation between “Man” and “Nature”.

This mural depicts a landscape that seems to represent the Garden of Eden at the moment that men and women still need to be created. It is not represented as a typical Moldovan landscape. Yet, it connects perfectly well with the next mural, which depicts Moldovan hills and valleys. It is an idyllic fertile landscape floating between heaven and water.

This mural depicts the cultural achievements of humanity by highlighting various famous architectural monuments. We see, for instance, Egyptian hieroglyphs, a Greek temple, a Western European cathedral, and the facade of the ethnography museum in Chisinau. Above this spectacular view we see a 'God' figure, which is looking at the viewer. The depiction of this landscape immediately after the depiction of the Garden of Eden in the previous mural enables a 'logical' connection between Moldova and the Garden of Eden..

Huub van Baar: The murals bring several important moments of the universe – such as its creation and the apocalypse – together with some icons of the Greek and Egyptian civilizations. Yet, these moments and icons are fully incorporated into the cosmological development of human and no-human living and, at the same time, into a landscape that you recognize as Moldovan. These murals radically strengthen the de-personified version of history that we discussed in relation to the destruction of churches and environmental disasters that took place during communism. But here, Moldova’s identity seems to be represented as a kind of organic growth of the nation from the cosmological development of the universe. How does your work reflect on this organicism and the specific form of nationalism that it seems to represent?

Ilya Rabinovich: In the murals, the Moldovan nation is set as an example for humanity in its global process of development. The murals are beyond the representation of nationalism. Rather, they seem to represent a common belief based on Judeo-Christian ideas about the apocalypse. My work tries to challenge the supposed symmetry between the allegories of the murals and Moldova’s history. Do the murals represent a particular ‘moment in time’ in the history of Moldova and the development of the Moldovan nation? Do the parts of the exhibitions dedicated to the ecological disasters that happened during communism represent the depicted apocalypse? Are we really facing a new genesis, as the murals seem to suggest? More generally, is it not highly problematic to try to represent the story of humanity via the national history of Moldova? How is it possible at all that an ethnography museum comes up with such proposals?

This mural represents the planet at the present time. The buildings are made out of metal and concrete. The trees in the forests are dying due to the excessive use of pesticides. A watchtower oversees the landscape, depicted as typical Moldovan, but this time it is highly polluted.

Huub van Baar: The highly ambivalent relation between nationalism and the use of organic, cosmological, mythic, and religious representations in both the history and the ethnography museum brings me to discussing the role of archaeological excavations in the museums. Let me explain what I mean by giving an example. In 1993, when the Czech Republic and Slovakia became independent, Slovak museums started to use archaeological excavations to ‘prove’ that the Slovaks lived on the current territory of the country long before the Hungarian started to occupy it. Like Moldova, Slovakia is one of those recently emerged nation states that has a long history of occupation. As we have seen more often in the history of modem European museums, archaeological excavations are mobilized to support nationalism. Do you think that there is a particular reason for small, new countries, such as Slovakia and Moldova, to ‘upgrade’ archaeological excavations?

Ilya Rabinovich: My Israeli background has made me more than familiar with this rhetoric and nationalism. It is a way of saying “we belong here, since our ancestors have always lived on this sole.” It is a way of “proving” their belonging to the nation. We see something similar in the Moldovan national museums. Yet, to some extent it is even more extreme. First of all, it is interesting to mention that about 60 per cent of the entire exhibition in the history museum is made up out of archaeological materials. These materials play a crucial role in the narrative of the museum. The oldest displayed archaeological objects in the history museum are prehistoric tools that were used for hunting. In the hall in which these tools are exhibited, every display is dedicated to a successive period. In this way, Moldova’s history is represented according to a linear timeline. What is more, the way in which the artifacts are arranged suggests that Moldova progressively transformed from a nomad society to a gather-hunter society, and so on and so forth.

Huub van Baar: You have called your project Museutopia. This name has various connotations. First of all, it connects the world of museums with a utopian, non-existing world. If you take the word utopia literarily, it means something like ‘no place’, ‘out of place’ or ‘beyond place’. How do you relate these meanings of the word to the way in which Moldova’s history and national identity are currently dealt with in the national museums?

Ilya Rabinovich: One possible meaning of “utopia” is its reference to an ideal society that possesses a perfect socioeconomic system. Since the late eighteenth century, public museums have been established and they can be characterized by their attempt to represent knowledge in an encyclopedic way. I photographed various museum exhibitions in Chisinau in 2008 and had several discussions with the curator Stefan Rusu and others about my Moldovan experiences. This was also the time when I started to realize how immense the discrepancy is between Moldova’s identity crisis, on the one hand, and what these national museums represent, on the other. The name Museutopia is a reflection on this huge discrepancy. Museutopia represents both an ironic and a critical response to the current situation in Moldova.

This conversation was first published in Museutopia: A Photographic Research By Ilya Rabinovich Alauda Publications 2012. http://alaudapublications.nl/product/museutopia-2/



1. The section dedicated to the 1940s does not present the major events of Moldova’s Second World War history. Instead, four dissimilar periods and events are confusingly brought together. The personal belongings and uniform of a Red Army soldier, for instance, are displayed next to a Romanian soldier’s personal belongings and uniform. The next display case exhibits objects of prisoners of AuschwitzBirkenau together with clothes and personal belongings of a Moldovan sent to a Stalinist repression camp. On the other side of the wall, one can see the personal belongings of people sent into exile in Siberia in the 1950s. Ilya Rabinovich: ‘By bringing all these artifacts together in the same room, this section of the museum suggests a kind of moral correspondence between the four different historical events that these artifacts represent. At the same time, the way in which these artifacts are put together articulates the perspectives regarding these events in a misleadingly neutral way. These exhibition rooms with the interior design inherited from the Soviet times call to mind the times when the museum still housed the Museum of Military Glory. Then, the exhibited artifacts reflected a Communist monoculture. The present situation hardly manages to escape the effect of that one-sided, ideological representation of Moldova’s history.’

2. See Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum. History, Theory, Politics, Routledge, London 1995, and, Tony Bennett, Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism, Routledge, London 2004.

Huub van Baar (The Hague, The Netherlands, 1970) Assistant Professor of Political Theory at the Institute of Political Science of the University of Giessen in Giessen, Germany, and also a Research Fellow of the Amsterdam Centre for Globalisation Studies (ACGS) at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.Between 2003 and 2009, he participated in an international collaborative research project on the impact of cultural globalization on the transformation of Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. He is the author of The European Roma: Minority Representation, Memory and the Limits of Transnational Governmentality (Amsterdam, 2011). His research includes analyses of museum and memorial practices in post-Communist Europe, transnational minority activist networks and newly emerged forms of minority governance and citizenship practices in Europe. His work focuses particularly on past and current forms of Roma minority governance in Europe and how they relate to different representations and conceptualizations of Europe. His work has appeared in various scholarly journals, such as Third Text, the International Journal of Cultural Policy and the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.