The trauma of leaving the motherland enables the artist to consider from a distant but pervasive manner the social and cultural structures of his country of origin. Rabinovich traveled in 2008 to Chisinau to his hometown to photograph museum exhibits and representations in the national museums. In the process, he encountered an intriguing development taking shape. Moldova was incorporated in 1940 by ex-USSR and remained under Russian Communist rule until 1991. This period is either omitted in the museum exhibitions or distorted in its representation: in their own ways, museums developed their strategy for re-contextualizing the continual existence of the Moldovan state. In Rabinovich’s photographs, the exhibited historical artifacts are seen in the midst of curious paintings on the walls of museums, models and display cases, as if they were not an objective representation of history, but a new mythological world.
But how can a solid national identity take shape, when every historical museum presents its own narrative? What does it imply when museums actively contribute to the formation of a new cultural identity, rather than assume the role of being repositories of historical artifacts and information?
In the project Museutopia, Ilya Rabinovich attempts to foreground these ambivalences. By focusing on the museums of the past and the present in Moldova and by creating photographic collages based on archival materials and current exhibitions, Rabinovich demonstrates how a country in crisis is tailoring its own new history. The museums thus become some of the key sites where the battle over Moldova’s new national identity is waged.
Image 1. Exhibition hall 2 of the National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History A mural portraying the Prut River forms thebackdrop of a three-dimensional topographical exhibition
The ‘Nature’ hall concept at the National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History was developed between 1989 and 1990 as part of its permanent exhibition. The hall is dedicated to illustrating what was perceived as the rich diversity and beauty of the Moldovan natural landscape. In reality, however, the hall represents a picture that belongs to the past. For example, the various animal species exhibited in this hall are now mostly extinct. The four murals in the hall depict four geographic regions of Moldova. In the middle of the second hall stands a glass case exhibiting a topographical map of the Republic of Moldova in a three-dimensional model. I. Belenky and E. Costiuc made the model. It shows the geographical location of Moldova’s natural ecosystems. It also illustrates the extent to which clearing forests to make way for farm land has changed the environment. On the wall, behind the map, a typical Moldovan landscape can be seen. This mural depicts the Prut River delta with some of its common wildlife.
Image 2. Exhibition hall 3 of the National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History exhibiting a geological display on the richness and diversity of Moldovan soils
The map in the image above depicts the 750 varieties of soils found across Moldova. The main aim of this exhibition is to demonstrate the deterioration of agricultural ecosystems due to pollution. Soviet mega projects, such as giant orchards, which saw pesticides spread over thousands of hectares of the Moldovan countryside, are the main culprits in extensive soil degradation. The hall was constructed for permanent exhibition under the scientific guidance of N. Dimo and V. Dokuchaev from the Sciences Academy.
Images 3-4. Exhibition hall 17, ‘The Crisis Hall’
The exhibits in this room document the destruction of the balance between civilization and nature in the Moldovan region. The excesses of urbanization and industrialization are shown to have caused a negative change in society’s attitude towards the natural environment. The illustrations and photographic works were done by V. Penighin, whose aim was to warn humanity about the danger of destroying natural life through reckless attitudes. The displays show the irreparable destruction that has occurred in Moldova, particularly in the realms of tradition, culture and ecology and also on a spiritual level. For example, degraded samples of folk art and the remains of churches destroyed as a result of atheism form part of the exhibition.
Images 5-6. Exhibition hall 16, also known as ‘The Big House Hall’, shows figures who are taking part in a traditional Moldovan wedding
The exhibit depicts a wedding in the village Vărzăreşti, Nisporeni district, in the central region of Moldova where the majority of the population is Romanian. The guests are dressed in traditional festive clothes specific to the area. According to the museum’s guide, each person has an important role to play in a Bessarabian wedding, which is based on Christian ritual but heavily ritualized. The Romanian minority adheres to strict traditions when it comes to marriage that is recorded as law in some areas of Moldova. Hămuraru Philemon, a member of the Artists Union of Moldova, painted the background mural.
Image 7. The circular staircase in the center of the photograph connects the basement exhibition halls 12–15 to the exhibition halls 16 and 17
The physical act of ascending embodies the conceptual move from the feudal state of the fifteenth to the nineteenth century to present-day Moldova.Hall 17, the so-called ‘Crisis Hall’, contains four displays that tell the story of the modern day regression of the Moldovan state. The first exhibit illustrates how the introduction of cheap industrial knitted products in the early twentieth century ruined Moldova’s home knitting industry, which could not compete economically. The second display shows the negative impact on the environment caused by polluting the air, water and land during the Soviet era. The third display, partially visible in the background of the photograph, records the demolition of 187 Christian churches and monasteries that took place during Communist rule in Moldova. Only 17 churches in the entire country remained intact. ‘The Crisis Hall’ attempts to demonstrate the destruction of harmony and balance in nature as a result of environmental and ethical degradation.
Image 8. An exhibition room of the National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History showing a section of one of the four murals painted by Ion Daghi
Daghi’s intention was to paint the evolution of the earth’s biosphere and the development of life on earth in order to remind the viewer that the ‘biosphere belongs to all inhabitants of the Earth’ and that ‘[its] protection is the duty of every human being.’ The murals bring a local dimension to the international UNESCO convention that protects the common natural heritage of humanity by using typical Moldovan landscape elements to portray the earth’s evolution. Whilst the depicted creator painted above the entrance conforms to traditional Judeo-Christian iconography, on the right wall is a garden scene depicting what is easily recognized as the Moldovan countryside.
Image 9. A diorama entitled ‘Iasi – Chisinau Operation’, in the National Museum of History and Archaeology of Moldova, 2008
Inaugurated in 1990, the diorama (a miniature replica of an historical scene) was painted by N. Prisekin and A. Semionov over a period of eight years. It is 45 meters long, 11 meters high and illustrates the battle between the Red Army and the Germans in the summer of 1944, near the village of Leuşeni on the banks of the Prut River.
Image 10. ‘Life in Twentieth Century Moldova: A View of the Universe of Personal Belongings’. Temporary exhibition, 2008
Image 11. Part of the exhibition dedicated to Moldavia during the 1940s and 1950s in the National Museum of History and Archaeology of Moldova, 2008
In the image can be seen Second World War Red Army rifles, Soviet posters declaring the war against the Nazis and, at the end of the corridor, a shirt and the belongings of a Moldavian prisoner who was sent to a Stalinist Gulag camp. A clear comparison between Stalin’s regime and Nazi rule becomes evident through the choice of the curated items. When the artefacts on the other side of the corridor (p. 98) are taken into account as well, the viewer acquires a disturbing picture of the Moldavian people as powerless victims.
Image 12. Corridor documenting Moldova’s history from the second to the fourteenth century in the National Museum of History and Archaeology of Moldova, 2008
Because of the strategic location of the Moldavian region on the former trade route between Asia and Europe, it suffered from repeated invasions by the Goths, Huns, Avars, Bulgarians, Magyars, Pechenegs, Cumans, Mongols and Tatars. To the right are the busts of two Dacians (ancient inhabitants of the Moldavian region) wearing Roman togas. The busts, made in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, are marble replicas of second-century statues, presently exhibited in Rome. To the left are ceramic objects from the Roman epoch (fourth century), which were part of the Santana de Mures culture. The quiet corridor hardly gives the viewer a sense of the troubled history it represents.
Image 13. A display from the Second World War era in the National Museum of History and Archaeology of Moldova, 2008
Surprisingly, the major facts relating to Moldavia’s role in the Second World War are not represented in this exhibition. Instead, the display is very simplistic, exhibiting the personal belongings of Red Army and Romanian soldiers, as well as of prisoners from Auschwitz-Birkenau and a Stalinist repression camp. This exhibition hall, which memorializes the victims of the Stalinist era, is somewhat ironic considering that the National Museum of Archaeology and History of Moldova is housed in what used to be the Museum of Military Glory, built in the Soviet era. However, the items on display have not been diversified much since the Soviet era, leaving the viewer with a rather one-dimensional historical perspective.