Orysia Boychuk: Our history cannot go to auction

Source: Ukrainian Canadian Archives and Museum of Alberta

Ustia Stefanchuk for New Pathway – Ukrainian News.

The topic of Ukrainian museum collections in the diaspora today is very important and nowadays often painful. It involves issues of upkeep in the context of both diminishing interest in the community and a change in worldview paradigms—there is little room left for the unique, and the only content that has broad use and interest has a chance to survive. All this is accompanied by diminishing financial support. Thus, museums, around which our community’s social and cultural life revolved, are declining, while unique collections of our cultural heritage, gathered and nurtured for generations both in Ukraine and here in the West, end up at risk of rotting in basements, being sold or auctioned off. The problem is widespread, complex, and inadequately discussed, as exemplified in the recent, sad case of the Ukrainian Canadian Archives and Museum of Alberta (UCAMA). This interview with Orysia Boychuk, president of the Alberta Provincial Council of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, is about the rescue of UCAMA’s collections and possible conclusions to be drawn for other museums and archival collections in our community.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did UCC-APC become involved in UCAMA’s situation?

UCC-APC is an umbrella organization with 17 organizations that come under it. We support, represent, and are a unified voice for the community in Alberta. UCAMA is one of those organizations. In UCC-APC’s monthly meetings, our member organizations gather and report on activities, discuss issues they are experiencing, and look at ways that we can work together on common projects. I became the president of UCC-APC in November of 2019 and held the vice-president’s role the year before. In all this time, UCAMA has not attended any of our meetings. We have had no reports on the status of UCAMA for some time. Monthly invitations are sent out to our members requesting their attendance and written organizational updates. In our May 2020 meeting, a member of the UCC-APC executive advised that the UCAMA collections may be in danger of going to auction. I followed up on this by phoning Paul Teterenko, the president of UCAMA, and asking him if he would come to our meeting or provide information on UCAMA’s status because of concerns raised in the community. On June 24, the day of our next board meeting, we received a letter from UCAMA requesting that UCC-APC and other organizations assist by contacting the government to possibly help rescue and prevent UCAMA’s archives and collections from going to auction.

This was when UCAMA officially let UCC-APC know what was going on?

Yes, on June 24. The letter came at 6 p.m. and our meeting was at 7, so we had an opportunity to quickly talk about it at our meeting, and we decided that we would form a committee to review our options on how we could possibly support the situation at UCAMA. I began calling various organizations and community members who I thought might be interested in saving the archives and collections, and I asked them to take part in the committee to discuss whether and how we should engage in saving UCAMA’s archives and collection. After a number of meetings and discussions, it was decided that there was enough interest in the hromada, organizationally and individually, to make an attempt to save the UCAMA archives and collections, and that we would work on developing a plan to make this happen. Our first meeting was held on July 7.

Have you or the committee had a chance to review all the UCAMA collections, what they consist of, and their condition?

Іt’s a good question. At our first meeting, one of the first items that UСС-APC asked for was the database of all the archives and collection items. By August 11 we were able to obtain access to the database, and museum committee members were able to go to UCAMA to view the collections in person. Last month, I had an opportunity to personally tour the museum. It was important to see the conditions at UCAMA and have an understanding visually in order to get a sense of the true situation. Some of the book collections were already in boxes. Most of the archive collections were also in boxes. Many items were not catalogued or identified. The newspapers and periodicals were in the basement and are unfortunately in very poor condition, as a result of water and mold damage. It appeared that water was seeping into the basement due to a cracked foundation. So the emergency committee continued meeting, and when we had enough people and organizations at the table—and enough potential financial commitment to pay off the $70,000 required to release the collection—then we agreed that we would proceed to make an attempt to save the UCAMA archives and collections. We had a plan.

The first part of the plan was to return all the items that were on loan from various organizations and individuals. The second part was to identify where the remaining collections and artifacts would go. We developed a missions and principles document to record how we would be handling the collections in our attempt to preserve them. Keeping them ultimately in Alberta was our goal, and preferably in museums. We also talked about the alternatives: if we couldn’t keep it all in Alberta or if there was just too much of everything, we would look outside to the other provinces where there were suitable museums. Finally, if needed, we would even look at possibly sending some of the collections to Ukraine. Thankfully, we had five museums in Alberta that took an interest in stepping up to safeguard the collections: the Ukrainian Catholic Women’s League of Canada – Alberta Branch Museum, Ukrainian Museum of Canada – Calgary Museum, Ukrainian Women’s Organization of Canada – Edmonton Society, Ukrainian Museum of Canada – Alberta Branch, and the Basilian Fathers Museum in Mundare.

What will be the destiny of the rest of the collections?

Originally, the Basilian Fathers Museum in Mundare had agreed to take UCAMA’s 43,000 books, along with all the religious artifacts. Bishop David (Motiuk) supported the religious collections going to the museum in Mundare, and we were very grateful to have found a suitable home for them. The Basilian Fathers Museum ultimately agreed graciously to take all of the remaining artifacts, which will probably be close to 70 per cent of the UCAMA collections. They’re also taking all the newspapers and journals, which require a great deal of restoration due to the water damage in the basement where they were stored.

My concern is, will these artifacts be hidden away somewhere, or will the collections remain accessible to our community and the general public?

The goal is for the collections to be open to the public, so the museums can showcase our history. They are taking very specific pieces that will align with their mandates. Because that is the case, it is anticipated that they will be displayed and everybody will have access to them. The Mundare museum, for instance, has agreed to take the entire art collection, some 600 pieces of art, and they are planning to dedicate an entire space where the pieces will rotate on exhibit. They are also open to lending out pieces for the purpose of showcasing them. This will help to support the collections from being buried in storage somewhere.

“We developed a mission and principles document of how we would be handling the collections in our attempt to preserve them, to keep them ultimately in Alberta, and preferably in a museum.”

Let’s return to the committee. Looking into the future, what are the functions of the committee, the subcommittee, who are the members, and what are the longterm goals of each?

The main committee was formed under the Ukrainian Canadian Congress – Alberta Provincial Council by organizations and individuals who are interested in saving the UCAMA collections. An extensive list of community stakeholders came together under the UCC-APC to form the committee, such as: Ukrainian National Federation, Friends of the Ukrainian Folklore Centre, Kule Folklore Centre, Basilian Fathers Museum, Ukrainian Women’s Organization of Canada – Museum, Ukrainian Catholic Women’s League of Canada, UCC Edmonton branch, Ukrainian Pioneers Association of Alberta, Shevchenko Scientific Society Edmonton branch, Alberta Society for the Advancement of Ukrainian Studies, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, Ukrainian Museum of Canada Alberta Branch, and Ukrainian Museum of Canada Calgary Branch. There is also a number of individuals who joined the committee and are very much interested in preserving the collection. The main committee has been meeting weekly since July 7, every Tuesday throughout the summer. It has been a dedicated group of individuals who have come together to discuss how to financially achieve our goal and how to disperse the UCAMA collections. A subcommittee was formed to work out the logistics of organizing and distributing the collections.

Logistics?

Yes, to address all the little details to realize and operationalize the plan and actually execute and deliver on completing and dispersing the archives and collections by October 30, 2020.

What is the current situation? What is the plan, and what are the possible scenarios?

We have hired a project manager to keep us on task from day to day. We’ve developed a broad plan, with key milestones that we will be meeting to ensure that we collect the funds and disperse the collection by October 30. We began by identifying the items on loan and returning them back to their owners. Then the focus was on having the museums identify what items they were interested in acquiring. Once there is agreement among the museums who is taking what collections, they will be packing up the items and moving them out. Karen Lemiski, the curator and associate director of the Basilian Fathers Museum, will be helping to pack up the UCAMA book collection, which is currently located on the main floor of the museum. We are very grateful to the Basilian Fathers Museum in Mundare for coming to the rescue. Without their ability to take on the substantial majority of the UCAMA collections, we would be in a very different circumstance. These will be the first items that we will be deaccessioning from UCAMA. We are currently looking for volunteers to help us move the collections from UCAMA. If anyone is interested, they may contact the UCC-APC office.

What is the role of the UCAMA executive in all of this? Did representatives of UCAMA participate in the meetings of this ad hoc UCC-APC committee, and were they involved in the planning?

We are working cooperatively with UCAMA; they have been attending our meetings and UCAMA’s vicepresident, Khrystia Kohut, is involved in the logistics committee, as she has the most extensive knowledge relating to the collections. We are also working with Greg Borowetz, an employee of UCAMA, who has done much of the cataloguing of the collections. Also, the president of UCAMA, Paul Teterenko, has attended meetings and is helping to support the work that needs to be done to bring closure to this rescue project by the end of October.

How does the situation look legally between UCC-APC and UCAMA regarding the collections, because no doubt there will be questions about ownership?

Right now we are completing transfer agreements, and they will be reviewed by our lawyers to ensure that they meet our requirements. The goal is to pay off the $70,000 required to ensure that the collections are dispersed by UCAMA and UCC-APC. This will be done jointly, because UCC-APC is paying off the $70,000 on behalf of UCAMA in order to release the collections for deaccessioning and transfer to the various museums. Both UCC-APC and UCAMA will be on the transfer agreement, and the new owners will take possession once they sign the transfer agreements. The hope will be that the recipient museums will make a donation for what they have received, which would help to make the payments to UCAMA’s lender. We made the first payment of $15,000 on August 30, and our next payment is $25,000, which needs to be paid by the end of September. We are actively fundraising in order to make the second payment, and the third payment will be $30,000, due on October 30. For their part, UCAMA has approximately $51,000 in AGLC funds. They will be using this money to pay the salary of their current employee and to hire an individual for a few weeks to help preserve and pack the newspapers. Hopefully they will also help with the purchasing of packing material for the collections. Once the agreement is signed with the museum and the items are transferred, the legal ownership will be in the hands of the new museums, and neither UCC-APC nor UCAMA will have authority over the collections.

“Both UCC-APC and UCAMA will be on the transfer agreements, and the new owners will take possession once they sign the transfer agreements and we receive them.”

So the collections will never be in UCC-APC’s possession?

They are in partownership of UCC-APC during this interim period when we are moving all of the collections, and while we are collecting (and disbursing) the money. We will, in the interim, be partowners along with UCAMA, to ensure that the collections are properly transferred and delivered.

What are UCC-APC’s expectations of the community? What are the gaps that still need filling, financially or otherwise?

Our intention was not to get into a lot of the details of what happened, how it happened, or when it happened. Our role has been to strictly facilitate the rescue of the archives and collections, which means raising the money, finding donors—both organizations and individuals—to help with financial matters and to ensure that the collections are dispersed in a timely manner. There remain a lot of questions. I have heard a lot of people asking UCC-APC questions that specifically relate to UCAMA’s financial situation: what went on, what’s the disclosure process for or from UCAMA? Unfortunately, we have no answers. Really, that’s not what we have been involved in. Our current priority is to raise funds and distribute the collection. There remain a lot of unanswered questions in the community regarding UCAMA that can be addressed in the future.

What does that mean, you not being involved in that? Is it that you don’t have information about UCAMA’s financials?

UCC-APC has no information about UCAMA’s financial situation. We have not had any disclosure or access to data about their financial situation over the years. This whole project is about saving the archives and collections. The current state of UCAMA is a very emotional and very sensitive topic to discuss with the board members. It’s been very difficult to get any kind of information. They’ve been quite guarded about how much access to information they are giving us. Our role remains focused on raising money and keeping these collections from going to auction.

Well, there are still a lot of willing and suitable organizations which can help and distribute the collections, so let’s hope it’s going to work.

I think we are successfully putting the pieces together. The transfer agreement is really important, because that helps to explain and puts parameters around the collections. It is crucial to have clear parameters around the collections, to clearly understand how and what each collection is being used for. It also has to include the responsibilities of the new owners. It is possible, or even likely, that we could be in a similar situation with museums again in the future, because museums are not known to generate income and are quite vulnerable. I believe we need to have a solid succession plan for our museums, to ensure they are sustainable as we move into the future.

“Our role was not to get into a lot of the details, into what happened or how it happened, when it happened. Our role has been to facilitate strictly at this particular time, to save the archives and collections.”

Maybe the most important question, then: What measures should be taken so something like this does not repeat in the future? How do we ensure this, so that no Ukrainian collection is ever again put at risk, so that we never have to again battle for a collection’s existence?

I think that we need to be ready to ask questions and we need to be confident and comfortable when we are investing money. We need to ensure that there are checks and balances along the way, and disclosure of information is key.

How can those who donate their valuable and important ancestral objects with an expectation that they will be preserved in the museum be assured that they are not put at risk as they currently are with UCAMA?

I think that all artifacts have to be subject to accession agreements with a clause that indicates when an artifact is at risk, it goes to another museum. Artifacts must not be risked directly or indirectly so as to end up somehow as collateral in the future, or somehow to pay off a debt. So all the accession agreements, any legal documents, need to substantiate that our history cannot go to auction—that’s number one, for sure. I think when people donate, there has to be full documentation. UCAMA suggests that they have this documentation but I have not really seen it. With a lack of information linked to (some of) the artifacts, it is going to be really difficult to piece this information together and showcase it properly.

“I think that we need to be ready to ask questions, and we need to be confident and comfortable enough when we are investing money.”

As is known, for a period of time UCAMA was supported by different levels of government. Was there any effort to discuss with governments the possibility of financial assistance in order to save this collection?

I made several calls to an MLA and the Alberta minister of culture, and I wrote letters to them asking if there was financial support; they basically said it’s a very difficult time and they are not able to support this project. This issue arose at the onset of Covid19, so we are dealing with an economic crisis in Alberta, a pandemic, and saving the museum is understandably not a priority for the government right now. Thankfully, a committee was formed to save the archives and collections, and I was able to write a letter back to the Government of Alberta, informing them that we no longer needed their support and that the community was willing to take on the fundraising to repay the money required to reacquire the collections. Frankly, it was very humbling to go on behalf of UCAMA to ask for financial help.

Pani Orysiu, thank you for your time, and more importantly, for all your hard work and that of your team.

Thank you. I hope that in a short while we can again discuss this matter, in order to update our community on the progress and results.

Update: while this interview was being prepared for publication the president of UCC-APC Orysia Boychuk shared the great news that on October 9 she was able to make the final payment of $30,000 to the lender, thanks to the donors who allowed this to happen.