Combining archival materials, educational models, and memorial art installations, Kyiv’s Chernobyl National Museum is as odd and solemn and ultimately stunning as the city that surrounds it. Housed in an unassuming building, the contents are anything but. A somber entryway noting towns and villages evacuated and/or extinguished by the nuclear meltdown leads the visitor to halls bursting with exhibits detailing the catastrophe’s human and environmental tolls. Such relentlessly sad subject matter could saddle the visitor with unmitigated feelings of doom, yet it’s rendered in such beautiful presentational strokes that we’re arrested by a pervasive sense of wonder.
My wonder was hijacked temporarily when a docent tried to exact a personal pecuniary tribute for the privilege of taking pictures in her domain. Photos are allowed only if supplemental admission is paid—it’s a thing at many of the local attractions. I had five separate receipts showing payment for standard admission, English audio tour equipment rental, photo allowance, and…I’m not sure what else, so when the docent saw my camera and started wagging a finger in my face, I was sure that I had the correct documentation. I produced all of my tickets, but she barely glanced at them as she shook her head vigorously. “Ni, ni, 30 hryvnia!” she said sternly.
“But I already paid,” I said, holding my camera aloft in an inept attempt to illustrate what I couldn’t articulate in Ukrainian.
She just kept shaking her head. “Ni,” she sniffed, limply holding out my receipts in a dismissive gesture.
I may as well say that the dollar is quite strong in Ukraine at the moment and 30 hryvnia translates to roughly $1.20 US, but you know, principle and all. She was surely aware that I couldn’t make enough sense of my clutch of tickets to prove that I had paid the fee. And besides, she wasn’t actually asking me to return to the admissions desk to pay for a camera ticket. She was demanding personal payment. Under another circumstance I would be happy to pay 30 hryvnia—say, as a tip in exchange for some kind service—but she was pretty plainly targeting my foreign status, yelling at me like I was ignorant of the rules or, worse, like I was trying to get away with something.
We went round a few times, each repeating our positions in languages the other didn’t entirely understand, until a seemingly random man stepped in for a terse exchange with her, then turned to me and said, smiling, “You pay some days, not today.” Whoever he was, it was an effective intervention. The docent was already retreating to her position. Of course, I wasn’t entirely satisfied. I had paid…but I do know when I’m ahead.
I hustled through her hall, ironically the least photogenic space in the museum, and continued, slightly the worse for now being out of sync with my audio wand, which I depended on utterly as all other interpretive materials were in Ukrainian or Russian. Every audio tour I’ve ever taken has allowed for negotiation with the order of narration—you can skip or repeat track numbers by punching them into your wand, right? I had what appeared to be a standard wand, but the narrative proceeded in one direction only. No matter what number I entered, the next track in the chronology played, no skipping, no repeats allowed.
This wasn’t our first Ukrainian museum. Nor was it the first where strict temporal chronology was enforced upon me. A comparably stern docent in the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War marched me out of her hall when I tried to view the memorial to Ukrainian war heroes and victims before I had logged the prescribed wartime experience. In my own defense let me state that I ordinarily prefer to follow presentational order in all attractions, as in life, but we were on a schedule during this tour that never quite allowed the full measure of time needed to do so, and I was damned if I was going to give short shrift to the spectacular set pieces that terminally punctuated these local museums. If constructed memorials are to be trusted, the long-suffering Ukrainian soul expresses itself in epic primal screams appended by grand and ethereal denouements.
And so I eked my way through the painful realities of technology that exceeded man’s grasp, recounted the enormous human sacrifices required to mitigate disaster of an even more extreme magnitude, and, finally, surrendered myself to the museum’s spectacular denouement: a candy-colored disco memorializing the tragedy, heroism, and loss of the residents, the plant workers, the “liquidators” charged with the fatal task of cleanup. It was equal parts sad and beautiful and psychedelic, and worth every hryvnia legitimately paid. The pictures were hard won, and I hope they do justice in relating the sense of wonder I felt on exiting this strange and wonderful museum.