An Ode to Ukrainian Museums
As you know, we spent nearly seven years living in Ukraine and there were many things we loved about it – the people, the scenery, the cheap beer, the food…. So many things. But for those of you who have followed us on Social Media during our time living in Ukraine, you’ll realise that one of our favourite places were the Ukrainian Museums. Whenever we visited a new city, we headed for the regional museums. There is something about them that we loved and we want to share with you, along with the best Ukrainian Museums, in our opinion. So here is our tribute to Ukrainian Museums
The Best Things about Ukrainian Museums
Ukrainian regional museums are generally housed in stunning historic buildings with faded glory that could do with some restoration. These are stately home-style places that were probably taken from the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution, so have sweeping staircases with creaky floorboards, ornate ceilings and stunning murals.
To see what I mean, you can take a 3D tour of the Odessa Fine Arts Museum, previously the Potocki Palace, built by a wealthy landowner.
These regional museums are made up of many different rooms, each with a different theme. There was rarely anyone else there when we visited most of them, so as we approached a new room, one of the staff would jump up to turn on the lights. And when we left, they would switch the lights off again. I guess it saves on electricity, but it does make you feel special when someone switches lights on in a place just for your visit.
Find out more about our seven years in Ukraine and how we ended up leaving in our post We Need to Talk about Ukraine
The staff who work there
Ukrainian regional museums tend to be staffed by people in their 60s, largely women. There will be the woman who takes your money and gives you your tickets (see below) and then in different rooms, there are people sitting on chairs, checking the visitors behave. As I have already mentioned, generally the lights are off in all the rooms that noone is visiting, and sometimes a member of staff is sat inside in the dark.
Once we went into one of the rooms at a regional museum and started looking at the exhibits. I think it was some kind of archeology. We could hear loud, rhythmic noises coming from one area of the room, and when we got there, there was a member of staff fast asleep on her chair. So as not to wake her up, we quietly moved into the next room.
We have been to museums where the staff in the rooms are really really excited about the exhibits there, and run over to tell us all about them. This is usually in Russian or Ukrainian, depending on where we are, which we are not that good at understanding. Well, our language knowledge tends to focus around social lives and shopping, rather than the details of Ukrainian national costumes or musical instruments. But we listen, because their enthusiasm is infectious, and nod and try to smile and laugh in appropriate places.
At the ticket desk in these museums, you hand over your money and get a handfull of different tickets. These is often a ticket to take photos, with a charge of a couple of pence so you don’t care. Then, if the entry fee is 50 UAH, you may get two 20 UAH tickets and a 10 UAH ticket, to make up the price. Or sometimes there’s a fee for each room, and someone checks each ticket for each room. It’s a fantastic use of tiny pieces of paper.
Ukrainian regional museums generally have the same themes. There’s a room of stuffed animals of the region, one of the local embroidery and probably the other regional cultural items such as musical instruments. There’ll be an area with mockups of traditional houses and some information on local notable historical figures. There’s always a room with stories from that region during the World Wars, and one about the revolution in Maidan in 2014. A curator often comes over to tell us about that. Which we were in Ukraine for.
The Best Ukrainian Museums
The Hat Museum, Chernigiv
A gem of a museum, this tiny place was a temporary exhibition near to the historic area in the centre of Chernigiv. Inside were several rooms with replicas of all kinds of famous hats. There were copies of famous crowns from around the world, the headdress of the Aztec ruler Montezuma and various hats from TV and film. It was seriously random and amazing.
The Pysanka Museum, Kolomyr
When we read that there was a museum in the west of Ukraine housed in a giant easter egg, we had to visit, of course. Pysanka are handpainted eggs and this museum has a collection of over 10,000, from Ukraine and other Slavik countries where they are popular.
The Toy Museum, Kyiv
This is the stuff of nightmares. Imagine that dream you have where the creepy toys come to life? You can relive it in the Kyiv Toy Museum.
The Toilet Museum, Kyiv
The toilet museum is basically a place to house a couple’s collection of toilet-related memorabilia, collected from around the World. You know, one day someone bought them a toilet thing as a present and then suddenly everyone was doing it until they had a collection too big for their house. So they opened a museum. There’s a little tour on the history of toilets and then lots and lots of toilets to see.
Read our post for more Unusual Things to do in Kyiv.
The jellyfish museum, Kyiv
I feel ‘museum’ is not quite the right word here, because it’s basically an aquarium, but it’s called The Jellyfish Museum so it can go here. Lots of pretty jellyfish lit up with coloured lights so it’s clearly aimed at the Instagram generation.
The retro museum, Vinnitsia
This is a fascinating display of how Soviet stuff looked exactly like stuff we had in the west during the Cold War, just made by different companies. There are displays of old vehicles, gadgets and ornaments that you can wander round and say ‘I had one like that….just with a different name’.
The Strategic Missile Forces Museum, Pervomaysk
Ukraine was the only place in the world where you could visit a real nuclear missile base, descend to the control room and simulate a nuclear attack. The site of the Strategic Missile Forces Museum was one of several Soviet missile bases in the centre of Ukraine and when it was decommissioned, it became a museum. As well as visiting the actual control room, 13 stories underground, you can see lots of exhibits of missiles and planes.
We visited in 2020 just before Covid hit. You can read about our visit in our blog post.
Poltava Museum of Long Range Strategic Aviation
Poltava is where many of the Soviet Union’s long range bombers were housed during the Second World War. Now the area next to the working airbase is used to exhibit these planes. You used to be able to climb inside the planes and have your picture taken, but we visited during Covid so it wasn’t possible. We did see lots of massive planes and learned a lot about Operation Frantic.
Sergei Korolov Space Museum, Zhytomyr
Did you know that one of the main engineers who put Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin in space was Ukrainian? He was born in Zhytomyr, about two hours from Kyiv, and actually attended KPI university, where we were teaching. The Sergei Korolov space museum is a small space jam-packed with both real and replica satellites, spacecraft elements, spacesuits, space food, and memorabilia. We took an English-language guided tour with an incredibly enthusiastic tour guide who was full of fascinating stories.
Read more about the museum in our blog post about our space themed visit to Zhytomyr
The Chernobyl Museum, Kyiv
Most tourists coming to Ukraine head to Chernobyl on a tour to see the reactor and the abandoned village of Pripiat. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of the creepy dolls in that school and the big wheel being taken over by plants. We’ve not been. We’ve been waiting for a tour to the Exclusion Zone to see the wildlife that has moved back in there – Przevalsky’s horses, bears, wolves etc. That didn’t happen before we had to leave, so we’ll wait a bit longer.
Anyway, a museum we hugely recommend to people coming to Kyiv is the Chernobyl Museum. Housed in one of the fire stations that responded to the disaster, it’s full of items taken from the reactor area and the surrounding area. They tell stories of the people involved through their possessions: the workers in the plant, the emergency responders etc. If you’ve seen the HBO series, you’ll know the people I mean. It’s all done artistically and with huge respect.
Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, Kyiv
A similar design to the Chernobyl Museum, the Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War tells the story of the Nazi invasion and occupation of Ukraine
Above the Museum is Rodina Mat, otherwise known as the Motherland Monument, looking protectively over the city, sword held high. You can go to the base and admire the views, or if you are feeling brave, climb to the shield.
The complex stands on a hill overlooking the Dnipro River and the grounds are full of old tanks, planes and other Soviet armourment from the period.
Nowadays there are exhibitions commemorating those killed during the Russian attacks on the country, including children.
Shustov Cognac Museum, Odesa
More of a tour than a museum, this place makes one of the famous brandies from Ukraine (did you know Ukraine makes brandy? Well they do. Good stuff too. Presidents from around the world have liked it). As you walk around learning about the history and the process, you taste various of their brandies. Museums and booze. What’s not to like?
Beer Cultural Experience Centre, Lviv
This is more than a brewery tour. It’s an excellent museum about the history of beer and brewing. It’s run by the Lvivsky brewery, who make 1715, a pretty ubiquitous lager in Ukraine. Obviously at the end you can taste it, which may seem unnecessary if it’s the beer you drink on a weekly basis, but again, why not?
Apart from expressing our adoration for Ukrainian museums, we also wanted to write this because many of these places may not be standing for much longer if they still exist now. The way that Russia is destroying public buildings in different cities as the target civilians, some may have already been destroyed. We know that many exhibits have been moved into safety since February 2022. We are waiting for the time when we can return and enjoy some that we haven’t seen.
Read more posts of our travels around Ukraine and the things you can do there, when you get to visit. Posts about Ukraine.