Sometime in the early 1990s, my brother-in-law and I went to Brooklyn, Ohio, to buy some parts at a computer store. When I noticed a female worker had what I perceived to be a Russian accent, I asked her: “What part of Russia are you from?” To which she indignantly replied, “I am not Russian, and I am Ukrainian!” I didn’t know it at the time, but Cleveland and its suburbs have a significant number of Ukrainians who either recently arrived or are descendants of those who came in earlier generations.
A few years ago I saw a brochure advertising the Ukrainian Museum-Archives, which is located in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. I added it to a list of places I wanted to visit but never got round to going there. In light of the recent unjustified and reprehensible Russian invasion of Ukraine, I thought it an apt time to check it out. It’s located in a modest two-story house on a quiet Cleveland street alongside a park.
Cash-starved, it has a small, knowledgeable staff who curate a pretty spectacular collection of mostly donated items. There are works of art, for example, by the Ukrainian American artist Alexander Archipenko, the first person to create Cubist architectural works. The museum’s extensive archives include oral histories of those who came from Ukraine to the United States, recordings of programs from the Voice of America broadcast into Ukraine, thousands of post cards, posters, a multilingual library with over 20,000 books, and even a collection of phonograph records from the 1910s.
Often when I visit a museum, I feel overwhelmed by the number of information signs it has. This forces me to pick and choose what to read lest I have to camp overnight to get through them all. The Ukrainian Museum-Archives has the opposite problem. It needs a whole lot more signs to guide visitors and give them some context as to just what is on display. That’s not to say that if you ask a staff member questions, you won’t get excellent, detailed answers.
On the first floor, one room contains Ukrainian cultural artifacts. Among these is a large collection of decorated eggs that are part of a Ukrainian tradition called pysanky. The shapes and symbols covering them aren’t arbitrary. Sunflowers, as an example, represent the sun’s warm rays. Trees are stand-ins for health and eternal youth. Storks are, not surprisingly, a fertility symbol, as are chickens. Shapes, too have, their meanings. A ribbon represents everlasting life. Suns and stars are for good fortune.
Upon climbing up the stairs to the second floor, you enter a wide hall. Along one side of it hang photos of Ukrainians who came to the United States. Information signs containing snippets of the oral history accounts they gave are in both Ukrainian and English. Their full recollections are in little booklets setting on a shelf below the display.