All-Seeing Eye.
Second half of the 19th century, the town of Skvyra, Kyiv Oblast.


Let everything you see in the museum awake
in you ardent, heartfelt love for the spirit
of our mother-Ukraine, and let this love become
a powerful incentive for turning it into
a wonderful and rapidly developing country.
Ivan Honchar

National Ukrainian culture had reached considerable heights in its development when its further progress was checked by the Russian imperial domination in the 18th- early 20th centuries.
The Ukrainians were confronted with an urgent need of preserving their their ethnicity and national cultural heritage, keeping up traditions and searching for ways of regaining independence. In the first quarter of the 19th century a movement of establishing ethnographical museums began with an intention of preserving artefacts of decorative arts and everyday life of the past. Leading figures of Ukrainian culture, patrons of art, art collectors and philanthropists gradually accumulated impressive collections of Ukrainian art and everyday artefacts that had been used in the past. But a lot had been irretrievably lost. Damage to Ukrainian culture done in the russification campaigns launched in the Imperial Russia and by the Soviet regime was great indeed. World War II took its heavy toll of Ukrainian lives and inflicted a further heavy damage upon Ukrainian culture.
In the mid-sixties of this century, there were about 130 museums in Ukraine but none of them presented Ukrainian art objectively or comprehensively. The Soviet rulers wanted art to represent Soviet ideology and Ukrainian national art did not quite fit the ideological frame. "Soviet socialist realism" reigned supreme. State-run museums did not exhibit "primitive art", "folk icons" (that is icons, created by amateur icon painters in villages and towns) and other artefacts of Ukrainian folk and decorative arts. Prospects for the survival of Ukrainian culture seemed glum. It looked as though it was doomed to decline irrevocably, degrade and finally be assimilated into the uniform "Soviet culture". But luckily enough it did not happen, mostly thanks to a number of people totally devoted to the idea of preserving Ukrainian cultural heritage and developing it. One of them was Ivan Honchar (Jan. 27, 1911- June 18, 1993), a prominent and distinguished cultural figure.

Blessing Christ. 18th century.
From the Motronynsky monastery, Cherkasy Oblast.

Embroidered towel.
Early 20th century, the village of
Velyki Sorochyntsi, Poltava Oblast.
He was one of the co-founders of the Ukrainian Society for Preservation of Historical and Cultural Landmarks and of the Museum of Folk Architecture and Everyday Life of Ukraine, one of the biggest of its kind in the world.
As an adolescent boy, at the time when Ukraine was in the throes of civil war and bolshevik-inspired vandalism, Honchar solemnly swore to devote his life to preserving and developing Ukrainian cultural heritage. His crusade to save Ukrainian culture from disintegration earned him a nickname of "apostle of truth." Ivan Honchar verbally lashed "idiotic, retrograde and criminal practices" of hiding treasures of Ukrainian culture of the past in the museums' vaults. He was of the opinion that "to hide artefacts of cultural heritage of a nation is to break this nation's wings preventing it from flying into the future, to rob this nation of its pride, its national identity, its right for originality, and thus of its right for self-determination."
Ivan Honchar started actively collecting cultural artefacts in the early fifties, and soon enough his house turned into a private "clandestine" museum. His devotion to Ukrainian culture, his zeal in collecting museum pieces, his artistic talents looked very suspicious in the eyes of the KGB, Soviet secret service.
Nevertheless, the KGB "unwinking eye" and its "long arm" did not prevent Ivan Honchar from building up his collection and inspiring and encouraging scholars, artists and ethnographers to study national cultural heritage and developing Ukrainian art.
Ivan Honchar, ignoring the official pressure and the then current ideological precepts, went on collecting art objects which otherwise would have been irretrievably lost. Honchar's home became a veritable treasure house of Ukrainian fine, decorative and folk art of the 18th-20th centuries.
In September of 1993, shortly after Honchar's death, his private collection was given the status of a state-run museum.

The Holy Mother of God of Pechersk and All-Seeing Eye. Icon, 18th century, the village of Chopovychi, Zhytomyr Oblast.

A jar. End of the 19th century, the town of Sokal, Vinnitsya Oblast.
Further efforts of a number of leading Ukrainian cultural figures made it possible for the museum to move into a house more suitable for exhibition its vast collection.
Today, this collection includes over 15,000 exhibits dating from the 16th-early 20th centuries, most of which were accumulated by Ivan Honchar himself and his son, Petro Honchar, who is currently curator of the museum. Among the artefacts are: embroidered towels (which in Ukrainian life were used for many purposes); rugs; clothes; head gear; pottery of many kinds; earthenware; toys, Eastern eggs; wood carvings; folk musical instruments; primitive art paintings; sculpture); icons created by folk artists. The fine arts are represented by paintings and graphic works (V.Krychevsky; V.Makovsky; P.Levchenko; A.Zhdakha; S.Vasylkivsky; S.Svitoslavsky; H.Svitlytsky; O.Murashko; O.Kurylas; K.Trutovsky; O.Kultchytsky; H.Narbut; F.Krasytsky; I.Yizhakevych; H.Yakutovych; V.Lopata and others).
Honchar's private library of about 3,000 volumes became part of the museum too. Many of the books are Ukrainian incunabula and other rarities.
A lot of books are of the kind that in the Soviet times were kept in the "special depositories," and possession of which could land the possessor in prison. Of a great scholarly value are Honchar's archives which include manuscripts (Honchar's and of other authors); letters; diaries; tapes and photographs. Honchar's own works make up a considerable part of the museum's collection - there are about one thousand paintings in it and about six hundred pieces of sculpture.
Ethnographic materials of the museum are of great interest and of considerable scientific value. They include, among other things, portraits of Ukrainians in national dresses and of remarkable Ukrainian historical and cultural figures.
The Honchar Museum today is more than just an exhibition of art objects and Ukrainian cultural artefacts. It is a research centre that organized ethnographic expeditions, conferences, seminars and lectures, traveling exhibitions. Culture Studies and Art Clubs, and Avtentyka Ukrainian Traditional Culture Centre, working under the auspices if the museum, disseminate and popularize knowledge of Ukrainian art and ethnography in Ukraine and abroad.

Lion (zoomorphic vessel).
Early 20th century, the town of Myrhorod, Vinnitska Oblast.
The museum seeks cooperation with other museums of Ukraine and of the world in order to integrate Ukrainian traditional culture into the world cultural processes.


Embroidered towel (detail).
19th century, the town of
Komarhorod, Vinnitsya Oblast.


A woman's embroidered shirt.
Early 20th century,
Poltava Oblast.


A woman's embroidered shirt.
19th century, the village
of Lokhvytsya, Poltava Oblast.


Embroidered towel.
19th century, the village of
Ubizhychi, Chernihiv Oblast.
The Ivan Honchar Museum aims at combining purely museum work with revitalizing cultural and art traditions of the Ukrainian people.

The Virgin Mary, St Mykola and St Ioan the Warrior.
End of the 19th century. Provenance unknown.
The museum is planning to set up a children's folk art school, restoration shops, art studios, a folk art lab with the purpose of maintaining and developing the best Ukrainian folk and fine art traditions.
Ivan Honchar's life and work can be called a veritable cultural feat. What he has managed to do is comparable to an achievement of a big cultural institution. It is time we realized that a gifted person, armed with knowledge and inspired by love for this native land, can work miracles.
All the visitors to the museum are invariably filled with gratitude to Ivan Honchar and his successors for saving these exciting treasures of Ukrainian art and culture. Numbers of visitors are constantly growing and it has become evident of more spacious premises, which would allow showing the versatility and richness of Ukrainian art and culture to the Ukrainians and to the world.

By Ihor Poshyvailo, MA, Department Head of the Museum
Photos by Volodymyr Zaitsev

Museum's address:
29 Sichnevoho Povstannya St.,
Kyiv, 252015, Ukraine.
Tel./fax: 380 (44) 573-9268.
E-mail: pito@gonchar.freenet.kiev.ua

Illustrated to the article.