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'This is our story': Lviv museums move to protect Ukrainian heritage

Ukraine's cultural heritage is under attack as Russia invade and denies the country's right to exist
Ukraine's cultural heritage is under attack as Russia invade and denies the country's right to exist   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Bernat Armangue   -  
By Tim Gallagher  with AP

The race is on to protect Ukraine’s heritage as fears grow of a Russian push into the west of the country.

The Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum is packing away priceless parts of Ukraine’s past in the city of Lviv which has so far remained relatively safe.

General director Ihor Kozhan supervises staff at the cultural institution, Ukraine's largest art museum, as they work to protect valuable art.

Bernat Armangue/AP
Lviv museums empty out as the cultural sector moves heritage objects ahead of a possible push westwardsBernat Armangue/AP

In one partially empty gallery, employees placed carefully wrapped baroque pieces into cardboard boxes. A few metres away, a group walked down the majestic main staircase carrying a giant piece of sacred art, the 18th-century Bohorodchany iconostasis.

"Sometimes the tears are coming because a lot of labour has been put in here. It takes time, energy. You are doing something good, you feel pleased,” says Kozhan.

“Today you see empty walls, so it feels bitter, sad. We didn't believe it till the last minute that this could happen," he adds.

AP/ Bernat Armangue
Statues are shrouded and padded to protect against shrapnel in museums that survived both world warsAP/ Bernat Armangue

The doors of the museum in the western city of Lviv have been closed since the start of the Russian invasion on 24 February, amid concerns for heritage sites across the country as the fighting continues.

Korzhan said he receives daily calls from other European cultural institutions offering to help as he and his staff race to preserve the museum's works.

Anger and frustration in Ukraine’s cultural sector

Anna Naurobska, the head of the rare manuscripts and books department, said she still doesn't know where to safely store the collection of more than 12,000 items being packed into boxes.

The relocation process and the fear that the collection is in danger in the event of an attack on the city overwhelms her.

AP /Bernat Armangue
European countries have offered to help protect the heritage items that tell Ukraine's storyAP /Bernat Armangue

"This is our story; this is our life. It is very important to us," Naurobska said.

She walked into another room and held up a massive tome, tears forming in her eyes. "It's a Russian book," she said, putting it back on the shelf. "I'm so angry."

Like the museum, other sites in Lviv are rushing to protect works of artistic or cultural importance. The display cabinets at the Museum of the History of Religion are almost empty.

AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
Cabinets stand empty after items are moved to protect them from the war in UkraineAP Photo/Bernat Armangue

Workers are assembling metal containers on the patio to safely store the remaining items before placing them in basements. At the Latin Cathedral, the sculptures have been covered with cardboard, foam and plastic to protect them from possible shrapnel.

Amid the bare walls and shrouded statues, Kozhan lamented the empty museum, which has survived two world wars.

"Museums have to live. People have to be there, and first of all children. They have to learn the basics of their culture," he said.