In Chernihiv, a project preserving the past — with technology of the future

Siva Ramakrishnan
The Chernihiv Regional Library for Youth sits two hours north of Kyiv. It’s a small Gothic Revival building painted creamsicle orange, trimmed with white paint that looks like icing.

The Chernihiv Regional Library for Youth sits two hours north of Kyiv. It’s a small Gothic Revival building painted creamsicle orange, trimmed with white paint that looks like icing. Chernihiv is one of the oldest cities in Ukraine, sitting about 30 miles from the border of Belarus, and about 400 miles, as the crow flies, from Moscow.

Since 1902, the library had been home to the Museum of Ukrainian Antiquities, a collection of manuscripts, works of art and rare books. Kateryna Goncharova, a Ukraine heritage crisis specialist with the World Monuments Fund (WMF), said it managed to survive the Bolsheviks and the Nazis, but not the latest war in Ukraine. Russia targeted it with bombs in March 2022, and, Goncharova said, “this is the first time it’s [been] ruined in all of its history.”

It may not, however, be ruined for long. That’s thanks, in part, to a high-tech conservation effort happening across Ukraine to scan cultural sites with 3D scanners and preserve what the Russian war is seeking to destroy: things that are uniquely Ukrainian.

On a recent trip there, Click Here visited Chernihiv for a firsthand look, and later spoke with Goncharova about the building’s history, its restoration, and how technology of the future is helping preserve the past.

For more on efforts to save Ukraine’s cultural heritage, listen to Click Here’s on-the-ground reporting from Chernihiv. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CLICK HERE: How did you end up getting involved with the Library for Youth in Chernihiv?

KATERYNA GONCHAROVA: WMF [World Monuments Fund] started its work in Ukraine almost at the beginning of the war. Stabilization, safeguarding and protection of cultural heritage is in [our] DNA. We work [in] almost 60 countries, responding the best we could to every crisis — [whether] it’s man made, unbalanced tourism, heritage justice, war, everything. The image of Chernihiv library went viral and we’ve seen a lot of support from the local community, from regional administration, [and] a certain advocacy from the Ministry of Culture. We were aware that the building was so heavily affected by explosion waves that it could not withstand the winter. So our initial intention was to stabilize the site for the winter because precipitation [and] the dropping of temperature could cause more damage to the site than the explosions of the Russian bombs themselves.

CH: Why is this idea of saving a library so important? Obviously, it has great meaning for the local community. But does it represent something broader for Ukrainians?

KG: The Library for Youth was built for a personal collection of Vasyl V. Tarnovsky, as a museum of Ukrainian antiquity. [It was] the first one of its kind in the territory of the Russian Empire [and] it’s a jewel, literally a jewel. So I think the spirit of this place makes Ukrainian identity so vivid and serves as a symbol of resistance. I think the point is that there [are] really serious, deliberate attacks on cultural heritage sites like [the] Museum of Prymachenko in Ivankiv [which was burned down by Russian forces in February 2022], like the Museum of Skovoroda [destroyed by Russian artillery in May 2022] next to Kharkiv, and the Library for Youth in Chernihiv. There is a lot of temptation to [say] that they are collateral damage, but there are too many cultural sites and objects of cultural infrastructures that have been damaged during this war. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. We have a war on Ukrainian identity, and those sites are the absolute pivotal points of Ukrainian identity. And of course, when you lose something, you start to appreciate it more.

The Chernihiv Regional Library for Youth undergoing repairs in August 2023. Credit: Kateryna Goncharova

CH: One of the big pushes in this effort revolves around technology. How has 3D scanning been used to rebuild the Library for Youth?

KG: Surveyor and architect Sergey Revenko was one of the first people there on-site to conduct 3D scanning as soon as possible. His work serves not only to develop a project for stabilization, restoration, conservation, you name it. But also to record the damage that was caused. What was so essential about that project on the Library for Youth [is that] when we started to calculate the budget, it became obvious that his 3D scanning and the model that was built reduced the budget up to 20%.

CH: Wow. Why is that?

KG: Because you do not need to conduct [an] architectural survey. All the measurements are there, [and] you do not have to take all the architectural details and decorations by hand. This all [would] require a lot of labor. So we had a perfect plan of the building — everything that we could ever imagine in terms of architecture, it all was in the model. This is why I’m all into 3D scanning, not only as an instrument to document the damage, but also as a very serious investment during the war and postwar recovery.

CH: I hadn’t thought of it making it cheaper, but that makes complete sense. It also makes it faster, right?

KG: Absolutely. You do not have to invest [as many] financial resources, time resources or expertise.

CH: And it’s not just that it preserves something Russians are trying to erase. But in addition to that, 3D scanning can help with returning a building to its previous state much more quickly.

KG: What makes it valuable [is that] you need to build a broader partnership for 3D scanning and for those materials to be used by professionals. For example, we requested a 3D scan by Sergey Revenko from our partners at Heritage Monitoring Lab. They are the ones who conducted damage assessments all over Ukraine. We partnered up with them and [the] Smithsonian last year to conduct damage assessment in the Kyiv/Sumy/Chernihiv region and Kharkiv. And they were absolutely fantastic documenting the losses. The Library for Youth was among their first sites [they] visited, assessed, and suggested [for] 3D scanning.

CH: Is 3D printing any part of the equation?

KG: I don’t think so. It is really important to consider that for Ukrainian preservation, authenticity is [the] number one value. And authenticity includes the fabric, the building materials, everything that deals with these historic structures. So in parallel to 3D scanning, it is absolutely essential to launch a technological and chemical survey of the building materials of those sites that have been ruined, because this is the number one condition for reconstruction. We need to find out what are the recipes of the building materials, what is the recipe of the integrity of the building, and it could be possible only with the assistance of our lab.

CH: So what you’re doing is almost like restoring a painting. You have to make sure you’re using the right pigments, the right kind of stroke, the right chemical makeup.

KG: This is the same thing, but for a building. But again, this lab and the parallel of 3D scanning and technical and chemical labs would allow us to decide what contemporary materials can be used [so as] not to harm the authentic ones. If we talk about plaster, if we talk about paint, if we talk about anything of that kind, we definitely need to make sure that our new technical intrusion will not cause harm to authentic fabric. We preserve authentic materials, dismantled by hand and then stored in the construction site. [Then we] further reuse [those pieces] in reconstructions of the walls that were missing. Those bricks are absolutely authentic. We picked them up right there on the ground. And WMF is launching a movable lab that would go in parallel with 3D scanning. So the equipment that we’re buying can be easily loaded on a truck and then go wherever it’s needed.

CH: It’s like building an ambulance for historic buildings.

KG: Yes, absolutely. It’s a movable lab.

CH: When do you think the mobile lab will be up and running?

KG: We expect the whole package of equipment to be delivered to Kyiv in November. We supported the project this summer, but logistics between Ukraine and other countries is rather complicated. And the set of equipment that we requested for the technical lab to be completed has to be sent from the U.S, the Netherlands, Germany. So it’s only a question of time.

CH: How big will it be? Like, the size of a van?

KG: A small one. I mean like, a regular vehicle would be a little bit smaller. I would just say a small van would accomplish everything.

CH: I want to go back to the act of actually restoring these buildings. You mentioned stabilizing the building. Is that when we see, for example, bars of wood holding up the walls?

KG: Absolutely. It was a temporary structure. First of all, we had to fill in the pit that the crater left from an explosion of the missile. But the main damage was caused by the fact that the whole ruins were slowly sliding down the slope of that crater. And, of course, the building was left with no roof, so [we had a] temporary roof, temporary stabilization, temporary structure. We put a lot of resources into comprehensive research of the technical condition of the building — about construction, pretty much everything.

CH: So a surveyor takes 3D scans of the building. Then what happens?

KG: Where 3D scanning came to really serious actions [is] when we approached the building for the second stage.

CH: What does ‘second stage’ mean? Reconstruction?

KG: Some kind of permanent means that would help to safeguard the building. If you’ve been there, you’ve probably seen a permanent roof that is being erected. You’ve seen the perimeter walls that are being erected. And what makes this project so special for me is that not only [are we] preserving the treasure of that community, but we’re also very careful [with] materials. But the building has a scar of very recent history, so we cannot erase it. It becomes a part of its identity.

CH: So it’s not just a monument, not just a ruin that has a history. But it will be a part of the community again and live and breathe as a building.

KG: Absolutely. [When we do these projects] we are preparing for universal design, so the building can serve any function — a cultural museum, a community center, you name it. This is exactly what I see in a number of locations. For example, our project [on a local history museum] in Okhtyrka actually launched a gigantic kind of renaissance of a local community. And our assistance and rehabilitation of the basement can [be] not only a continuity of cultural life as a space for exhibition and museum activities, but also as a shelter for a local community to feel safe while they’re developing their cultural interest or listening to some lecture. So this combination of safety and cultural development is something we’ll definitely look for in our future projects.

CH: It almost sounds personal to you. It seems like you love this building very much.

KG: Well, honestly we receive so many proposals, but not all of them receive funding. But every project that we develop becomes personal because you are committed to them. You’re so personally affiliated with them, you’re connected with them. So, yeah, the Library for Youth became something really personal.

CH: Who pays to have it rebuilt?

KG: We are. It’s a partnership of WMF and the Cultural Emergency Response at the Ministry of International Affairs from the Netherlands. We have an application process [for bids] and then we review applications [and] clarify the budget and scope of the work. In the case of the Library for Youth, we advocate [for] the proposal and the project not only at WMF, but we also try to launch some kind of a partnership with other fund funds.

CH: What is the budget?

KG: I think the first stage cost approximately $40,000. The second stage, with very serious works, cost $192,000.

CH: And to make it itself again?

KG: Oh, I think it would cost up to half a million, maybe even more.

CH: And do you have a goal for when you’d like it to be done?

KG: It is complicated because a lot of people are joining the military, and sometimes it’s hard to find the right skilled professionals. Second, the risk of another assault from the Russian side is something that we definitely need to consider — missiles are flying, drones are flying. So we have to be really careful about further investment. But again, seeing the delight from the local community, seeing their absolute excitement with what we’re doing, we hope that that’s going to help. And of course we will consider the third stage — engineering, wires, storage, all the technical things — and maybe a fourth one [bringing in furniture], but that requires a lot of work from our end as well.

CH: And do you expect that it will be rebuilt?

KG: I have no right to say anything about that, but I really hope so. There was a quote from Serhiy Laevsky, who’s director of a historical museum in Chernihiv. He was among the first ones who came to see the building after the attack. And he made a post on Facebook saying, ‘I do not know what holds this building from falling. I think this is the spirit of the library because otherwise it would collapse already.’

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