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Learning the Nuclear: Educational Tourism in (Post)Industrial Sites


Edited By Natalija Mazeikiene

This book illuminates the educational potential of nuclear tourism and learning about nuclear power in informal and non-formal learning settings. The authors present a case of elaboration of the educational virtual nuclear route in the Ignalina Power Plant Region, Lithuania. Nuclear tourism takes its shape at the junction of several types of tourism – energy, industrial, cultural, and heritage and it becomes a site of outdoor and place-based education, promotes STEM, energy literacy, critical thinking, and environmental skills, and creates a valuable source for virtual learning. The book reveals peculiarities of learning and experience at nuclear power plants and disaster tourism destinations such as the Chernobyl Museum and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

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Chernobyl Museum as an Educational Site: Transforming “Dark Tourists” Into Responsible Citizens and Knowledgeable Learners (Natalija MažeikienėandEglė Gerulaitienė)

Natalija MažeikienėandEglė Gerulaitienė

Chernobyl Museum as an Educational Site: Transforming “Dark Tourists” Into Responsible Citizens and Knowledgeable Learners

Abstract: The chapter focuses on the concepts of dark tourism and disaster tourism, which could be viewed as a cultural representation of disaster. These tourist destinations provide visitors as potential learners with an understanding of the social, political and cultural causes of technogenic disasters. The chapter analyses what meanings of the disaster are created, how the disaster is constructed in the collective consciousness, and how social and cultural construction of the disaster takes place in media, popular culture, museums, and other cultural and social spaces. The cultural turn and cultural perspective on disasters allow understanding cultural framing of disaster, how disasters are framed and interpreted, collectively imagined, remembered and memorialised, represented and portrayed through folklore, songs, movies and other media (Webb, 2018). The exposition of the National Museum “Chernobyl” and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone tours are viewed as specific versions of cultural and social representations of the Chernobyl disaster and can be related to and compared with cultural representations of Chernobyl in the media, films, literary and fine art works. The authors of this chapter conducted an ethnographic study of the exhibition of the National Museum “Chernobyl”. The exhibition’s overall space, the choice and positioning of objects, texts and labels were analysed. The exhibition was treated as a specific means of education and communication. The research aimed to carry out a study of the representation of the Chernobyl accident as a disaster by analysing verbal content, visual materials and symbols. The question was raised how the Chernobyl disaster is constructed in the Museum and what educational potential this disaster tourism destination has for visitors as potential learners.

Keywords: The Chernobyl Museum educational nuclear tourism dark tourism disaster tourism disaster studies chronos kairos heroisation


Nowadays, Chernobyl is becoming an attractive place for tourists seeking exclusive existential experiences. Disaster attracts tourists because it conveys a specific sensory and aesthetic perception of the environment and landscape. The disaster place disrupts usual and enjoyable images of the landscape (Miller, ←176 | 177→2007). It has a “high emotional impact” and is associated with death and other atrocities. Disaster tours are organised in areas affected by natural and technogenic disasters. Tourists’ interest in this topic and trips to the Chernobyl area and visiting the National Museum “Chernobyl” could be seen as disaster tourism. Chernobyl is one of the largest human-made technological disasters.

The better understanding of the disaster tourism in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the cultural construction of disaster at the National Museum “Chernobyl” was made possible by referring to ideas and approaches presented in disaster studies. This cross-disciplinary field views disasters as a social and cultural phenomenon, when disasters are presented through the cultural imagination, cultural representations and meanings of disaster (Holm, 2012). Disasters are not just a physical reality phenomenon where society and landscape undergo physical harm. Disasters are social disruption. Therefore, the disaster should be viewed as a social and cultural phenomenon when it is analysed in terms of what meanings of the disaster are created, how the disaster is constructed in the collective consciousness, and how social and cultural construction of the disaster takes place in media, popular culture, museums, and other cultural and social spaces. According to Webb (2018), the cultural turn and cultural perspective on disasters allow understanding cultural framing of disaster, how disasters are framed and interpreted, collectively imagined, remembered and memorialised, represented and portrayed through folklore, songs, movies and other media.

Referring to this concept of cultural perspective on disasters, the exposition of the National Museum “Chernobyl” and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone tours are viewed as specific versions of cultural and social representations of the Chernobyl disaster and can be related to and compared with cultural representations of Chernobyl in the media, films, literary and fine art works. In this sense, disaster tourism is associated by visitors with other cultural experiences of the Chernobyl disaster (reading books about this disaster, watching films, following the discourse in the media).

The Cultural Construction of Disaster in Tourism Destinations

The cultural turn in analysing a disaster allows delineating forms of collective representations and “myths” of disasters. Holm (2012) distinguishes several historically stable symbolic forms of how disasters are imagined and represented. One of the cognitive schemes of how a disaster is perceived is sublime as a specific aesthetic sense experience about the terrible, awe-invoking beauty of disasters; it is ‘the violent sense experience overwhelming the observer who, ←177 | 178→stricken with terrified dumbness and bodily stupor, experiences a masochistic blend of pain and pleasure’ (Holm, 2012, p. 24). The cultural symbolic form of trauma represents the disaster through images of people’s psychic health threatened by a “shock” or “post-traumatic stress syndrome”. One more form of the collective representation of a disaster is a “state of emergency” which focuses on the breakdown of legal and normative structures caused by a disaster with possible reference to asocial behaviour and social chaos. The collective representation of apocalypse represents a disaster as the end of the world. According to Holm (2012), when we perceive a disaster through the cognitive scheme of imbalance and sustainability which was developed mostly by the ecological movement, we focus on the imbalance between human and biophysical systems causing disaster. Other cultural representations of disasters are associated with the idea of God and with theological and mythological images of the disaster as caused and influenced by god, evil and fate. The cognitive scheme the blessing in disguise constructs the disaster as “world fire” and “purification”, the ground for new growth. Theodicy represents disaster as an expression of the gods’ justice and will.

Disaster tourism and other cultural representations of disaster allow tourists understand the social aspects of the disaster, how the disaster affected people’s lives and how social structures are related to the disaster. This aspect of social structures is analysed in disaster studies, where, in addition to cultural representation of accidents, disasters are viewed from a structural perspective when analysing their impacts on social structures (how they are disrupted and their functions are distorted) and how these social structures respond to large-scale systemic disruptions; also, how these social structures respond to large-scale systemic disruptions (Fritz, 1961; Kreps, 1989, as cited in Webb, 2018). Visitors to disaster sites and people who get to know disasters more closely through cultural activities and tourism become familiar with the structural approach which reveals how organisations (police, army, fire departments and special emergency divisions) and communities mobilise response efforts, adapt their structures, alter their tasks and create new response-related tasks to meet the demands of disasters (Webb, 2018).

Authors analysing cultural representations of disasters emphasise the role of culture as a source of resilience that protects communities from the impacts of disasters since it helps to make sense of the world (Webb, 2018). Disaster tourism can help understand how communities have tried to cope with disaster by creating the meaning. Disasters are viewed not only as physical damage, but it is also a disruption of social meanings when a vacuum of meaning occurs, when meaninglessness or absurd opens. Therefore, it is very important to find cultural ←178 | 179→tools to create meanings that provide the basis for resilience during the disaster and in the post-disaster period. A disaster is viewed by disaster studies as a cultural phenomenon when disaster-stricken communities go through processes of social reconstruction, regeneration and recuperation; when new values and norms, new disaster communities and subcultures emerge in the disaster and post-disaster environment (Ibid). The authors writing on Hurricane Katrine’s Disaster Tourism in New Orleans emphasise that this tourism aims to expose tourists to revival, recovery, the signs of hope and rebirth rather than a decline (Miller, 2007).

In this context, it is important to recognise how disaster memorials take place and how they play a significant role in the process of recovery from a disaster (Eyre, 2006). Cultural representations (memorials, museums, tourist routes, films, books) are dedicated to memorialise a disaster, pay tribute to victims and recount stories of loss and heroism, revealing the response of social structures to disasters and giving us a better understanding of how social and political structures worked during and after the disaster.

Moreover, one of the more important aspects analysed in disaster studies and what can be learned and discovered by tourists and visitors in disaster tourism is an understanding of how the technogenic disaster emerged, how society and culture became the cause of the disaster. Webb (2018), discussing cultural perspective on disasters, mentions the role of culture as a source of vulnerability. “The origins of disaster lie not in nature, and not in technology, but rather in the ordinary everyday workings of society itself” (Webb, 2018). Referring to the topic of causes of catastrophe, questions are raised who is to blame; what caused the disaster; what social, political institutions; and what social and cultural values determined it. In that regard, it is explored what behavioural patterns, values and attitudes of individual social and political structures, organisational cultures led to a disaster. It is analysed what social structures, organisational cultures have been dysfunctional, dangerous. Such disaster-inducing behaviour may have been of structural secrecy, whereby certain institutions and socio-political structures concealed information or provided misinformation; knowledge and materials may not be intentionally concealed but ignored or neutralised because different units or departments failed to communicate (Vaughan, 1999, as cited in Webb, 2018). Disasters may have occurred even though socio-political systems, organisations had their lack of imagination and their “failures of foresight”, which lead them to underestimate the potential (Turner, 1976, as cited in Webb, 2018).

Thus, based on disaster studies, disaster tourism could be viewed as a cultural representation of disaster, which can provide visitors as potential learners ←179 | 180→with an understanding of the social, political and cultural causes of technogenic disasters. Disaster tourism has the potential to evolve into environmental, social and political sciences education, i.e., to teach people how to think about society, culture and structures that create risk, lead to disasters.

The authors analysing dark tourism also highlight its educational potential. The main difference between heritage tourism and dark tourism is that the latter is often associated with some atrocity (Sharpley & Stone, 2009). By their nature, dark tourism sites, museums can elicit strong emotional reactions (Seaton 2009; Weaver et al., 2017; Podoshen, 2013). Broadly, the term refers to tourism focused around sites of death and suffering. The “darkest” tourism sites are generally solemn and highly sanctified places of actual suffering where ideologically mediated narratives serve instrumentally to attract empathy, contemplation and transformation (Weaver et al. 2017). The idea of the “aura”, or emotion or mood conveyed, is an important theoretical construct in dark tourism (Seaton, 2009). Even though travel to places associated with death, disaster and dark tourism is not a pleasant experience, tourists are now more knowledgeable, critical, highly selective, highly segmented and more discerning than they were (Wu & Cheng, 2018). It is difficult to understand the essence of why one undertakes what may be unsettling, awkward, contestable or unpleasant experiences, but we still find in the existing literature that learning and education, as per Biran, Poria, and Oren (2011), Preece and Price (2005) and Kang et al. (2012), are situated as primary motivators. As Grebenar (2018) states, dark tourism sites must offer tourists the chance to consume death within the accepted boundaries of modern tourism and taste (Young & Light, 2016; Stone, 2012) whilst simultaneously facing the elements of taboo relating to death in our society (Stone, 2012; Stone, 2009). Dark tourism sites afford an opportunity to “write or rewrite the history of people’s lives and deaths, or to provide particular (political) interpretations of past events” (Sharpley & Stone, 2009, p. 8).

The study of Wu and Cheng (2018) proposes eight constructs from the perspective of dark tourism research: participation, innovation, experiential risk, experiential memorability, experiential satisfaction, experiential trust, experiential involvement and supportive intentions towards dark tourism sites. There is a base of literature which explores dark tourism as a distinct phenomenon, including concepts such as site presentation (Yoshida, Bui & Lee, 2016; Friedrich & Johnson, 2013), heterotopia (Stone, 2013) and commodification within tourism (e.g. MacCannell, 2011; Sather-Wagstaff, 2011) and, specifically, dark tourism (Seaton, 2009).←180 | 181→

The study “A Dark Tourism Spectrum” by Stone (2016) provides observations and research on dark tourism products which are multifaceted, complex in design and purpose and diverse; it is perhaps clear that the universal term “dark”, as applied to tourism, is too broad. Therefore, it is perhaps prudent to argue for an analysis that accounts for multiple shades of dark tourism, concerning identifiable product traits, characteristics and perceptions. Stone (2006) distinguished seven classifications of dark suppliers along the dark tourism spectrum (darkest to lightest) (see Fig. 1): from the “darkest” – sites of death or suffering with an educative and historic approach alongside a strong authenticity of product and location – to the “lightest” – sites associated with death or suffering with an emphasis on entertainment.

Miles (2002) proposes there is a crucial difference between sites associated with death and suffering, and sites that are of death and suffering. So the experience and education at the Chernobyl zone is conceivably darker than the one at the National Museum of Chernobyl in Kyiv. As a result, questions have been raised about the distinction between authentic and inauthentic history. Indeed, one of the main contentions is how “dark sites”, such as the Chernobyl zone, with a dominant commemorative ethic are portrayed as real, whilst it is more and more linked with a commercial orientation and a tendency to seemingly romanticise and thus distort past dark deeds. Since a diverse and fragmented set of dark tourism suppliers exists, so equally diverse are the motives of tourists who visit and consume these products. A recognised and structured framework of dark tourism supply is required to aid the identification and subsequent research of potential visitors and their experiences to these dark tourism products.

According to Miles (2002), a “darker–lighter tourism paradigm” does indeed exist; he suggests that dark touristic sites must engender a degree of empathy between the sightseer and the past victim (or product). He has it that recent death and tragic events that may be transported in live memory through survivors or witnesses are perhaps “darker” than other events that have descended into the distant past. Thus, those dark events which possess a shorter time frame to the present, and therefore can be validated by the living and which evoke a greater sense of empathy, are perhaps products which may be described as “darker” (Miles, 2000).

Fig. 1:A Dark Tourism Spectrum: Perceived product features of dark tourism within a ‘Darkest–Lightest’ Framework of Supply by Stone (2006)

Methodology of the Research

The authors of this chapter conducted an ethnographic study of the exhibition of the National Museum “Chernobyl” in January 2019. The exhibition’s overall ←181 | 182→space, the choice and positioning of objects, texts and labels were analysed. The exhibition was treated as a specific means of education and communication. The research aimed to carry out a study of the representation of the Chernobyl accident as a disaster by analysing verbal content, visual materials, symbols. We have been raising a question of how the Chernobyl disaster is constructed in the Museum and what educational potential this disaster tourism destination ←182 | 183→has for visitors as potential learners. We acknowledge the limitations of this research object and field: we conducted the content analysis of the exposition and grounded on our insights regarding a potential educational effect. This analysis does not refer to interviews and conversations with curators, educators and other staff of the Museum. Moreover, this investigation did not encompass our analysis of educational programmes delivered by the Museum as well as assessment of the educational demand by visitors. We leave the description of these elements of Museum’s activities and research on them to further investigations conducted by us and other authors in the future.

Chernobyl Museum as a Disaster and Dark Tourism Destination

The disaster. On the 26th of April 1986, at night, a disastrous accident happened in reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, the Soviet Union. The radioactive fallout that leaked out from Chernobyl spread over large parts of Europe. Following the winds, it reached Belarus, Sweden on the 27th and 28th of April. The increased level of radioactivity was first recognised at the nuclear power plant in Forsmark, Uppsala county, Sweden. At first, the source was suspected to be within Forsmark, but the Soviet news agency TASS confirmed the Chernobyl accident in the evening of the 27th (Hultkrantz & Olsson, 1997). On the 18th of May, the World Health Organisation, the WHO, declared that the accident in Chernobyl would have no medical consequences to people outside the Soviet Union. Already on the 7th of May, the WHO declared that radiation in Europe, except for the area in the immediate neighbourhood of Chernobyl, was of no danger to people’s health. However, the papers reported that, in spite of that, tourists outside Europe cancelled trips to Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. The explosion destroyed the reactor number 4 at Chernobyl, killing two plant workers that night of the accident, and, further, 28 operators and fire-fighters died within 5 weeks as a result of acute radiation sickness (WNA, 2012).

In the aftermath, up to 600,000 people, including soldiers, miners, plant workers and fire-fighters from all across the former Soviet Union – referred to as “liquidators” – were drafted in to decontaminate the site. P. R. Stone (2013) named Chernobyl post-apocalyptic place and analysed the number of deaths attributed to the disaster, which is still growing, partly due to lack of accurate records and politically contested criteria to determine Chernobyl-related mortality; a Greenpeace report suggests approximately 270,000 cancer cases within the affected region have been caused by the accident (Greenpeace, 2006). ←183 | 184→Greenpeace also concludes that since the disaster, 60,000 people in Russia and 140,000 people in Belarus and Ukraine have died as a direct result of the incident. Stone (2013) examined reports on ongoing health impacts of Chernobyl and argued that radiation from the disaster had had a devastating effect on survivors, including the clean-up workers (“liquidators”); damaging the immune and endocrine systems, leading to accelerated ageing, cardiovascular and blood illnesses, psychological disorders, chromosomal aberrations and an increase in foetal deformations (Greenpeace, 2006). In 2011, the 25th anniversary of the disaster, the Ukrainian government sanctioned official tours to the site as well as to the abandoned “ghost town” nearby, Pripyat. Arguably, therefore, Chernobyl has become a destination associated with dark tourism and the “darker side of travel” (Sharpley and Stone, 2009; Stone, 2011).

The Museum. The National Museum “Chernobyl” is a multifunctional institution combining scientific, cultural and educational activities with a modern museum and archive, documenting, preserving and conveying the history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as the most severe radioecological disaster of the 20th century. The after-effects of it have no analogy and differ from other natural or human-made catastrophes. The museum opened to the public on the 26th of April 1992 in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, 150 kilometres away from the epicentre of the disaster. The current exhibition of the Museum has three exhibition halls with a total area of 1,100 square metres and more than 7,000 exhibits; there were only 200 exhibits in 1992. Large number of exhibition items, classified documents, maps, photos, special equipment, printings of that time, historic relics from the Exclusion Zone and other authentic materials, that are calling for reflections about the most burning problems of today’s life and about ecological, social and spiritual consequences provoked by the Chornobyl disaster. Numerous records testify liquidators who sacrificed their health and even life, demonstrated courage and heroism to save the Earth from a global catastrophe. The Museum strives to become the centre of education of ecological culture, the culture of a safe life. Traditional tours, ecological lessons-excursions, lectures that aspire for new knowledge, conferences for those who are testing their own erudition, seeking answers to a controversial problematic question are organised at the Museum; moreover, ecological holidays are arranged as well.

The Museum exhibits modern audio and video records, information technology, allows expanding the chronological and thematic boundaries of the Museum and ensuring the authenticity of existing exhibitions. It presents a three-phase diorama “Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant before and after the Accident”, work model 4 of the power unit, an electronic book of Chernobyl ←184 | 185→liquidators, unique documentaries, computer programs on disaster and its consequences. It is claimed that emotional and philosophical art devices are very important in the exhibition. They bring their message and help them understand the 20th-century global tragedy. The idea of creating such devices is the result of collaboration between Museum scientists and artists, inspired by expeditions to the exclusion zone.

The function of the Museum is not only to document history, but also to mobilise sentiments and evoke emotions which range from anger to pride. In other words, strong emotional reactions result from the visit to the Chernobyl Museum because it has expressed feelings of sublime and fear (for what happened and can happen in the future), sorrow, sympathy, depression and appreciation (for the peaceful present), and doubts about the future (energy and environmental concerns). This potential of museums to evoke complex and contradictory feelings is illustrated by the Chernobyl Museum’s motto “Est dolendi modus, non est timendi”, which welcomes the visitor at the entrance of the exhibition. Translated from Latin it means “suffering has its limit, but fears are endless”.

The education at the museum. Museums and other historical sites could be presented as institutions that preserve, interpret and memorialise the past and suggest pedagogical strategies for different groups of learners. Museums are sites to learn about history, geography, biology, citizenship education, ethics, literature, philosophy and other subjects of the formal curriculum. Museums offer opportunities to promote learning of different subjects taught in the school curriculum. The artefacts they display, narratives they tell and re-creations of the past they exhibit potentially engage students with content in ways unavailable through classroom activities or textbook reading (Marcus, 2007). The site such as Chernobyl Museum may develop students’ historical empathy by allowing them experience the history and make personal connections to people. Museums also create opportunities for students to think critically about the past and history as a discipline by analysing how museums interpret and present the past; and this construction is subjective, evolving and influenced by many factors. Visiting museums as part of educational experiences is critical because, long after students finish their formal education, they will continue visiting and interacting with the past at museums and memorials. Thus, facilitating students’ skills in interpreting and understanding museums and memorials is essential (Marcus, 2007).

The official website of the Chernobyl Museum ( states that the museum aims to become an educational centre to teach about environmental issues and promote the culture of an ←185 | 186→environmentally safe life. Efforts of specialists (teachers, scientists, scholars) of Ukrainian and public organisations from all over the world are put together developing various educational and socio-cultural programmes for all types of visitors.

Construction of the Nuclear Nation and Nuclear Belonging at the Chernobyl Museum

The Chernobyl Museum creates a relation to the past; it is a site of memory, an imaginative reconstruction of the past. Memories are reconstructed through practices of storytelling. Museums contribute to the construction of the national identity by exhibiting and presenting national and cultural heritage by educating the public (McLean, 1998). This museum performs a memory work and, at the same time, negotiates and constructs meanings of the collective and national identity in presenting the Chernobyl event. It is a national museum, and, thus, in one way or another, reflects the state’s memory policy in interpreting this historical event.

One way to construct a national identity is to instil a sense of national pride in their citizens. We discover this aspect at the Chernobyl Museum as the presentation and highlighting of the heroism of the liquidators, when the actions of the people involved in the emergency work are presented as heroic feats and are intended to exhibit commemoration of their heroic deeds, to pay homage and remembrance of the “Impossible Mission”.

Based on the literature review, a tendency is recognised that nuclear issues are incorporated into the process of construction of the national identity. In this context, we would like to mention the Manhattan Project in the USA, which was devoted to atomic energy research into the creation of an atomic bomb, which later developed nuclear energy in the USA. Researchers (Masco 2006, Gerster 2013) point out that the Manhattan project has been an American nation-building project that began after World War II and was developed during the post-Cold War period and contributed to the “nuclear nation” and the formation of “nuclear nationalism”. The Manhattan Project, an intensive tourist destination at present, introduces the atomic bomb-making process, providing knowledge of industrial nuclear heritage, yet at the same time giving shape to the perception that the country was a leader in entering the Atomic Age (Gerster, 2013).

The collective experience of Chernobyl becomes a significant element in the formation of the national identity in the post-Soviet period. The construction of the national identity during and after the Chernobyl event, which takes place ←186 | 187→in a wider public discourse, also is represented in the Chernobyl Museum. The Chernobyl event itself became a marker and trigger for the collapse of the Soviet Union. The representation and narrative of Chernobyl were created already during the collapse of the Soviet Union and incorporated into the nation-building process of Ukraine, Belarus and other countries in the post-Soviet area. The identity structure of these countries can be recognised as “nuclear belonging” (Briukhovetska, 2016) when, on the one hand, several post-Soviet countries (Belarus, Ukraine, Russia) “inherited” nuclear weapons and nuclear testing sites (Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan) before they belonged to the Soviet Union. Chernobyl as the worst nuclear reactor accident site (contaminated nuclear landscape) “belongs” to Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. These countries have become nuclear nations in this sense. In addition to the physical, biological and environmental consequences for these countries, Chernobyl is becoming part of the process of constructing a national identity. For Ukraine, it even has become a country brand, because of Chernobyl; this country is known to others and “appears” on the world map as a place of Chernobyl (Briukhovetska, 2016).

One important aspect of the Chernobyl experience as nuclear belonging is that it is a collective traumatic experience and memory. The “nuclear trauma”, which as Briukhovetska (2016) has it, formed the core of the group identity. In the psychological sense (as individual and collective trauma) as well as in the cultural, symbolical sense (as “master signifier”, “key symbol” and “myth”), the Chernobyl experience had to pass through a process of “nationalisation”, to be integrated into the narrative of construction of the national identity. This collective trauma through memory work finds its expression in museums, fiction, cinematography and other areas of symbolical creation. The psychological and existential side of Chernobyl is presented in films, books and art projects.

The exposition of the Chernobyl Museum performs a function of citizenship education, since it presents a specific version of one of the largest and most significant events of the modern history of the nation. The exposition tells how divisions and participants (clean-up workers) of appropriate structures stopped and curbed the catastrophe, how they saved the world after the most terrible technogenic disaster in the world has happened. The idea of heroisation is also related to the idea of nuclear nationalism, when nuclear energy is treated as a national project, part of national history and shared collective identity of the nation. No doubt, the liquidators are introduced as “our heroes”, not only as citizens of the Soviet Union, but also as citizens of our country (Ukraine) who sacrificed themselves for the wellbeing of the country, nation and entire humankind. Heroisation of the narrative on the Chernobyl disaster complies with the logic of creation of the national identity, when the history of the nation is being ←187 | 188→created through the actions of heroes during the events which are significant to that nation. The heroisation prevailing in the narrative on the said disaster is a means to give meaning to the suffering and deaths of the liquidators, to assure that these deaths were not in vain.

In the process of the nation building, “biological citizenship” formed, the social-political, civic process took place, when citizens (especially Chernobyl sufferers) in the post-soviet Ukraine joined together for the process to fight for their rights (social protections and compensation as a form of payment for past damage), to employ bio-scientific knowledge (social statistics, radiobiology, health physics, etc.) to the aftermath’s data-producingin the establishment of new policies guaranteeing safe living, social equity and human rights (Petryna, 2002). It was sought to create financial and moral obligations which would strengthen a national bond between sufferers and non-sufferers. Therefore, nuclear belonging and nuclear identity in post-soviet Ukraine formed not only as a group trauma, but also as a group civic process oriented towards an active political and civic action, implementation of own social rights.

Besides heroism, the Chernobyl Museum creates the collective and national identity through victimhood, when appealing to collective experience of the trauma, and the traumatic historical event becomes the basis for bringing the group, nation together. For instance, the Holocaust is treated as an experience and historical event bringing the nation together, as a historical trauma that brings together and “creates” modern Jewish nation, and museums dedicated to the Holocaust perform this role throughout the world. The National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide in Kyiv, Ukraine, is also attributed to a similar construction of the group identity through group victimhood.

This creation of the collective and national identity through the victimhood complies with another example of the construction of the nuclear nation, i.e., building post-war national identity in Japan. The so-called atomic-bomb nationalism in Japan is promoted by creating the “victimization narrative” and unifying national feelings of suffering and being victims after defeat in the war (Schäfer, 2016). The educational tourism site at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum as the atom bombing place plays an important educational role in citizenship and history education; it is considered as an essential element of the national project in constructing the collective memory and national identity in Japan. Additionally, the anti-nuclear stance and striving for peace is one more constituent element of the post-war identity in Japan, besides collective mourning and grief. These messages of suffering, the traumatic experiences of victims during the bombing and aftermath, anti-nuclear discourse and promotion of peace are strongly reflected in the part of the Hiroshima Peace ←188 | 189→Memorial Museum which was built first and expresses a traditional approach in representations of history and identity.

Epic Heroic Narrative in Commemorating Heroes – Clean-up Workers (Liquidators)

Considering the Chernobyl Museum’s exposition, we recognise these two discussed conceptions (heroism and victimhood). The first idea deals with heroism, sacrificial actions of specialists and citizens who participated in liquidation of the disaster (clean-up workers-liquidators), helped ceasing the fire, stopped the spread of radiation and cleaned up the territory. On the one hand, this heroic construction of the narrative on Chernobyl meets the representations of heroism which are deep-rooted in the Soviet tradition of heroisation. On the other hand, representatives of the disaster studies mention heroisation as a typical strategy applied in cultural disaster construction depicting how social structures responded to large-scale systemic disruptions during and after disasters, how organisations (police, army, fire departments, special divisions) and communities mobilise response efforts, adapt their structures and alter their tasks, and create new response-related tasks to meet demands of disasters (Webb, 2018).

The major narrative line in the exposition halls 1 and 2 deals with occurrence of the teams of liquidators-heroes throughout the disaster event. First, engineers of the nuclear power plant, who were the first attempting to identify what was happening, to find out the actual situation of the disaster, appear. The first heroes were fire-fighters who were extinguishing the fire and underwent lethal doses of radiation. Later, other groups of rescuers joined in: these were miners, helicopter pilots, soldiers attending obligatory military service, who cleaned the reactor’s roof from graphite, other officers, and civilians called in from military reserve to clean up the territory, construct the roof (sarcophagus). Scientists, physicians and other medical staff are also presented as the heroes. The presented heroism of the liquidators involves a dominating style of presentation of authentic details and documents. In this part of the exposition, a visual style of documents prevails; texts including facts, detailed descriptions, black-and-white photographs of the participants, images of the disaster and acting liquidators are presented; in single cases, documentary video recordings (for instance, rendering how soldiers using shovels are removing graphite from the reactor’s roof), authentic details of liquidators’ clothing and separate units of equipment are displayed. Besides photographs and descriptions of single participants (heroes) and groups of them, documents evidencing state awards ←189 | 190→(letters of acknowledgement, medals), in single cases, information and related documents on undergone dose of radiation, degree of injury, and history of disease or death are presented.

Heroism of the liquidators is demonstrated and acknowledged by presenting many state awards for heroism (letters of acknowledgement, medals, honorific names of heroes) given to people-liquidators. These awards not only formally acknowledge and enhance the narrative of heroism, but also construct the relation between heroes and state which awarded them. At the same time, grounding on the critical perspective to construction of Soviet heroism, a question is raised whether the medals and state awards could be considered as sufficient expression of respect of the state in this case (if no other kind of support, i.e., treatment, social guarantees, and financial allowances, is given together with the medals). It is worth noting that, besides the awards, information on undergone doses of radiation and the fate of the heroes, many of whom died from the effect of radiation or are presently severely ill, became people with disabilities, is presented.

Comparing Heroic Narratives of the Chernobyl Museum with Non-heroic Representations in Other Texts: An Intertextual Reading

Emphasis on the heroic discourse in halls 1 and 2 of the museum can be “read” and interpreted in connection to other texts, through intertextuality, when texts of the museum’s exposition are read by collating them with widely publicly known and read (by creators and visitors) texts on the topic. Svetlana Alexievich’s famous book “Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future” (1999) is one of the significant texts making an impression and conception comparable to the exposition of the Chernobyl Museum. In this book, we find another, “non-heroic”, conception of Chernobyl as a version of an experienced, undergone event, which became “a monument to suffering and courage”, reporting traumatic experiences and exploring how these events affected the lives of people, representing the new human condition of the trauma (Marchesini, 2017). Working as a journalist and using collective testimonies about traumatic events for 10 years, S. Alexievich collected more than 500 interviews of witnesses, including fire-fighters, liquidators, physicists, physicians, politicians and ordinary citizens. Depicting Chernobyl, she deeply explores not the disaster as a sequence of historical facts and events (even though, while reading the book, we, readers, reconstruct the proceeding of the disaster and what happened aftermath); she is more interested in an existential and psychological ←190 | 191→measure of this event – how people survive and “measure” this event by their existence, feelings, how they undergo suffering and losses, what psychological and philosophical meanings they construct decades later after this accident. This narration is not heroic; participants of the accident are depicted as people who suffer from physical, psychological, existential pain, raise philosophical questions and tell their doubts about their self-sacrifice. In this book, participation of liquidators is testified by their wives narrating about liquidators’ mortal suffering and death. The “non-heroic” narrative of S. Alexievich’s book manifests in a way that the liquidators, participants of the event, see themselves not as heroes but rather as victims of the Soviet regime and radiation, tell how absolute majority of them were called in and transported to the site of the disaster not by their will – specialists, members of paramilitary statutory divisions, army soldiers and reserve soldiers; many of them note that back then they did not understand, did not know and were not informed about the extent of radiation on the site (about obtained doses) and the effect on their health; how presently they suffer from diseases, were witnesses of many of their comrades facing “terrible, characteristic to the liquidators” death. The liquidators, their wives and relatives tell about the psychological and spiritual pain and suffering when watching physical pain (oncological diseases) of their children.

Besides S. Alexievich’s book “Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future” (2016) emphasising not heroism but rather existential suffering, other fiction texts analysed in scientific literature as contrasting to the heroism-based narrative of Chernobyl and presenting the existential perspective to Chernobyl, how the Chernobyl disaster is experienced by the participants, through the existential perspective of their daily lives can be pointed out. A film “Innocent Saturday” (V Subbotu) released by a Russian director Aleksandr Mindadze in 2011 is analysed as a case of construction of the non-heroic narrative; in it, A. Mindadze depicts Chernobyl in terms of an “existential zone”, through existential dilemmas, revealing the existential impact on ordinary peoples’ lives (Lindbladh, 2012). This “existential action movie” depicts ordinary people struggling with their ambivalent and complex thoughts and feelings, wishes and fears. In the course of the entire film, the protagonist tries to escape from Chernobyl on the first day after the explosion (on Saturday) after he finds out about the disaster that happened earlier that night. The hero fails to leave Chernobyl; one can anticipate that he will suffer and finally die from radiation. The film avoids telling about the Chernobyl disaster from the perspective of the theme of Soviet heroism where heroic self-sacrificing deed and heroic death, the brave actions of Soviet people fighting against the catastrophe (Lindbladh, 2012), are depicted. The protagonist of the film is an anti-hero, who is trying to ←191 | 192→escape from the place of the accident and fight against inner feelings, suffer the inner crisis. It should be noted that when the film was created it was not shown in Belarus because it was considered as an offence to the memory of the heroic deed of liquidators.

The above-discussed Chernobyl narratives present in the museum and other texts (S. Alexievich’ book, A. Mindadze’s film) reveal different strategies of construction of the collective identity while constructing the Chernobyl disaster. The museum more emphasises the tradition of heroisation; whereas other two mentioned fiction texts are oriented to existential representation of physical and spiritual suffering.

Structural Approach to the Chernobyl Disaster: Learning How the “Soviet System” Worked

On the one hand, the strategy of heroisation is a way to commemorate participants, to express gratitude and respect to them. On the other hand, heroisation is a means of construction of the collective identity, when a disaster as a significant event becomes common experience of a group or a nation; it brings together residents and citizens to make one nation. Heroes and their heroic deeds create the present, the post-disaster world and the nation. Besides heroisation, the highlighting of the role of clean-up workers allows museum visitors understand how a disaster is presented from a structural approach, when attempts to understand and depict how social structures mobilised and adapted their tasks to meet demands of large-scale disasters (Webb, 2018) are made. In the case of the Chernobyl disaster, a visitor has an opportunity to perceive how the system of the Soviet Union whose resources were massively employed in response to this large-scale disaster operated. By seeing in the exposition that vast numbers of people who took part in the liquidation operation (over 350,000 male liquidators were involved between 1986 and 1987 and till 1992 totally 650,000 liquidators took part in the liquidation process), how many clean-up workers (fire-fighters, soldiers, helicopter pilots, miners, called in military reserve troops, scientists, physicians, etc.) in teams operated compatibly were organised and performed according to the system regulation, how much of materials, technical mechanisms and means were raised and utilised, visitors can have an impression and understanding of the general extent of the crisis and emergency management in the Soviet Union, when resources of impressive scale were allocated and retrieved from throughout the entire Soviet Union.←192 | 193→

Together with the heroisation narrative, this moment may raise surprise in visitors due to the extent and scale of the entire action and process. Interesting to note that this narrative about high efficacy of emergency management in the Soviet Union is similar to representation in the HBO series “Chernobyl”, where also a strong emphasis is put on depiction of heroic actions of teams of liquidators and demonstration of large-scale managerial, scientific and technical capacities of the Soviet Union allocated for liquidation of the disaster, paying less attention to the repressive and forced character of the emergency management model.

However, it is important to compare another cultural disaster representation, the text of S. Alexievich’s book “Chernobyl Prayer: Voices from Chernobyl: A Chronicle of the Future” (2016), with the narrative of the Museum’s exposition. The non-heroic narrative in the discussed Alexievich’s book is developed by demonstrating the repressive operation of the Soviet system during the liquidation of the disaster. In this documentary book, former liquidators tell how they were called in (e.g. from military reserve) and threatened by court martial or other punishment, were sent under obligation to the site of the disaster. Others note that even when going by their own choice they, nevertheless, were impacted by the ideological system and cultural values as well as developed attitudes “to perform heroic deeds”, “carry out significant deeds”, “show/prove their masculinity”, “to do civic duty” or simply could not act or think in other way than in line with that system and people of that (Soviet regime) time.

In the discussed book by S. Alexievich and the HBO series “Chernobyl” based on it, we find quite strong criticism of the Communist Party and the Soviet system, when the system is criticised for not providing information on the scale of the disaster and impact of radiation, protection measures (e.g. there was no information on the taking of iodine tablets) and compulsory mobilisation to the site of the disaster. Narratives and disaster interpretations in both Alexievich’s book and series “Chernobyl” slightly differ from the narrative available in the Chernobyl Museum, where heroism of the liquidators is underlined, their self-sacrifice is presented as necessary, unavoidable and meaningful, there is much less of criticism expressed towards the local regime and party actions.

Comparing with these two texts (S. Alexievich’s book and HBO series “Chernobyl” based on the book), the Museum’s exposition does not provide any deeper and stronger criticism of the Soviet regime explaining why the disaster happened and how liquidation of it proceeded by employing a repressive mode of the system.

A museum visitor gets acquainted with the criticism of the ideological system of the Soviet Union at a lesser degree (comparing to the narratives of the ←193 | 194→book and series on Chernobyl). Museum visitors have an opportunity to have a short insight of common cognition of the political and ideological context of the Soviet Union, when the scale of a powerful emergency management campaign is introduced; however, there is no introduction to the general ideological and repressive character of the system.

The regime of the Soviet Union is criticised at the beginning of the Museum’s exposition by short information telling that the fault for the explosion of the nuclear plant was attributed by the Soviet government exclusively to the managing bodies and the dispatcher team of the nuclear plant as well as “the human factor in the management of the nuclear plant”. The Museum’s narration briefly introduces that the human factor as a problem of the actions of the nuclear plant’s personnel and management decisions was identified both during the demonstrative trial of the causers of the disaster and in public explanation of the reasons of the disaster; whereas constructional drawbacks of the nuclear plant’s RMBK reactor as well as general mistakes in development of nuclear energy science and industry were not publicly identified and recognised. A short text presented in the exposition highlights that the main fault for the accident was attributed to the team of the nuclear power plant without reasoning; whereas the drawbacks of the constructional reactor were not investigated and explored in public. To compare, we could mention the narrative of the HBO series “Chernobyl” where, in line with heroic depiction of liquidators’ performance, much attention and major emphasis of the film is paid to showing how faultily the nuclear energy and nuclear energy science serving it operated. In this sector, scientific knowledge was being created under the conditions of strict control and secrecy. A belief in Soviet nuclear science allowing no errors (“Soviet nuclear reactors do not explode”) was being ideologically constructed by scientists, party activists and citizens themselves. The systems of the Communist Party caused a specific interaction between party decisions (party nomenclature personnel), scientific knowledge (scientists), etc.

Nevertheless, the narrative of the Chernobyl Museum presents criticism of the Soviet regime when secrecy that covered the events of the disaster is revealed. The exposition of the hall 1 tells about the reticence of the fact of the accident and the true extent of the disaster by the Communist Party as well as hiding this information at both national and international levels. This narration is developed through exhibits, introducing the demonstration held on the 1st of May 1986 in Kyiv. The annual festive event dedicated to celebrate the 1st of May, the Labour Day, having high ideological significance as one of the largest celebrations of the year, was not cancelled to prevent from panic among residents and to demonstrate that the accident was secure to the people. ←194 | 195→In such a way thousands of Kyiv residents (adults and children) were exposed to a very high level of radiation. Only nineteen days after the Chernobyl accident, Mikhail Gorbachev publicly announced the catastrophe. An impressive exhibit of the Museum contains two spread pages of a major daily issued on the first days after the accident, including a small part encompassing short, laconic information on the Chernobyl accident as a text telling that the situation is being managed and under control.

The Museum narration suggests that the news on the explosion was not publicised for international community, and local residents were not informed about the degree and extent of the danger and possible damage; there were no information and actions which would reduce the damage to the residents (e.g. information on affected territories, contaminated and forbidden for consumption agricultural produce). The Museum exposition dedicates a separate narration to the hiding of information from international community and other states that underwent radiation (Sweden, Finland). The Museum visitors find out the circumstances of how Swedish scientists at the nuclear-power plant in Forsmark, in Uppsala county, Sweden, discovered the increased level of radioactivity. The Soviet news agency TASS confirmed the Chernobyl accident in the evening of the 27th (Hultkrantz & Olsson, 1997). On the 6th of May, the Minister of Health of Ukraine informed the population that they took all necessary precautions for increased radiation. This announcement occurred only ten days after the explosion.

The Chernobyl disaster which contaminated Ukraine, large swaths of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and neighbouring states was inseparable from the slow “social and political unravelling” of the Soviet Union (Petryna, 2002, p. 21). These facts which are exhibited in the museum have to be interpreted by visitors themselves, and this amplifies the importance of teaching interpretation and analysis skills to students. The 1986 nuclear disaster has come to embody the demise of the Soviet era not only in the way the accident itself contributed to the sudden implosion of the internally vulnerable Soviet system (Van der Veen, 2013), but also in the way that the Exclusion Zone today has become a frozen microcosm of late-Soviet everyday life (Davies, 2013).

Thus, expositions of the Museum reveal some important features of emergency management during disaster within the Soviet system – reticence, hiding and secrecy of vital information. Also, one can recognise a common feature of nuclear energy that was briefly pointed out, though not broadly developed in the Museum’s exposition – secrecy, when information on the very objects of nuclear energy and smaller incidents as well as large-scale accidents taking place there is hidden, classified as secret. Scientists analysing history of the nuclear ←195 | 196→energy (Brown, 2013) underline that knowledge of risk was a closely guarded in nuclear industry. Information was hidden in all earlier emergency actions, which had all played out in Ukraine before in 1951, 1953, 1955, 1957 and 1967 in the Urals. “The compartmentalization of information, the secrecy, the failure to inform the public of radiation dangers, the evacuations that occurred with critical delays, the deployment of expendable prisoners and soldiers on the most dangerous jobs, the failure to inform these “jumpers” and other employees of ways to protect themselves, the unpredictability of radioactive fallout in concentrated hot spots outside the neat zones of concentric circles – all were eerie repetitions of the plutonium disasters of the previous four decades. The only new feature in 1986 was that the catastrophe occurred while the cameras were running.” (Brown, 2013, p. 285).

To summarise, the Chernobyl Museum provides knowledge on history, political sciences and sociology, and civic education. Analysing social and political context presented by the museum exposition, the students could get knowledge about the Soviet Union as a political, ideological system which praises itself for the controlled and managed most severe radio-ecological disaster of the 20th century. Visitors to the Museum learn about the Soviet regime, Soviet emergency-and-crisis-management system, technological, political, ideological aspects dealing with the nuclear energy industry. The Museum provides a rather weak critique of the Soviet regime in comparison with other above-mentioned literary and cinematographic texts of Chernobyl. It amplifies the importance of teaching interpretation and analysis skills to students. Exploring the political and social contexts of how the Chernobyl Museum was created and maintained enhances students’ ability to deepen their critical understanding of memory work at museums which is a part of broader processes of politics of memory. The Chernobyl Museum is a historical source that needs to be critically analysed and evaluated. Teachers can encourage a critical reflection of museums and memorials as interpreters of history and recognise the political, social and economic factors that influence them.

Learning about Radiation in the Contaminated Nuclear Landscape

Environmental and nuclear geography are another learning subject represented in the Chernobyl Museum exposition. Nuclear geography includes critical geographies of nuclear energy, waste mobilities, nuclear geopolitics, or more-than-human interactions with ionising radiation (Alexis-Martin and Davies, 2017). The Museum exposition presents and describes the nuclear landscape in ←196 | 197→the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Moreover, presented geography of nuclearity covers a narrative on how radiation has affected the territory of neighbouring states and Europe in general. The fallout from the accident covered 150,000 km2 of Europe, affecting Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation in particular (UNSCEAR, 2000). Due to the enforcement of a 2,600 km2 “Zone of Alienation” (Зoнaвiдчyжeння Чopнoбильcькoї AEC) around the epicentre, about 350,000 people had to evacuate, and 2.1 million Ukrainians still inhabit the land officially designated as affected by the accident (Davies & Polese, 2015). The radioactive landscape of the Chernobyl Zone is a place of invisible danger. The nuclear landscape reverses the old adage “what you can’t see, it won’t hurt you” and blurs the boundary between “contaminated and safe”, “seen and unseen”, “formal” and “informal”. As such, those living in Chernobyl-affected territories can be viewed as “bare life” (Agamben, 1998). The Chernobyl landscape is a place infused with contested meanings: for some, a rural idyll tarnished by the invisible spectre of radiation; and for others, simply “a place called home”. Instead, they live on in the memories, photographs and everyday lives of those who call this nuclear landscape “home” (Davies, 2013). These efforts to treat nuclear landscapes as “used and lived in” (Cresswell, 2003, p. 280; Cram, 2016) offer reminders of the connections among bodies, homes, states and colonial networks – the uneven geographies of nuclearity. Davis and Polese (2015) point out that people’s, who live in Chernobyl-affected territories, lives are stripped of the protection of the law and abandoned through insufficient welfare and compensation protection to an uncertain fate; their potentially damaged biologies are placed outside the responsibility of the state to face the hidden violence of abandonment (Davis & Polese, 2015).

The topic of environmental geography and health issues due to the nuclear disaster is presented in the second exhibition hall. The Museum presents artefacts, such as medical tools, equipment, photographs of physicians helping Chernobyl victims, medical records and personal belongings. There is a wide range of discussions on the scope of contamination of the uninhabited area, exclusion zone, cancer disease and how radiation affects human beings. The Museum exhibition provides knowledge on how high radiation in the contaminated zone caused mutations of animals: a skeleton of a newly born pig which has six legs is exposed. At the same time, there is some lack of information in the Museum on how the disaster affected nature, plants, forests and wild animals.

The exposition at the Chernobyl Museum dedicates part of the second hall to environmental issues, presenting the information about the people and territory which used to be “lived in” and the geographical history of the development ←197 | 198→of the region in different centuries attracting people from all over Europe to live in and contribute to economic and cultural development of this territory. The map of the Chernobyl-affected territory is exhibited in the second hall with presentation of silent stories of people who lived there.

Their everyday life is presented as ceased moments that will never happen again. After the Chernobyl disaster, they became a nuclear community which shared the experience of radiation and became communities medically and economically affected by the disaster. These communities are being stigmatised for their association with a polluted place (Davis & Hayes-Conroy, 2017) or a sense of pride and resilience in their communal ability to survive in such an environmentally hostile situation (Davies, 2015; Stawkowski, 2016). A nuclear community is defined as any group that is associated with ionising radiation, which offers a significant scope for exploration of different perspectives, demographics and geographies (Blowers, 2016; Butler, Parkhill, & Pidgeon, 2014). Next to the map of the Chernobyl-affected zone, visitors can find an interactive display (see Figure 6), with the detailed information about towns and settlements devastated by radiation. This information could be an important learning material for geography subject, as it provides information about location and history of all towns falling to the Chernobyl-affected zone. The information includes the region of the town, the history, population at the time the catastrophe has happened and current situation, the date of evacuation, the place of resettlement, and the radiation background on the day of evacuation, including information on how many thousands of times it exceeded the acceptable norm and radioactive contamination comparing the data of 1986 and 2006.

Another interesting exhibit is situated in the third hall: it is a computer display demonstrating the material depicting the geographic trajectory of the radioactive cloud movement across Europe and the countries that have received high levels of radiation in ten days from the start of the disaster.

It is worth remembering that disaster studies deal with how a disaster affected communities of inhabitants not only physically, but also what that disaster meant to these communities in a social sense, how that disaster altered their social and emotional world and how the meanings are being created after the disaster. Usually, cultural representation of disasters presents how communities tried to cope with a disruption of social meanings during the disaster, how it went through processes of social reconstruction, regeneration and recuperation, how new values and norms, new disaster communities and subcultures emerge in the disaster and post-disaster environment (Webb, 2018).

In the Museum, quite many exhibits are dedicated to the nuclear communities: depicting how the disaster affected local residents; here, social aspects of ←198 | 199→nuclear geographies are revealed. At the start of the exposition, at the entrance of the Museum, the villages and settlements of the Chernobyl Zone contaminated with radiation, no longer inhabited and abandoned by people, are displayed for visitors: 76 names of the towns and settlements where people lived before the explosion and disappeared from the map after the explosion; these residents were evacuated within 10 days. Several years after the disaster, 92 Ukrainian towns and 303 towns in Belarus were additionally evacuated.

The view of abandoned territories is presented in the initial part of the Museum (at the entrance) by using a metaphor of a road sign: hundreds of road signs with inscribed names of settlements hang from the ceiling at the entrance. These road signs are used for marking exit from a settlement (a name of a settlement in white on a black field crossed through with a red line). In its metaphorical form, this road sign means that these settlements are abandoned, uninhabited, there is nobody in there and there is no road leading to these settlements. In the third hall of the Museum, visitors find symbolical depiction of inhabitants and settlements affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe. A large part of the walls in this hall depict facades of empty, abandoned village cottages. Visitors are invited to feel the no-longer-inhabited area – this is the feeling which overwhelms when exploring windows of empty cottages, noticing absence of residents (hosts, women, children). The sense of abandonment and uninhabitedness is enhanced by neglected things (child bicycle and other belongings) scattered around. Here, one observes a specific resemblance (intertextuality) to the iconography of the Pripyat town how the town is depicted after evacuation of its inhabitants – toys left or scattered around in a hurry, household items showing signs of physical decay: broken, damaged, rotten, no longer needed to anyone.

Existential Conceptualisation of Time at the Chernobyl Museum: Multiple Temporalities in the Interplay Between Chronos and Kairos

The construction of tourist’s and visitor’s experience is a complex process, like an exhibition, a museum, a tourist site, etc.; it evokes specific feelings, experiences and, in such a way, the co-creation of experiences proceeds. The museum presents the event-related memories which deal with understandings of time and temporalities. Going deeper into the understanding of the temporal structure of museums’ narrative, one can find numerous temporal modalities. Analysing the construction of time in pieces of art, literature, cinematography, museum expositions, the time chronos and Kairos is singled out. These two ←199 | 200→ancient Greek divisions of time allow to decide how temporalities intertwine in narrative, how tension evolves in them, which temporality prevails, which is expressed less.

Chronos means time which is measured as a sequence or an order; it is literally chronological, like in the passing of time indicated on a clock (Hannam & Ryan, 2019). Chronos means the quantitative experience of time; it is a sense and representation of time as the time of history, the narrative duration-time, the age of an object, event or person (Metcalfe, 2006). An exposition structured by a chronic articulation of the time is presented as a historical chronological sequence of events, as the homogeneous, orderly and seemingly objective flow of time (that is why chronos is measured and represented by clock and calendar). Time as chronos in specific modern understanding is presented and experienced in a linear manner – as a linear time with a sense of historical continuity. In comparison, in the Ancient concept, the time of history was represented as a cycle. The non-cyclical arrow-like trajectory of linear time normatively valuates future as progress (Hom, 2018).

Kairos refers to specific decisive and life-changing moments and turning points in time, it is a critical and decisive, “right” time to act, time that is taken or grasped, or a perfectly timed opportunity which has value (Hannam & Ryan, 2019, p. 2). The notion of Kairos stresses a sense of time as occasion and the opportunity to seize the moment and take timely actions.Kairos meant appropriateness, timeliness, the right and judicious moment to act, the season or point in time at which something appropriate happens that cannot happen at any time, in other words, kairos involves a much more qualitative notion of time” (Metcalfe, 2006, p. 247).

Kairos is a kind of time of action to be accomplished, to a decision to be reached or to an initiative to be undertaken (Cipriani, 2013). These karoitic moments of possibility and taking an opportunity become interruptive in relation to chronos as continuity and flow of history. Kairos represents interruptive time as disruptive moments which can open the space for agential possibility, the capacity of individuals to act in a given context agency; kairotic interruptions have the transformative potential to subvert the chronic logics and continuity and open opportunity for agency of people, what is important in the time of crisis that requires a response or a decision to be made and an action to be taken (Winderman, 2017). The development of a unified global chronotic imaginary is frequently interrupted by kairotic considerations. Kairos allows us to see history as not simply “one damn thing after another”, but as endowed with a trajectory and purpose. In “kairos”, a unique event is seen to create, arrest or change time rather than endure it (Rao, 2019).←200 | 201→

In some texts, the notion of kairos emphasises the centrality of the subjects’ experiences, interpretations, understandings and narratives to the life-course or historical sequence of events. Kairos denotes experienced and significant time which may have an existential and sacred meaning (Cipriani, 2013). Kairos temporality reveals existential feelings and transformations that not only interrupt the flow of the chronos, but are at the same time existential transformations in a mythical space (in some cases – in a post-apocalyptic space) that is temporarily untied from historical time (chronos). In this sense, Kairos can also be a way of constructing the apocalyptic narrative, where the apocalyptic temporality of Kairos is connected with surviving existential transformations (revelation, rebirth, awakening) in a post-apocalyptic space which is interruption (rupture) and as the final end of a linear chain of events, temporal interruption of a chronological, historical narrative (Lindbladh, 2019). “The temporal structure of this apocalyptic narrative can be described in terms of Kairos rather than chronos, which means that the radical event is represented in relation to its impact on the characters in the present, contributing to their self-transformation, rather than as an end “set in the future, in a chronological view”, thus revealing “the ultimate meaning of history” (Oppo 2013, 24 cited from Lindbladh, 2019, p. 14).

Interplay and tension between chronos and kairos are not only ontological qualities of time which were pointed out by Ancient Greeks. They are distinct and interweaving ways to structure the narration.

The Chernobyl Museum could be analysed in terms of interrelation of these different temporal modalities. Temporality construction reflects timeline as an organising structure of museum expositions to present and understand the past, when events are organised in the timeline, which is narrative by itself, a way to tell a story, which is recognised by a visitor even when it is being constructed – when separate stages and divisions of time are not marked (Lubar, 2013). A linear chronological structure of timeline, when events and exhibits are set out in the space according to a line of historical sequence, is the most traditional way to construct the timeline. The exhibits are linked to a physical space, when, physically moving, a visitor goes through a sequence of events of the past being constructed – materials of the exposition situated in the space following the logic based on the historical sequence, from earlier to subsequent times, from the past to the present; the visitor in the museum timeline walks through history (Lubar, 2013). The situation of the timeline as chronology reflects chronos temporality, when exhibits are set out in compliance with the logic of a historical timeline. However, contemporary museums, as Lubar (2013) has it, seek constructing even more complex flows, when, for ←201 | 202→instance, part of an exposition is set out according to chronology, whereas other parts follow other principles. Specific strategies are used (for instance, hypertext) to create a more sophisticated and more open structure of the narrative, which is a “less coercive kind of chronology”.

After entering the Chernobyl Museum, a visitor occurs in a lobby which, besides its functional purpose (ticket office, cloakroom), is also a specific exposition: the entire lobby and stairs leading to major exposition halls upstairs display road signs similar to those used along roads when leaving settlements (a name of a settlement is crossed over with a red line). Names depicted on these road signs are the names of actual villages and settlements in Ukraine (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2:Road signs depicting abandoned and uninhabited towns after the Chernobyl disaster

The lobby of the Museum symbolically marks the consequences of Chernobyl, when thousands of hectares of land left abandoned, and many settlements remain neglected and unsuitable for living due to contamination with radiation. Additionally, there is a place in the lobby where temporal expositions are situated. At the time of our visit (January 2019), there was a mini exhibition (photographs) from Japan depicting the disaster of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. When considering temporality of this part of the Museum, one may notice that the entire exposition of the Museum starts not from the moment of explosion of the nuclear power plant (April 1986), but, when entering the Museum and occurring in the lobby, we start moving in the physical space from exhibits which represent the Chernobyl disaster aftermath (abandoned villages) and neglected empty, contaminated territory of Ukraine. The exposition moves a visitor from Fukushima to the year 2011, which is 25 years past the Chernobyl accident; the connection between the largest disaster at the nuclear ←202 | 203→power plant and another large accident in Fukushima is revealed. Thus, the beginning of the exposition is the post-disaster period.

The next point in the moving around the exposition as well as another experience of time deal with an exhibit of a clock showing the time of the accident: 1:23. The clock has stopped (broken). This is one of the most prominent symbols directly signifying the conceptualisation of time in the Museum. This clock marks the time of the accident, when a mechanical device no longer works due to mechanical damage – explosion of the reactor. The exposition starts with this metaphor of a stopped time demonstrating the disjuncture, rupture of a historical flow of time (chronos). The accident itself along with the stopped time and the broken clock are depicted as interruption and breaking of a historical timeline, a rupture, when history of the entire humankind like a ceaseless moving – a road towards technological progress and brighter future of the humanity stops (a metaphor of a stopped/broken clock), the historical timeline being created by humanity for years and meant to lead to that likely future which had to be better than the “present” is broken.

The stopped clock symbolises an interrupted and stopped flow of ordinary time and tame reality; the flow of the life which was lived by the state, humanity before the accident, and stopped time which will no longer exist – like interruption of the lives that proceeded earlier (see Figure 9). Along with it, the limit of the stopped time indicates the end of a specific historical time (chronos) – the time before the world changes – enters the irretrievable period of time, the period with no way back to the time where this apocalypse has not happened yet. The stopped clock is a particular metaphor of rupture of hegemonic temporality and unified global chronotic imaginary, dealt with by Hom (Hom, 2018). The ceased hegemonic temporality, in this case, the historical time of human evolution, is being constructed in a cultural, political and social way; the flow of time is depicted as an arrow-like line, where development of nuclear energy, along with development of entire science, was related to the technological progress. As Hom (2018) puts it, talking about hegemonic temporalities, rupture as temporal disjuncture is shocking and unprecedented moments of radical discontinuity; it “disrupts” hegemonic logics. A disruptive moment (i.e. an event) disrupts the “present” and “history” which were constructed as dominating/hegemonic temporality (in this case, it is constructed history of technological progress with the “bright” future of nuclear energy).

The explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant becomes this disruptive event in the hegemonic temporality (unified global chronotic imaginary). After entering Museum’s hall 1, starting with the first exhibits, they describe what has happened in the nuclear plant and that the explosion happened. Since ←203 | 204→the chronos time stopped (the stopped clock as a metaphor), the meaning of the Kairos time becomes highlighted. The accident itself is a karoitic event which stopped the flow of chronos. Moreover, the stopped/broken clock symbolises the end of time as such; this is the entering of the eternity where time is no longer counted (is eternal “now”). By stopping, the clock shows that not only ordinary, “happy” time of millions of people who took part in the liquidation and directly suffered from radiation has ended; the time stops for the entire relationship between humanity and nucleus, a naïve attitude towards the peaceful nucleus ends, before entering the new post-apocalyptic reality where lives proceed alongside the Chernobyl Zone, hundreds of people who fell ill from radiation, the territory contaminated for hundreds of years and a doubt that occurred forever about the safety and suitability of the “peaceful nucleus”.

The first hall of the Museum displays activities of nuclear power plant’s operators and engineers, whose performance led to the explosion, by presenting a text on the proceeding of causing the accident. Being aware of the whole flow of further events, we know that this moment was highly important; we know that these actions of operators and nuclear plant’s engineers became decisive and life-changing moments, turning points in time (in this sense, it is the kairotic moment), which actually changed the entire chronos time, symbolised by the clock, and the flow of the historical time (reflected by a calendar).

On the one hand, no doubt, actions of dispatchers and managing bodies that led to the disaster are described in the text of the exposition, in such a way demonstrating what has become the beginning of the significant event at Chernobyl.On the other hand, we can observe that much lesser attention is paid to the description and presentation of this trigger event of the disaster, as a karoitic interruptive event, in comparison to other available cultural representations of the accident. To compare, let us remember the BBC documentary film “Chernobyl Nuclear – Surviving Disaster (BBC Drama Documentary)”, where five minutes of the text at the beginning of an important film are allocated to the drama in the dispatcher office (when the actors playing major characters perform not only actions but also the drama of actions and feelings that took place). The drama in the dispatcher office that led to the accident, as a karotic interruptive event, is given much attention in another important text on Chernobyl making up intertextuality of the Museum – the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” (2018). Here, even two episodes are dedicated to this event (everything what happened “before that symbolical clock had stopped”): the first episode shows “how this all started” and the last, fifth, episode, after presenting the drama of the liquidation of the disaster in earlier episodes, returning to the decisive moment that changed the history and stopped the time and clock, ←204 | 205→back to depiction of the actions of the dispatcher team. Later in this episode, actions of the team that led to the disaster are commented while repeatedly showing the trial of the causers of the Chernobyl disaster, explaining through a scientist Legasov how the reactor operated and how the accident had happened when members of the dispatcher team specifically acted and made particular decisions. Comparing with mentioned other representations of the Chernobyl disaster (HBO miniseries “Chernobyl”, BBC documentaries), the Museum pays quite little attention to the analysis of the actual event of the accident. As depicted in the exposition, the event of the accident itself that broke the historical timeline of events is presented quite in brief, by mentioning the participants, shortly identifying their actions. Slightly more attention in this exposition is paid to what has happened after the accident, by discussing how the investigation, trial proceeded (closed procedure of the court), what punishment was imposed on the managing bodies and remaining alive direct participants who were present at the dispatcher control desk; their health condition is discussed and causes of death (radiation sickness) are mentioned.

When discussing the presentation of the accident moment in the Museum and comparing it with other above-mentioned fiction and documentary texts, one can notice that the technical and human emotional dramatic moment/episode of living the very first minutes and hours of that historical and human experience in the dispatcher office is presented in brief (textual factual information), without engaging a visitor into emotional experience of the participants involved in those decisive minutes and hours of actions and feelings in the dispatcher office that changed the world. We suppose that representation and construction of temporality of this moment that happened in the dispatcher office can be differently constructed in a text. We see that even though this moment is represented in the Museum as karoitic (that disrupted the planned and anticipated flow of historical time), this karoitic moment is depicted as a disruptive moment which actually happened because the space for an agential possibility was opened (actions of the dispatcher team that led to the accident were that negative and ill-fated agency which aimed at performing extraordinary successful testing turned into a fatal error that changed the flow of history). The karotic moment as the capacity of individuals to act in a given context agency and having the transformative potential to subvert the chronic logics and continuity, in this particular case, opened the Pandora’s Box and created a new trajectory and direction of the historical flow line. To present and reveal this decisive moment, the Museum allocates quite a small part of the exposition, and, to compare with other analysed documentaries and films, this moment is not emotionally, existentially and dramatically presented. This could be ←205 | 206→linked to the very genre of museums, which has different possibilities to present dramas, other than those provided by cinematography and literature.. This karoitic moment becomes disruptive because it opens a new historical line – it breaks explanatory/interpretive frameworks (constructed successful history of the nucleus of the state and the humankind), and in this sense it no longer allows “anticipating” the future.

According to Hom (2018), rupture links closely to the “trauma time”; this fractured moment creates incapacity in acting and interpreting, since the fall of hegemonic temporality creates absence of interpretation. The future becomes radically open and this disruptive moment as a radical break, rupture, the event which disrupts the “present” and “linear time”, destabilising hegemonic temporality (as a dominating politically and culturally constructed idealistic vision about the move of history and the humankind towards progress in line with the myth of safety of nuclear energy) and future as an alternative which is unknown and “something completely different”. The event 9/11, when planes piloted by terrorists smashed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, opens the unknown and cannot be integrated into the existing dominating hegemonic historiography, and, thus, is an event of a similar kind. Back then it could not be placed in a larger historical context and narrative structure; they were disruptive singular events (Hom, 2018).

The drama in the dispatcher office at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant as a rupture can be explained in a similar way. After the accident happened (as a result of what has happened in the dispatcher office), the unknown, new likely horrible trajectories of the history line-to-come open, which were beyond the people’s ability to explain and consider; in this sense, the “trauma time” opens. It can be treated as a karoitic interruptive event; only in this case what is disrupted is the line being constructed in the future drawn by chronos as the homogeneous, orderly and seemingly objective flow of time; the future-to-come opens after the explosion of the reactor, which has no interpretative framework of how to explain. Later, this rupture causes a new flow of events – fire, penetration and spread of radiation; contamination of Ukraine, Belarus and large part of territories across Europe; harm to people, nature and ecosystems.

To prevent the opening of these new historical apocalyptic lines (of newly constructed chronos), a whole liquidation of the disaster as one grand event comprising smaller events was created. After the explosion, actions of the teams of liquidators directed to liquidate the accident are presented in the exposition as separate karoitic moments. A special attention in the exposition is focused on heroic liquidation of the consequences of the accident, the actual events that allowed creating measures to stop, reduce the consequences (extermination of ←206 | 207→fire, construction of the sarcophagus, cleaning of the territory). Referring to Hom (2018) dealing with the perception of time during disruptive events, after the rupture happened (actions of the dispatcher team that caused the accident, the explosion) the agency of other people – liquidators – started operating. Another karoitic moment, which created the rupture of rupture, started. The campaign of liquidation of the consequences of the disaster is a heroic deed which allowed blocking, reducing the newly occurred trajectory of the flow of events, a new apocalyptic historical line. The liquidation is treated as actions of the rupture of rupture, as an attempt to terminate the termination, an attempt to control the times of rupture, “transforming it from a description of traumatic and unliveable conditions to the foundation of a novel ethics that insists we ‘remain with uncertainty’ and ‘hope that something different’ will emerge” (Hom, 2018, p. 327). These liquidation actions are treated as karoitic moments which become the disruptive event as a response to the new apocalyptic vision of the history with unclear and horrific future, which is created and drawn by the accident itself.

In the first part of exposition at the Chernobyl Museum (halls 1 and 2), a visitor gets acquainted with a presented proceeding of the liquidation campaign as one grand event which becomes that actual karotic interruption (rupture of rupture). This one grand event is divided, presented to a visitor as a sequence of smaller events. Separate teams of heroes – fire-fighters, helicopter pilots, miners, soldiers cleaning the reactor’s roof from graphite, all other teams – physicians and other participants, are introduced. Each team is introduced separately; emphasising the character of their work; singling out family names of individual people, their actions; and highlighting the radiation doses they obtained. Almost in every case, the harm to health is mentioned, and further proceeding of actors’ lives is noted – usually, the year of death or a degree of affected health is described. Thus, a visitor sees that a large army of liquidators is divided into smaller professional groups, in such a way rendering these groups some individuality, exceptionality. The whole group is characterised: its role and approximate number of the participants; also, the harm underwent by the entire group is underlined. Inside each group, single actors are chosen (their names, family names, further destinies are mentioned). Such division of the liquidation operation as the whole into smaller groups, singling out separate heroes-individuals in each group, is a way to show the entire historical event through a more individualised perspective, by revealing separate groups and single heroes, demonstrating heroism of these people. In this sense, the exposition attempts to point out the karoitic moments – a specific aspect of ←207 | 208→time, when a grand historical event is presented through actions and lives of individual people.

Heroic actions of the liquidators can be viewed as the karoitic moments, when the rupture of rupture, the interruption/suspension of the flow/line of that apocalyptic history that could have had happened/occurred after the accident proceeds. This is the rupture of rupture moment, as a karoitic moment, when an opportunity for agency of people was opened up, when in the time of crisis a response was required and a decision to be made, an action to be taken (Winderman, 2017). These heroic actions became the decisive and life-changing moments; this was the “right time to act” with transformative potential to subvert the chronic logics and continuity, which, in this particular case, is set/drawn by the already happened accident and the chronos logic which had to lead to the apocalypse. On the one hand, an extraordinary contribution of all teams of people to the liquidation reflects the role of human agency in creating a new line of history (rupturing the rupture). This was achieved, thanks to heroism (presenting completed technical operations, showing technical challenges and difficulties) and self-sacrifice of these people. On the other hand, when comparing the narrative of the Chernobyl Museum with other fiction-documentary texts dedicated to Chernobyl (S. Alexievich’s book “Chernobyl Prayer”, HBO series “Chernobyl”, BBC documentaries featuring actors), we can observe that fates of the people, their existential experiences, are demonstrated in the Museum in a rather narrow manner. In her book, S. Alexievich constructs the experienced liquidation of the disaster and the post-accident period through magnifying experiences and suffering of individual participants (liquidators, wives, scientists, physicians); separate experienced moments are singled out by phenomenologically profoundly magnifying/revealing them as if looking through a magnifying glass; the life events are described in detail by mentioning actions, feelings and philosophical pondering. We find quite many such moments in the HBO series “Chernobyl” as well; the series were created grounding not only on documentary materials of archives, but also Alexievich’s book – when people’s experienced moments, many artistic symbols and metaphors, and tragic and dramatic suffering of the heroes resulted in high emotional response of audience, readers.

Whereas despite the above-mentioned single moments introducing individual personalities and names of people, mentioning their life facts (disease, death), the Chernobyl Museum does this without revealing description of one person’s life moment in full, as it is done in other already discussed pieces. Such non-disclosing of people’s existential experience indicates the domination of chronos temporality in this part of the exposition (halls 1 and 2). The explosion, ←208 | 209→accident and liquidation of the consequences are being constructed as an event situation in time, having its specific linear chronology and timeline, when the historical event, i.e., the explosion of the nuclear plant and liquidation/reduction of its consequences are presented as a sequence of actions and events situated in the timeline – from the explosion and liquidation of the consequences, having the sarcophagus over the reactor and cleared up Chernobyl Zone as an outcome. A visitor creates this logic of chronological order and line while physically moving from introduction of one team of liquidators-heroes to another in the exposition. While presenting the consequences of the explosion of the nuclear power plant and demonstrating actions of the nuclear power plant’s personnel (engineers, shift of dispatchers, managers) (halls 1 and 2), the time represented in the narration is being slowly “counted” and introduced minute by minute (here, the karoitic element is quite strong); whereas while presenting actions of fire-fighters who are extinguishing the fire the time is counted by hours.

Later, the narration “moves faster”, and the chronology is measured by days – joining in of other groups of rescuers and their actions are already being counted by days (miners, helicopter pilots, soldiers cleaning the reactor’s roof from graphite); further, the time is counted by months and years (clean-up workers – soldiers, military officers). At the end of the second hall (physically moving around the hall and travelling “in time”), a visitor finds introduction of the role of physicians and scientists, which also points out not only the role of medical staff at the start of the liquidation, but also the role of physicians and scientists when treating the victims several decades later, investigating the long-term effect on people’s health and biological environment. In such a way, a new historical line and the chronological ordering of the time flow/structure (chronos time) are created. The events attributed to the time of the several first days (first 3–4 days), i.e., actions of the governing bodies of the Soviet Union being reticent in public (in major dailies, like “Pravda”) about the accident; dedicating a very brief press release; a small patch of text on a large sheet of the newspaper and the non-cancelled, arranged in Kyiv; festive demonstration dedicated to celebration of the 1st of May, “as usual”; and aiming to prevent from panic and pretend that nothing extraordinary has happened.

Later on, the timeline of the presented events is counted by weeks and several long first months aftermath: when during the first month all brigades of liquidators (helicopter pilots exterminating the fire, miners digging the tunnel) join in, the exposition of the timeline of several first months introduces soldiers on the military duty equipped with shovels throwing pieces of graphite down from the reactor’s roof. From a very accurate counting of time by seconds there ←209 | 210→is transition to the representation of the time flow by days, months and years. In the first part of the Museum intended to reveal the role of the liquidators (halls 1 and 2), a visitor gets acquainted with the period, starting with the explosion, liquidation works taking place (extinguishing the fire, removing radioactive graphite from the roof (how many months) and covering the reactor/constructing the sarcophagus over the nuclear power plant (how many months/years), cleaning, “deactivating the territory” and creating what presently is known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (as an isolated territory which is currently uninhabited, but the works of de-activation/liquidation proceeded there). Besides already mentioned participants, i.e., nuclear power plant’s personnel, fire-fighters, helicopter pilots, miners, soldiers and military officers, at the end of the first part of the exposition, the role of medical staff, scientists of nuclear physics and medicine is presented. Even though the major intention of the first part of the exposition’s narrative is to show the role of various groups of liquidators and in such a way to commemorate their role and pay tribute to them, we can also recognise the chronological narrative along with the major narration, when the entire mission of clean-up workers and liquidators is set up as a chain of separate events with logic of its flow.

Thus, the timeline as a way to structure a narration is quite complex, sophisticated in the Museum, when, besides traditional chronological representation of the proceeding of events inserting them into the historical timeline (chronos temporality), there are attempts to present another modality of time – kairos, showing interruptive moments of the flow of history, revealing people’s agency potential, attracting attention to single details, and experiences of individuals’ lives. In comparison to other earlier mentioned fiction texts on Chernobyl (the book and series), these elements, however, have quite limited kairos as existential experience of people and emphasise the chronos modality of time more strongly in the first part of the exposition (halls 1 and 2) dedicated to underline the role of liquidators as heroic deeds. The Chernobyl Museum becomes a memorial commemorating the historical event which happened at a particular historical point, having perhaps changed the history of the humankind forever.

The Museum’s expositions narrate a story which disrupted that other imaginary and anticipated history and other chronology (that possible alternative history of the Soviet Union, Ukraine and humankind) which could have happened/formed if the accident had not happened. Authors analysing the timeline in exhibitions (Lubar, 2013), dealing with the chronological ordering of time of traditional expositions underline that timelines highlight before and after, cause and effect, and linear progression (Lubar, 2013). When exploring the chronological logic of the narrative of the “event” and phenomenon of the ←210 | 211→explosion of the nuclear plant and liquidation, this logic “before and after” (one action follows the other, there is proceeding of liquidation as a sequence, cause and consequence of events; liquidation works and heroism of liquidators as a cause of the sarcophagus covering the reactor and rescuing the humankind from doom) is revealed; and there is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone itself as a “cleared up” (partly de-activated, washed out) territory where radiation has been localised and is not spreading out. The idea of progress and advancement that is implicitly characteristic to chronological depiction of the time flow is presented in the exposition of the Chernobyl Museum in quite a complex way. As investigators of the timeline in expositions emphasise (Lubar, 2013), the chronological timeline is characteristic of presentation of history as a line that leads to progress. On the one hand, the accident itself and its consequences (contaminated Ukrainian territory for hundreds and millions of years, damage done to health of inhabitants and liquidators) are depicted in the exposition as impossibility of the lines of history being constructed by the humankind, the lines that led to progress before the accident – this “pre-accident” line of the historical flow was disrupted by the accident. The stopped clock symbolises impossibility of the progress imagined in the past (before the accident) and planned, approaching “better future” (it is impossible to return to the pre-accident situation).

On the other hand, the extinguishing of the fire, construction of the sarcophagus and partial de-activation of the territories, and safeguarding of other territories (those of Europe and entire humankind) from even larger catastrophe are considered to be a specific progress (improvement) in the chronological presentation of the liquidation of the accident. This is the “small” progress which we recognise in a general Chernobyl-related idea of the history of the eschatological “fall” and regression.

Analysing timeline in museum expositions, Lubar (2013) discloses the strategies applied by contemporary museums allowing creation of a more sophisticated and more open structure of the narrative, which is a “less coercive kind of chronology”. In the case of the Chernobyl Museum, this more sophisticated strategy is implemented through the merging of two lines depicting history, when the disruption of the historical line of the happened accident is combined with regress of the historical process, also including depiction of “afflatus” – depiction of reduction of the consequences of the accident as logic of chronology and hidden afflatus/progress. Reduction of the consequences of the accident, as a sequence of events having their own chronology and achieved result (sarcophagus, localisation of radiation within the Zone), is directly related to another important narrative of the exposition – the narrative on liquidators as heroes.←211 | 212→

Exactly these endeavours and actions of the liquidators organised in a chronological order have created a new quality and new reality after the accident: the fire was extinguished, the sarcophagus was constructed, and the territory was cleaned up. Sophistication of the narrative in this first part of the exposition dedicated to the liquidators is implemented in compliance with a very specific strategy: information on the future of single individuals and separate groups is presented when chronologically organising the proceeding of the happened accident and liquidation of its consequences, presenting the works and introducing single people and separate groups of liquidators (nuclear power plant’s personnel, fire-fighters, pilots, miners, soldiers, medical staff, etc.) who actually started acting from the very first hours, months and throughout the entire period of liquidation; the narration is on when and how these people died (separately presented are the cases of deaths immediately after the accident (firefighters), in other cases the same fate happened several months, years or decades later (after they got ill and died from the radiation)). Thus, there are two principles of classifying and organising exhibits – the liquidation works (this is reflected by presented groups of liquidators by professions – fire-fighters, helicopter pilots, miners, soldiers, etc.) and the chronological principle, when these works are organised across time.

Thus, from the point of view of construction of the proceeding of the events, this is quite a complex way to show the “historical” event that has been lasting for 30 years – while depicting it in full precision, arranging events and people in a chronological sequence by minutes-hours-weeks-months-years. On the other hand, in this clear line of chronology of events, “ruptures” occur – these are excurses to the future of the liquidators (different circumstances and dates of diseases and deaths). Even though it is possible to recognise the chronology of arranging exhibits (characteristic to traditional museums) in the Chernobyl Museum, still the road from the past to the present which is constructed by a chronological linear narration is being constructed in a sophisticated manner.

Kairos in the Symbolic, Philosophical and Religious Narrative on the Disaster

A special construction of the narrative and temporality is discovered in the third hall of the Chernobyl Museum. The exposition of this hall demonstrates the attempt to move away from the heroic narrative and chronological temporality towards depiction of existential suffering and emphasising the kairos temporality. The construction of time becomes more sophisticated than the ←212 | 213→chronological organisation of time (chronos) and a multiple hetero-temporality occurs, which allows problematising clocks, calendars and heroic state narratives.

Here, another strategy and logic of organisation of the exposition are followed: the effect of the accident on residents, children and women, and victims of Chernobyl in the Chernobyl Zone villages are depicted. Exactly this hall is an attempt to create a narrative as a more complex, sophisticated organisation than chronological. Authors, analysing the timeline in museum exhibitions (Lubar, 2013) have it that in contemporary museums there is an attempt to de-emphasise chronology and time as the organising structure of the exhibits and to use common human experiences as the thematic framework – to approach history from the standpoint of common human experiences of family, work, community and sense of place. The third hall reflects the aspect mentioned in the disaster studies – cultural representation of a disaster aims at depicting how communities after disasters live; how disaster-stricken nuclear communities have tried to cope with disaster by creating meaning, by maintaining resilience; going through processes of reconstruction, regeneration and recuperation; and creating new values and norms. Researchers dealing with disaster studies (Webb, 2018) reveal that a disaster-stricken community creates values and meanings reflecting revival, recovery and the signs of hope. In the Chernobyl Museum’s hall 3, we find symbolical philosophical and religious meanings of the nuclear disaster.

If the first part of the exposition (halls 1 and 2) is dedicated to the liquidators-heroes and a clear chronological logic of narration is recognised, in the case of the third hall, a visitor finds an artistic exposition including many symbols dedicated to commemoration of citizens-victims, emphasising extraordinary suffering of village inhabitants and children. This part is not chronologically organised. On the one hand, in the aspect of time, all human experiences undergone by people throughout thirty years after the explosion (without singling out detailed and precise chronology) would belong here. On the other hand, exhibits and installations presented in all this appeal to the sense of non-temporality and eternal time – here, religious, existential lived experiences, and eternity and infinity of time are appealed to. In the hall 3, a visitor discovers a place of experiencing existential, sacral disaster. Here, one should remember symbolic forms of representations of disaster – theological and mythological motif of theodicy and divine involvement, as pointed out by Holm (2012). The halls 1 and 2 narrating about heroism of the liquidators reveal more social and political aspects of the disaster, whereas in the third hall the disaster is constructed as a religious, existential and philosophical phenomenon.←213 | 214→

This part of the exposition deals with cultural construction and representation of the Chernobyl disaster presenting physical, psychological and spiritual suffering of Chernobyl sufferers – resettled persons and inhabitants of contaminated territories. In this case, the collective identity is being constructed not through heroism but rather through belonging, commonness in suffering and belief. Here, experiences lived by the community several decades after the Chernobyl disaster are presented. This hall has specific iconography. The first and second halls are characteristic of a documentary genre: the event of the accident is chronologically described in detail; particular people having their family names are introduced; and historical artefacts and documents are displayed. Black and white colours prevail in the first two halls, corresponding to the visual style of exhibited documents (black-and-white photographs and documentary films, blackish grey colour of the burning reactor, dark colours of uniforms worn by statutory officers and those of technical mechanisms; all materials (photographs, texts) are organised in a line on walls at the visitor’s eye level, without more complex, sophisticated spatial and colour solutions); whereas the third hall presents an artistic project including many artistic-religious symbols, without displaying any historical documents and historical materials. The visual style is characteristic of colours, illumination effects and complex arrangement of exhibits in space (on walls, floor, ceiling). The purpose of this artistic installation is to create emotions, to represent suffering of people (residents and community). Artistic installations of this hall encompass many mythological and religious symbols. These mythological-religious symbols are used together with already traditional iconographic images of nuclear energy and nuclear disaster. One of such images widely used in various photographs, films is the image of a liquidator wearing a special protective green uniform and a gas-mask – a de-personified man without face and eyes, an unrecognisably veiled persona (who may even be not a man in this iconography at all, but an animate robot-function of the post-disaster techno society). In this hall, liquidators are depicted next to religious and spiritual symbols (large crosses, icons) (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 3:Images of a liquidator wearing a special protective green uniform and a gas-mask next to religious and spiritual symbols

Exploring this hall, we find strategies and techniques of representation which are described in museums aiming to render the suffering of victims and also seeking avoidance of direct frightening depiction of atrocity. These aesthetics techniques are applied in Jewish museums which commemorate the Holocaust; unique aesthetic and spatial strategies draw on particular aesthetic techniques of representation to evoke specific experience and sensations of the sacred by demanding a “particular form of contemplation” (Hansen-Glucklich, 2016). It is choreographed within museums and their exhibits through a number of ←214 | 215→techniques, including spatial design, the use of symbolic materials and forms (such as water, rock and light), and the manipulation of the visitor’s movement through space and passage.

A golden gate with two sides to enter – white from one side and black from another, situated at the entrance to the third hall – symbolise the gate between heaven and earth. The floor at the entrance to the hall is a chessboard, with white and black colours symbolising a game between life and death, balancing between black and white, good and evil, and life and death.

Another exhibit having a religious-spiritual function in pondering on the suffering of victims after the Chernobyl catastrophe is a candle flame demonstrated on the monitor’s screen. A visitor has an opportunity to approach the monitor and light a candle, watch the flame wavering on the screen. The symbol of a candle has many meanings; however, in this context, a visitor, having lit a candle and immersed in the contemplation state, can see this flame of a candle ←215 | 216→as a sacred fire, the light of God, the light that illuminates the path for the dead in their journey; it can be seen as a sign of illumination and hope.

A special place of this exposition is allocated to the suffering of children. One of the most memorable exhibits of the hall is a large photographic/arts installation depicting the Fuel Assemblies of Nuclear Reactor from RBMK reactor’s Central Hall: photographs of children are placed in all separate elements of the Fuel Assemblies. These children were born in 1987–1988 into families of people evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster and people who were working on the sites of the catastrophe. This exhibit has a purpose to emphasise that the nuclear disaster had effect on children’s health, fates, and took away thousands of children’s lives.

In the middle of the third exposition hall, there is a boat with toys and plush animals. Two angels – white and black, hang above the boat; these are symbols of life and death. The boat is a religious symbol mentioned in Christianity and other religions; on the one hand, it depicts a journey and a voyage of life, when the boat carries people through life’s shifting currents; on the other hand, it is a symbol of safety, security and refuge, when God protects believers. In the context of the Chernobyl catastrophe, the boat with the angels of life and death can be treated as a religious symbol telling that souls of ill or dead Chernobyl victims’ children are fostered and safeguarded by God. Separate exhibits of this hall highlight the effect of the Chernobyl disaster on the entire humankind. The catastrophe altered the fate of the whole world’s nuclear energy for ever – this disaster shook the understanding of the nuclear energy as reliable and secure throughout the world.

In this hall, next to the exhibits of the boat, burning candle, gates of life and death, visitors find/see a map of the world created as an installation of lamp bulbs. Looking at the ceiling, one can see lights which represent nuclear power plants operating in Europe; having turned his/her head, one sees South and North Americas, Asia, Australia and Africa in the centre. The map is supplemented with the data from the International Atomic Energy Organization (2012): in 2012, 34 countries of the world had 435 operating nuclear reactors. Almost half of them were built in 1970–1980; two of them have had irreversible consequences for society, i.e., Chernobyl disaster in the 20th century and Fukushima explosion in the 21st century. This artistic-visual depiction of global energy as a geographically situated industry, including all religious-philosophical symbols in this hall, creates a narrative which expresses some doubt about further development of nuclear energy. The subjugated and employed to human needs nuclear energy brings together largest disasters and suffering. In such a way, here a narrative of development of science, economy ←216 | 217→and industry is criticised and questioned while juxtaposing to philosophical and religious-spiritual consideration of the suffering from the nuclear disaster.


Analysing the educational potential of the Chernobyl Museum, we attempted to view the exposition from the perspective of disaster studies. In its specific manner, the Chernobyl Museum constructs, frames and interprets the Chernobyl disaster; it is a manifestation of collective imagination and memory work. Aiming to fully reveal and use the educational opportunities of the exposition, it is possible to construct in the education process (school curriculum and non-formal learning) a stronger educational effect through intertextuality – by employing additional texts (using fiction, documentary and feature films). As demonstrated earlier, the Museum’s exposition can be “read” and used as an educational text/teaching aid in interaction with other known texts on the topic, e.g., S. Alexievich’s book, HBO series, BBC documentaries on Chernobyl and other creative artistic projects. On the one hand, juxtaposition of these texts allows better understanding of the specificity and uniqueness of cultural, political and social interpretation presented by the Museum; on the other hand, having combined the Museum’s exposition and other texts, a multiple image of the catastrophe makes up.

Considering that the Chernobyl Museum is a national museum, it would be beneficial to analyse in the education process how exposition of this Museum is the manifestation of the institutional memory policy. Such explanation would be a particular attempt to deconstruct the narrative, to recognise not only the content of the narrative but also to reveal what institutions and how create it. No doubt, when creating the Museum’s exposition, there was collaboration with the liquidators and various organisations; thus, the exposition itself is a result of happened “negotiations” among different groups (national memory policy, liquidators and their relatives, organisations, various supporters). It would be interesting to analyse different cultural representations of the Chernobyl disaster (Alexievich’s book, HBO series “Chernobyl”) and compare them as stances on explanation of the past carried out by different organisations and groups during history, social sciences and geography classes for senior form students. Here, it is worth noting that criticism towards Alexievich concerning books on Afghanistan and Chernobyl is expressed in public. These critics say that she presents a point of view which strongly differs from the official, institutional interpretation of the mentioned events emphasising heroisation, necessity and meaningfulness of self-sacrifice. The HBO series “Chernobyl” is ←217 | 218→also treated as a specific version and interpretation of the events by American creators much grounding on the said Alexievich’s book, various documentary sources. Thus, an additional educational effect is created by an opportunity to compare the content of different narratives on Chernobyl, their relation to official institutions of the memory policy and various groups of interests in the education process.

Besides critical deconstructing attitude towards the content of the Chernobyl Museum’s exposition, for educational purposes, it would be meaningful to analyse together with students the structural approach towards disasters which reveals how organisations and communities mobilised response efforts. Alongside with other mentioned texts, the Museum presents an image of how the Soviet Union structures operated in a “state of emergency” and how the Soviet emergency crisis system functioned. The version of how to cope with the disaster consequences presented by the Museum may be integrated into the school curriculum through the content of taught subjects – history, public sciences and geography. Besides the understanding of how the emergency system functioned (including heroic deeds of citizens, clean-up workers), the Museum’s exposition combined with other sources (HBO film and BBC documentaries, Alexievich’s book, etc.) may render knowledge and understanding of how the science of nuclear physics operated as a social institute under the conditions of constraint and secrecy in the Soviet regime, how it impacted the development of the nuclear energy, and, finally, how the Chernobyl disaster induced the collapse of the Soviet Union and made an effect on the fate and future of nuclear energy worldwide.

Environmental and nuclear geography is another important topic of the educational impact. This is the content related to the learning about radiation, the contaminated nuclear landscape and nuclear communities. The Museum reveals the impact of ionising radiation and nuclear contamination on people’s bodies and lifestyles, animate nature and landscape. The Museum’s exposition presents geography of nuclearity which covers topics of how radiation has affected the territory and communities. It is important to underline that such learning about contamination does not limit itself with knowledge coming solely from biology, nuclear and radiation physics, chemistry, medicine and physical geography. The Museum develops the topic of nuclear communities and presents how the disaster affected communities of inhabitants not only physically, but also what that disaster meant to these communities in a social sense, how that disaster altered their social, emotional and spiritual world. The exposition illuminates how communities tried to cope with a disruption of ←218 | 219→social meanings during the disaster, how it went through processes of social reconstruction, regeneration and recuperation.

The explanation about the interaction between Chronos and Kairos displayed earlier in the text demonstrates how through kairos temporality there is an attempt to show, create the existential-philosophical-religious sense of time and reality, how there is an attempt to perform the sense-making of existential suffering. This aspect of the exposition allows combining the attendance of the Museum as non-formal education with the school curriculum while integrating studies of literature, ethics, art, philosophy and religious aspects. Again, in this case, it would be meaningful to relate the attendance of the exposition as part of the education process to the analysis and experiencing of other fiction texts (literary works, films, art projects and exhibitions).

Analysing the Chernobyl Museum as a dark tourism site according to the dark tourism spectrum (darkest to lightest) presented by Stone (2006), we would attribute the Chernobyl Museum to the category “dark”. In this case, the very exposition of the Museum is not directly a place of suffering or death (it is not the actual Chernobyl Exclusion Zone); it tends to create association with death and suffering. The exposition implements the feature of dark tourism – it renders a strong educational and commemorative orientation, and there is no emphasis on entertainment. One of the strongest narratives of the Museum – heroisation and commemoration of heroic deeds of liquidators, mitigates the “darkness” of the event, highlighting meaningfulness of heroes’ self-sacrifice. Artistic installations in the third hall dedicated to the religious and philosophical contemplation on the disaster aim at transforming the experiences of death and suffering characteristic to dark tourism towards a moving aesthetical, existential and spiritual experience. Having used a broad arsenal of additional texts, spectrum of additional educational activities (likely being assisted by a teacher), Museum visitors have an opportunity to create a unique existential experience of learning.


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