Friday, March 6, 2009
My New Favorite Historic House
I've written before on this blog about boring historic houses--of which there seem to be many more than fascinating historic houses, but I'm always hopeful. This week, here in Kiev, I had an enthralling historic house visit to the Memorial Flat of Mikhail Bulgakov. I didn't really know of Bulgakov before I came to Ukraine, but to those who know Russian literature, he's an icon--believe it or not, he has more than 10,000 friends on Facebook. He's best known for the Master and Margarita, a fantasy satirical novel not published until decades after his death and his difficult relationship with the Soviet state is an important part of his story.
But his home in Kiev focuses on his early life and combines it in a fascinating way with the story of the Turbin family in his novel The White Guard, set during the Russian Civil War, in Kiev, on the same street where he lived and the museum now is.
What makes this place so different? In developing the museum, which has been open only 20 plus years, the decision was made to create a theatrical experience that merges the story of the fictional Turbin family with the real story of Bulgakov and his family. At the same time, the decision was made to paint all the non-original objects in the museum pure white, so the original objects from Bulgakov's family, stand in stark contrast. The restoration is based on historic photographs from the house itself.
The story is narrated by the guide, and Irina, who gave me a my terrific guided tour, also stood out in stark contrast to many guided tours here. Through voice and gesture, she created a sense of suspense and of adventure as I learned both the story of the novel and of the author himself. The relatively simple theatrical lighting and clever use of mirrors, doorways, and even a step through a wardrobe (but not to Narnia!) all turned it into an adventurous tour. It really did transport you to another world. I could imagine the White Army outside in the street.
I arrived when school group tours were in progress, so I began my tour with the place where most visitors end--the small cafe that is a part of the museum. It's a simple, very pleasant room, where you order tea and jam. It's free--but they just ask for a contribution. The cafe provides the sort of amenity that is rarely found in Ukrainian museums, a legacy of the Soviet past. The staff tells me that they received funds to develop the cafe, and that, because this, like virtually all museums here, is a governmental museum, that there is a separate charity set up to receive financial support. They work with a lawyer and an accountant to assure the charity's integrity (a significant issue given Ukraine's record on corruption).
It was the first time I'd seen an evidence of ongoing fundraising in a Ukrainian museum--they had wanted to purchase a piano for musical evenings and did so by having supporters "purchase" a key, or a leg, or another piano part. A sign near the new piano checked off their successes and then included a list of supporters. The museum's musical evenings are evidently very successful and I look forward to attending one later this month. The staff also mentioned that all their work--special exhibitions and programs in particular--is tied to mission, which is not always the case in Ukrainian museums.
This visit reminded me that our work, the work of museums, is creative work. We're not just in the storage and warehouse business, but in the business of creating compelling, memorable experiences that stay with the visitor. And we all want our visitors to learn more--and in this way, the Bulgakov Museum is wholly a success--I'm scouring Kiev for an English language version of The White Guard.