When is your audience or community ready to discuss difficult, hard topics? At the Museums and Politics conference in St. Petersburg, a number of presenters I heard talked about topics such as the German interpretation of concentration camps, the ways Belgian museums are re-interpreting the legacy of colonialism in Africa; and American museum presentation of prisons and Native American identity. Absent though, was almost any discussion of the effects of Stalin and the Soviet past except for in one presentation by a Russian colleague who stated that the Russian people "were not ready" to address that very difficult legacy. When asked by an audience member how Russian museums knew that, she cited audience surveys. It is a challenging past; it is a recent past; and it is a past with a clear connection to the present and future.
But I did find time, in St. Petersburg and Moscow, to visit three museums that are beginning that discussion; that are not afraid of opening up tough topics for conversations. They are undertaking incredibly important work, particularly given that one such human rights museum, the Gulag Museum at Perm 36 has been closed for what seem to be political reasons.
The State Museum of Political History of Russia in St. Petersburg begins with a historical perspective, looked back at the abolishment of serfdom, the Tsar's abdication, and the ascension of Lenin, followed by Stalin. There's no question that great men loom large in this presentation, as they once did in statues found all over the Soviet Union. I greatly appreciated the incredible objects (for instance the film canister in which Solzhynitzin's writings were smuggled out) and well-written labels in English. Notebooks in each room provided full English documentation of everything you were seeing. Sometimes when I visit museums in this part of the world, I feel the stories were purposely crafted to be about not a single ordinary person, but rather just this great collective. The museum looked at not just the difficult past, but also a past where people felt united in a single purpose, so I suspect there's some nostalgia for many visitors.
One small label made me understand that collective force a bit more. In the section on the end of the Great Patriotic War and the Victory Parade in Red Square, filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko noticed that the dead barely received a mention, "It was if thirty or even forty million had vanished into the thin air...the people in the square did not kneel nor gasped for their sufferings or their spilt blood."
There was an interesting emphasis on providing the tools for visitors to deconstruct socialist meanings. Several large Socialist Realist paintings were hung in the center courtyard and extensive labels, "Let's Examine the Painting Together" shared both the meanings of the paintings; what symbols are embedded in those views of happy workers; and what the reality of farming actually was. I wanted more opportunities for visitor voices and feedback, but the museum does stand at a place where the narrative of the Soviet past becomes more complex and nuanced.
In Moscow, the Museum of the House on the Embankment is just a tiny two rooms in a huge apartment complex, the place known as the House on the Embankment, built by Stalin to house top level Soviet elite in the 1930s and 1940s. But many of those elite paid the same price as other Soviet citizens. As Stalin turned on the people close to him, many of those who lived here, those who were "original revolutionaries," who were writers, high government officials, scientists, and even the architect of the building himself, were purged by Stalin, taken away, and most often killed. The museum contains room like settings of original objects in first floor apartment that was once a caretaker's, I believe. The space is evocative, but it was a group of notebooks on the table that drew our attention. We pulled out one that said Women; and in it were simple photocopies and biographies of women who lived in this house. Page after page of incredibly talented women, some who lived on to their '90s; but far too many of whom had no death date, as they had been taken away, and no one ever knew the truth of what happened. It's a place filled with great irony as these were people who believed passionately, deeply in what they were doing; but then it came home to them. In a museum-sense, was was really interesting here was that this was no computer interactive, no fancy database. It was a notebook, a table and chairs that we could it in. That alone kept the two of us there for over an hour. True stories, of real people, always matter.
And finally, the Gulag State History Museum in Moscow. You enter, somewhat grimly, through a re-created camp corridor--but then, in a bit of surprise, you're not greeted in any of the exhibition halls or at the front desk by staff who try their best to ignore you, but rather, as you enter a gallery you're welcomed, and invited to share any questions you may have. The permanent exhibit includes, once again, powerful individual objects and individual stories, that together create a sense, even if it's really beyond our own understanding, of what the terror of being sent off to the camps must have been like. But very interestingly, they also delved deeper into not just the camps, but other repressions. A large temporary exhibit looked at the repression of Buddhism. My favorite element in that was a propaganda film, where on one head set you could listen to what an ethnographer might say about what was seen; and on the other, what the propaganda would have been. A set of incredibly beautiful portraits of Ingush elders told yet another unknown story to me, about their forced deportation, just as the Crimean Tatars were deported.
Again, it's the interactive of conversation that matters most. While I viewed the permanent exhibit, my friend Irina who lives in Moscow had a long chat with the guard in the room, about how she came to see the museum, about how she began to volunteer, and just the barest hint of her own personal story. Irina vowed to return, to hear more.
I was moved by all three of these museums, and I wondered each time about the reluctance of museums in Russia to engage in such dialogue. Such questioning is not particularly welcomed at this moment in Russia--but that does not mean it's not happening, in museums and in people's own minds. So I'll end with two comments from the final day of the conference in St. Petersburg. A Serbian participant said,
“Us Slavic people have problems facing our past, but we have to face it, address it in our museums. The ideologically shaped past hurts a lot, but I take with me to Serbia, that we should have memory places and we should face the hard facts. Museum play a big role in that, and I commend Germany for its work in that.”And a Russian conference-goer passionately said, “The museum is a place for communication and to treat national trauma. And we must do that,” while one other participant said, “Making a difference needs courage! To see that we all share the same values gives us the strength to be courageous.”
I'll long remember these courageous museums and hope deeply that other Russian museums--that all history museums everywhere-- begin to join them helping community members in a deeper understanding of the past. The longer you wait, the harder it becomes.