I have been back from Russia now just over a week. It was an experience that allowed me a real insight into the Russian museum community (albeit primarily on the western side). From running workshops, speaking at a conference, being a guest to many museums, and speaking with numerous people (museum, digital, tech and more) I came away with a solid knowledge of their current cultural position (and quite frankly, a thirst to go back!).
Firstly a little background on this trip. I first encountered Anna Mikhaylova via social media (of course) then in person at ‘Museums on the Web’ in Portland, Oregon. I can’t remember when or how the idea of me going to Russia happened, but soon we (more like Anna) had formulated a detailed plan for 20 days in St Petersburg, Vyborg, Peterhof and Moscow.
My itinerary was hectic and diverse but allowed me to truly see the museum community in a holistic (and hands on) view.
Touring Museum of Religion for MuseomixUK Russia Workshop Prep
At the workshop many of the delegates were really open and receptive. The one(s) that weren’t seemed to be on a fact finding, defensive operation. Anna and I tried to make it very clear that we facilitating the discussions, not suggesting any changes. Those that took part all agreed the workshop was worth-while and a real benefit to see things differently (including the museum itself). The museum fed back that the workshop was an eye opener and they were interested in taking part in Museomix 3-day event at some point.
This was my first encounter with a wall of negativity. The challenge was to ensure they knew it wasn’t (and shouldn’t be) us against them.
Museums At Night 8 museums in one night. (6pm to 6am)
- Military Medical Museum – There was a queue to get in before 6pm. Optical illusions and theatrical theatre exhibitions were offered along with promotion of social media throughout the building.
- Museum of the History of Religion – As mentioned, I was at this museum earlier, but saw it in a different light with Museum at Night. I created art and listened to music outside, while inside there were many activities happening. I was very impressed with their posters indicting social media channels and request to share pictures and experience.
- Museum of Communication – With many tours and a collection that is already very family friendly, this museum was lively and active with many families being kept entertained.
- Cat thing – I’m still not 100% sure what it was (it was in Russia) but it was part of Museums at Night.
- Anna Akhmatova Museum
- Puppet Museum – This was not strictly puppets in the sense we know, more of a doll museum.
- Museum of Electrical Transport – we were taken by an old tram to a depot center! Really surreal thing to do 4:30am!
- Erarta Museum – fascinating contemporary art museum. The name is genius: Era Arta can be translated from Russian as “The Era of Art”
Speaking at ADIT in Vyborg on International Twitter Projects and Google Glass (two talks with Anna) Social media
ADIT is conference that’s remit is; ‘key events to promote information technologies among museums and other cultural institutions. The Conference introduces the best practices in museum and library information technologies, encourages the exchange of experiences and provides expert opinion of the leading specialists of Europe, Moscow and St.Petersburg on the already developed IT products and those that are being created.‘
This community seems to be really close-knit (which isn’t always a bad thing!). I realize the language barrier probably played a role in what I saw/felt which was a very conservative view of what is innovative thinking. The good news is that several people reached out to me afterwards to discuss social media and Google Glass.
A note I wrote after ADIT has really stuck with me, even now almost 3 weeks after the event;
Is there a regressive way of thinking that as long as museums stay the same, museums should be fine? International world is progressing – opening eyes and ears to what others are doing and seeing where and how it can fit into the culture. Russia has an amazing collection and history that should be shared but there seems to be an old world thinking that sharing online is unneeded. How can we change this?
Whilst there I also asked a few questions on the ADIT community page to which one person emailed me a reply and another said they didn’t feel comfortable answering. Here is what I posted;
I understand there is a division of museums: Federal, City, Municipal (then I’m assuming independent). How does the funding work? A few in Countries, TH e government provides funding depending on visitor numbers, collection size / importance, etc. Is it a similar setup here?
How do young people get involved with museums? Are there programs for teens to get involved as an apprentice? Or are there young people programs for 12-25 year olds to ‘engage’ with the museum and the collection?
During Museums at Night, I managed to get to 8 museums, most of which had queues. This seemed like a very successful night and it was clear (even though I couldn’t understand the language) that people really enjoyed themselves. Will lessons be learned from this night or is it just a yearly event? (For example, more and more museums are offering ‘late nights’ in museums to help attract different visitors).
I was a little confused when I went to the Russian Museum (which is absolutely stunning!) As I had to pay for a picture permit. I didn’t mind paying but wondered why it wasn’t included in the price of the ticket. (And please note, I’m really interested in this so asking out of interest, not ignorance.)
What is the policy (sorry, wrong word) on multi-language to open collections to more people? I’m referring to websites and social media. Or is the target audience mainly Russia (which I realize how incredibly huge that is!).
Anna and I went back to St Petersburg where I spoke about CultureThemes and Social Media at a workshop. This was a smaller, intimate group who were more receptive to the ideas of social media. They worked with Anna on how to start strategies (while I had a tour of the museum!).
Behind the Scenes Tour at Kunstkamera Museum (St Petersburg)
The Kunstkamera Museum (also known as Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) Russian Academy of Sciences) is the oldest museum in Russia. I was honoured to have a behind the scenes tour with Natalia Kopaneva. The collection is incredible with the building itself having amazing and historical importance.
DrinkingAboutMuseums in St Petersburg
Was a great turnout and I was able to meet new friends (and ‘old’ friends!). Eventually they’ll move from café to pub 😉
Tour with Head of Education at Peterhof Alexandria Cottage Palace & Park
I had a guided tour with the head of Education at Alexandria Palace and Park (part of Peterhof Palace). I had a wonderful translator who did a brilliant job bridging the gap in knowledge with this incredibly historical area. From the sending the first ever telegraph, to being one of the first house to have ‘plumbing’– I learned so much in a few hours! Along the way, we were greeted with characters from the houses and provided gifts to take home. I was also impressed with having to wear slippers over our shoes! The education program is different than in the UK, but still brilliant. In May, they can get up 360 groups of 15 kids visit! Each house has their own education person who runs their own program.
Visit to State Heritage Museums (St Petersburg)
The collection of the State Hermitage includes more than three million works of art and artefacts of world culture. Among them are paintings, graphic works, sculptures and works of applied art, archaeological finds and numismatic material – their collection actually includes buildings….we are talking a big museum! They are used to international visitors so all front of house speak English (which helps!).
Google Glass Presentation at Polytechnic Museum (Moscow)
The Polytechnic Museum ‘is one of the oldest science museums in the world, located in Moscow that emphasizes the progress of Russian and Soviet technology and science, as well as modern inventions and developments.’
I ran a Google Glass workshop at the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow (thanks to Mikhail Yakovenko & Anna Mikhaylova who organized this event). The reception to Google Glass was fantastic – but if Polytechnic didn’t have forward thinking, I’d be worried!
The museum is currently being renovated but instead of closing for several years, they opened temporary exhibitions at another site. In doing so, they have pushed the boundaries in using technology in their exhibition (if they can’t, who can?!).
I had a few days in Moscow visiting museums including the gorgeous St Basil’s Cathedral, War of 1812 and the fabulous State Historical Museum. Each museum has both English and Russian explanations as they are in a very tourist driven area. Social media is prevalent with encouraging signs throughout (including an Instagram contest that was happening in the State Historical Museum asking people to share their pictures with the contemporary art that was sprinkled around the museum).
Social media talk at Intermuseum International Conference (with Anna) (Moscow)
On my last day in Moscow, Anna and I ran a talk on Social Media at Intermuseum Conference which was appropriate as the theme this year was ‘Museum in the Digital Age’. One positive aspect was those who attended our talk were receptive to our ideas. There was some debate on the angle to wish I suggested they use social media. CultureThemes and some of the topics were … a bit too ‘casual’ for them. I had to explain that sometimes having fun brings in new audiences. I also explained that big nationals like Smithsonian, British Museum, Science Museum etc wouldn’t get involved most months if it wasn’t worth their while. I’m hoping that set a seed for them to think over.
- There is clearly a real want for innovative thinking and real changes but there is also a conservative wall that is currently stopping any sustainable changes.
- As shown by Museums at Night – the public are also pining for a social change to happen. The queues around the block at the museums I visited were testimony to that. When I asked why Museums at Night was so popular, but the next day some museums were empty I was told it was due to the different people who organized Museums at Night (they were bringing in a different energy).
- Front of House plays a huge role on the tone of the museums. In several museums I was made to feel like I was an unannounced visitor in their home. This prompted me to ask the question about how the funding works. Seems in some instances funding happens regardless of the number of visitors so in essence there is no incentive to welcome people.
- Being bilingual opens so many opportunities – and not just regarding social media. Websites, signage and other areas helps to broaden a museum and their collection. I was asked why some museums should bother as they have many visitors from other countries. My response is that online advocates are just as important if the mission of the museum is to share its collections and stories.
- If the current community doesn’t want to make changes, maybe a new community can begin that will allow these discussions to happen. Being able to talk is one thing, being listened to is another. I was repeatedly told that the current community isn’t ready for change, but Museums at Night proves visitors want something different.
Finally a huge thank you to Anna for allowing me to see the Russian museum sector in many different ways and with my own eyes. You were very patient with my learning curve and more so when having to translate everything at our workshops and talks!
I went to Russia with a natural preconception of what I was going to encounter, many aspects of the country still remain relatively unknown. What I encountered was not what I was expecting, I didn’t really see any direct censorship but I did feel that in many areas there was a dated, perhaps nostalgic, attitude towards the future. That if something isn’t broken, why fix it?
But is it not broken? The problem as I see it is that the vast majority of Russia’s younger culturally centred people who are creative, cosmopolitan and digitally minded are frustrated at the speed in which their cultural world is developing. They have the ability, perhaps more than most western countries, but do they have the willing from the ones in control? I’m not sure it is nerves holding them back, that by letting the outside in will destroy what they have, nor did I come away feeling that there was an air of superiority, I think in essence just like the people front of house, those at the top don’t see the need. And until they do, the majority will remain frustrated.