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Analysis & Opinion
11.01.10 Doom Or Boom For Russian Museums?
By Svetlana Kononova

In December 2009, in the village of Peredelkino, the Bulat Okudzhava Museum, named after a famous Russian poet and singer-songwriter, faced closure due to a lack of funding. In the end, the problem was resolved by the museum’s director Olga Okudzhava, who turned to the Russian Ministry of Culture and other governmental departments for help. She also found active support in a campaign organized by the mass media. Now the museum is working as normal, its staff said. Nonetheless, the episode encapsulates the challenges confronting Russia’s museums today.

The average Russian hardly ever visits museums, a poll conducted by the state-owned All Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) found. The most alarming fact revealed by the poll is that one in five of Russians have never even been to a museum. And this rate is increasing. In 2008, 14 percent of respondents of a similar poll said they had never visited a museum. More than a third of the recent poll’s respondents said that they “have visited museums before but are not interested in museums and exhibitions now.”

Half of the respondents had visited museums many years ago on school trips. But only 29 percent said they had been to museums in the last two years. This “active audience” prefers to visit the most famous Russian museums such as the Kremlin, Hermitage, State Tretyakov Gallery or Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. This means that the main problem for small and provincial museums is attracting the public.

“The interest of the general public in museums has been growing everywhere in the world since 2005,” said Alexey Lebedev, a director at the Russian Institute for Cultural Research, “attendance is growing, the new structures are being built, exhibitions are opening. However, we are not seeing any such museum boom in Russia”. A “museum boom” refers to a 20 to 25 percent rise in annual attendance, Lebedev explained. The number of people attending Russian museums has grown by a meager six percent in the last three years, according to official statistics.

“Russian museums should develop their strategies on how to work with visitors; they should become more open, more interactive, more interesting,” said Darya Rudanovskaya, a spokesperson for the Changing Museum in a Changing World project, led by oligarch Vladimir Potanin’s charity trust. “Even big, popular museums, which do not have problems attracting visitors, are being too conservative,” she added.

Potanin’s charity has been holding annual competitions to support innovative museum projects since 2003. Successful competitors receive grants to put their ideas into action. More than 2000 applications have been submitted to the competition and 92 museum projects have been sponsored by the charity over the last five years. An important characteristic of the competition is that most winners are from Russia’s regions, not from Moscow or St. Petersburg where museums have strong governmental support.

“Every museum in Russia can be as creative and innovative as our nominees,” Rudanovskaya said. According to her, many museums are faced with two main problems – how to attract more visitors and how to use modern multimedia. To solve the first problem, they should offer special programs to cater for the different visitors’ ages and varying social groups. “Some museums have special programs for children and disabled visitors but none of them offer something for retired people,” Rudanovskaya said. Moreover, Russian museums do not have enough experience in using multimedia. Even if they install modern interactive screens and video walls, this high-cost equipment does not always guarantee that exhibitions are more informative, interesting and attractive for visitors.

Successful museums are those that are able to overcome their conservative approach to their role and function in society. “One interesting example from our competition experience is a young underground subculture exhibition, which was opened to the public by one of our participants. The second successful project is a special children’s program carried out by some museums in a small town in the north where there are few nurseries. Parents were happy to educate their children in museums because there were no similar opportunities anywhere else in the town. We can name a lot of interesting and successful examples,” Rudanovskaya explained. “If a museum makes the effort to solve the problems of the regions and to make residents’ lives better, it becomes popular,” she said.

Meanwhile both the big, famous museums and the small ones are trying to work out how to improve their image and become more attractive. The State Hermitage in St Petersburg, one of the best museums in Russia and one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, announced at the end of 2009 that is would charge Russian citizens and foreigners alike the same entry fee. Currently foreigners, who form a significant part of the Hermitage’s visitors, have to pay three times more than Russians to see the museums’ treasures.

In Moscow several museums, both government-funded and private, have been opened in the last decade. The Vodka History Museum in the Izmailovo kremlin, which boasts over 600 exhibits including various brands of vodka, 18th-century vodka recipes, vodka posters, vodka labels and different-sized vodka bottles, was opened in 2008.
The Gallery of Ice Sculpture located in the Krasnaya Presnya park contains thousands of pieces of art made out of ice. The exposition is open all year round in a specially cooled museum building.

“Dom Skazok Zhili Byli,” or the Once Upon a Time House of Fairy Tales, based in the All-Russia Exhibition Center, provides a fun and friendly environment for children. Children aged four to 12 years are offered the opportunity to act in plays put on by the museum.

The Moscow Cat Museum on Rublyovskoye Shosse is a must-see for cat lovers. It contains exhibitions such as “Woman and cats,” “Cat’s metamorphoses,” “The cat in the interior,” “Cat’s magic,” and many others.
The Ice Age Museum, which was founded in 2004 by a private collector of mammoth tusks and bones, is not a paleontological museum in the strictly academic style, but a live museum-show, which recreates the mysterious atmosphere of the ice ages with special audiovisual effects.

The Contemporary Museum of Calligraphy, which opened in 2008, exhibits collectibles including some fine specimens of Slavonic and European lettering, the elegant work of Jewish and Arabian calligraphy schools, traditional forms of classical Japanese calligraphy and examples of ancient Chinese writing.

Museums are evolving step by step from places to store boring academic collectibles to modern interactive entertainment facilities. The problem is communication between museums and the public. Potential visitors simply do not have enough up-to-date information about museums, new projects and exhibitions. When finally this communication problem is overcome, Russia’s long-overdue “museum boom” will be just round the corner.
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