Just another manic Moscow

Sharon Heal, 09.03.2016
Museums Change Lives - Moscow style
What do the Jewish Museum, the Moscow Museum of ModernArt, the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, the Polytechnic Museum and the Gulag History Museum have in common?

Well they are all museums. And they are all in Moscow. But the intriguing thing for me is that despite the diversity of their funding, subject matter, and size, they are all committed to making a difference.

Last week I was in Moscow after being invited to speak to students and museum staff about the future of museums, museum ethics and Museums Change Lives.

I was on a mission to meet as many people and see as museums as possible. Over the course of a couple of days I crammed in tours, lectures, meetings and discussion – and was deeply impressed by the honesty of debate, the questioning of norms and the openness to new ideas.

In between the chaotic traffic jams, show-stopping snow, and breakneck pace I was able to get a picture of what is happening in museums in Moscow and the differences and similarities between the sector there and in the UK.

The diversity of museums is what you would expect – art, science and social history are all captured in venues across the city.

The Polytechnic Museum’s temporary exhibition explores the history of scientific discovery and makes it relevant for contemporary audiences. Its special focus on younger audiences informs its outreach programme which sees it working with schools and non-museum venues across the region. Staff are keen to develop critical thinking about museums and their role and have promoted debate and reflection on this in the sector.

The Jewish Museum and Centre for Tolerance has the advantage of generous philanthropist supporters that have enabled it to produce a large-scale story of Jewish people in Russia with cutting-edge design and technology. Its additional role as a centre for tolerance leaves room for it to explore how it can help ‘shift social consciousness in a more progressive direction”.

The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art has also thought about how it can reach excluded audiences and in particular has placed emphasis on working with people with disabilities. The centre has hosted workshops to share experiences and promote knowledge about accessibility and inclusion for visitors with special needs.

It was fascinating to talk to colleagues at a range of institutions about their ambitions to play a larger role in society and the challenges of doing that. State funded organisations in particular have to balance their aspirations against funder expectations.

The most memorable and challenging museum I visited was the Gulag History Museum. The atmospheric displays put people’s experience and stories at the centre and the museum has worked with survivors to make sure their voices are captured and heard.

It was interesting to see how innovative approaches to display and design enhanced the harrowing story of the millions of people who were interred in the Soviet-era labour camps.

At the end of the exhibition the visitor is challenged to respond to a series of statements: "It will never happen again if…"

"To understand the past you have to…"

And a final question:

"What should we do today in order to prevent the return of the past tomorrow?"

An apt and thought-provoking way to conclude the visit.