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Museums in Russia: an evolution inside display windows

English.news.cn   2013-05-18 11:31:23            

by Han Liang, Igor Serebryany

MOSCOW, May 18 (Xinhua) -- Braving the weekend's four-hour traffic jams, dozens of cars are heading southeast of Moscow toward a unique open-air museum in the Kaluga region.

"My 9-year-old son has heard from his friends that this is the place where one can experience a real life of many nations," said Yelena who drives her family sedan. "So I decided to see that magical place with my own eyes."

The Etnomir (Ethnic World) Park exceeded their expectations, she said six hours later.

"We have visited Chinese, Middle-Eastern, European, South-African villages. But most of all I loved the Baltic quarter. I felt myself there returning home," said Yelena, who along with her husband is of Lithuanian descent.

Etnomir is just one example of the emerging trend in Russian museum business: interactive establishments which combine entertainment and education with enlightenment.

Maria Baryshnikova, one of the Etnomir managers, said the educational center started as a private hobby of a Kazakh entrepreneur who wanted to reconstruct the landscape of his native country.

Later he decided to convert it into a "world in a nutshell," and the idea was supported by federal and regional authorities, Baryshnikova said.

Museums used to serve as memory collection stores for the society. Those presented inside the display windows are part of the "untouchable" history: dated, defined, and demode.

Indeed, the history of museum in Russia itself is relatively brief, with the first one established by Peter the Great in the 18th century. Russia's first museum, Hermitage in St. Petersburg, still remains the largest in the country.

As Russia gradually evolved into a major European power, Tsars wanted to influence world affairs with the evidence of Russia's historical and cultural supremacy.

Museums in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) became a symbol of its residents' high spirit during the 900 days of blockade in the World War II.

The Nazi invaders were stunned to learn through their intelligence that the city authorities, while people were dying from hunger in thousands, still kept their museums, libraries and concert halls open for public.

War and hunger were unable to shake the museums in Russia. The social and economic reforms in the 1990s managed to do what the invaders failed in the 1940s.

Many museums did not survive the "economic earthquakes." Losing state financing, they either had to close or to offer their premises for businessmen who too often cared little about the fine art collections.

Whereas in the 1990s, the "new Russians" acquired museums to turn them into warehouses, and in the 2010s, entrepreneurs lined up to buy warehouses and turn them into small thematic museums.

The traditional "do not touch" policy has still been in force in most Russian museums. However, today's visitors expect thrilling experience instead of dull presentation. They want to be creators, not only observers.

Perhaps one of the most popular museums of that type is Moscow's Vinzavod, literally, winery, settled in an actual former liquor factory.

That contemporary art center has little resemblance to a traditional museum. Visitors are expected to watch and even participate in a fusion of theater performance, street art and music.

Now, every self-respected enterprise attempts to open its in-house public space combining a museum of its craft with master-classes. The range is as wide as one may imagine.

Gzhel fine china factory in the Moscow region, which has over 100 years of history as the trademark of Russian folk craft, gives visitors a chance to mold their own jars, plates and dishes, to paint them in Gzhel-only registered blue tint and to anneal them in a special stove.

Similarly, Klin glass factory, also near Moscow, offers visitors opportunities to make and paint their own New Year tree decorations. One of Moscow's bakeries offers guests to bake a cracker of their own choice.

The new generation of workshop-style museums are appealing to young people. Kids, who often feel unbearable boredom in a traditional museum, are delighted to touch, test and even break the artifacts in those interactive museums.

One of Moscow's landmarks, Planetarium, which had been idling for over 20 years, was reopened recently with a completely new concept.

Unlike in the good old days when the visitors simply sat inside a dark dome watching "stars" and listening to lecturers, they are now offered play-and-learn programs for both children and adults.

Visitors are free to stage their physical experiments, witness operations of the Mission Control Center and even compete in competitions.

Despite conservatives' saying that some new museums are rather amusement parks than real museums, this is exactly what museum-goers expect now: to be educated while entertained. The strength of the museum today lies in its vitality and inventiveness, not only rich historical heritage.

Memory and creativity highlight the universal nature of museums and their positive influence on society. While pushing for gradual social changes, they are becoming part of the changes.

Tens of thousands of museums around the world are celebrating the International Museum Day which falls on May 18, with a theme of "Museums(memory + creativity) = social change."

"Reconciliating their traditional mission of preservation with cultivation of the creativity necessary for renewal and visitor growth is the evolution that museums are striving for, with the firm conviction that their presence and their actions can change society in a constructive manner," said Julien Anfruns, general director of the World Museum Community.

Editor: Hou Qiang
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