It’s true what they say about how easy it is to indoctrinate children. Mama would not have said that she displayed a wild sort of enthusiasm for wholesome educational family outings when she was a child, but here she is putting us through the programme she was once made to endure, and enjoying herself hugely.
Family days out are wasted on the young.
What this means, though, is that Mama has spent a lot of time over the years in museums, woman and girl, and she thinks this entitles her to have an opinion. Not to mention the fact that she is both a history graduate and erstwhile history teacher.
And do you know what they make you do at the beginning of a teacher training course in history in the UK? Study the history of history teaching. Gotta love historians. A wee bit obsessed.
Anyway, this is a bit depressing because it basically goes ‘… and then the history teachers refused to teach the type of history politicians think is important and so Margaret Thatcher and every subsequent government set about reducing the hours spent on the subject to its current high of two and a half minutes every other Tuesday in favour of citizenship classes and more remedial literacy’. Oh, and half the time the programme will be delivered by geography teachers, who last studied the subject when they were 13 (if it helps, half the time geography is being taught by historians. Luckily the map of Europe looks a lot more like the 18th century one than it used to 20 years ago).
Mama also learned that it was now very unfashionable to do what she had done at school and take a superficial jog steadily through the list of kings and queens from the start of civilization (Alfred the Great defeating the Vikings sort of thing) to the pinnacle of achievement that is the reign of Elizabeth II and Theresa May.
Which involved learning the dates of important wars, the lists of laws enacted and religious controversies weathered. With, if you were Mama’s history teacher, little stick men drawings of the tortures carried out by the Spanish inquisition to copy into your books. Also good for the messy deaths of royalty in the Wars of the Roses and remembering what happened to Henry VIII’s wives.
No, it changed to being all about lingering on one period for some time and taking a three sixty look at not just high politics but the everyday lives of ordinary people, and thinking about the nature of cause, effect, and consequence, developing the ability to appreciate that there was some logic to WHY ON EARTH people ducked harmless old women in a village pond in an effort to discover if they were witches, and deciding how we can trust anything an eyewitness says when everybody lies, to some extent or another.
All very well and good, but it turned out that what with pupils not having the linear timeline to hook it into, this study of patches of in-depth historical understanding had become so decontextualised that it was causing people to have problems grasping how situations develop over time, how each of these isolated events were connected to each other, and why what we think of as the right way to do kinging today isn’t appropriate as a benchmark to analyse kinging in the middle ages.
What is needed is to make sure that when looking at history, you take both a long term approach combined with carefully chosen case studies. Look out for a teacher who will spend a few lessons doing the WHOLE OF AGRICULTURE FROM PREHISTORY TO THE PRESENT before launching into the agricultural revolution is what Mama says. Especially if you are an inner city kid who has never seen a cow in the wild before.
Mama thinks a good museum manages the same balancing act. Particularly important given the aforementioned lack of time for history in actual educational settings.
One of the reasons why she is not keen on the British Museum, in fact, is that in her opinion, it is a bit too full of the glorification of random stuff. And empire.
It reduces things like the Elgin Marbles to the controversy surrounding their acquisition and the fact that we won’t give them back, this being 90% of the background Mama has for them given that there is very little support from the British Museum itself on why she should care about the headless wonders. I mean, yes, thousands of years old, but lots of things in the British Museum are thousands of years old, and some of those statues, notably the ones in the Middle East section, are far more impressive as objects d’art.
If you want to admire historical stuff as stuff, the V&A is much better at it, because the stuff they have picked is stuff which is inherently pretty. No further explanation necessary. If a museum (looking at you, the British Museum) wants Mama to walk though rooms and rooms of reddy black pots, Mama needs a bit of help to understand why they are all on display.
The State History Museum in Moscow and the National Army Museum in London have a lot of initially rather disappointingly unremarkable historical items, but really outdo themselves in elaborating on them well to personalise each item on display. Who did it belong to, what did they have to do with the life and times we are interested in, how is it an interesting example of whatever it is, why, in short, should Mama care?
And, if we are deviating from history for a moment and talking about museum design in particular, the more visual you can make this, and the less reliant in lengthy FUCKING explanatory placards (expletives Mama’s) written in a dense expository style the better.
For example, the Horniman Museum’s natural history section and the Darwin Museum in Moscow make the points they want to get across about classification of animals, the ways animals have adapted to their environment, and the nature of evolutionary change by artful grouping, and to lift the whole thing further off the page, in the Darwin Museum you also have subtle but well chosen video clips of the animals in their natural habitat, and a whole range of fairly vivid and varied paintings to really ram the point home.
But you can do this with history too! In the Museum of London, for example, they have walk through sections where the sights and sounds of some of the periods they display have been brought to life. Mama’s favourite is the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which has little playletts projected onto screens around you to complement the props that are scattered about to make the whole thing more 4D.
In Hampton Court you can attempt to get your head around 16th century boardgames while sitting in an ante chamber and waiting for an audience with royalty. Which you may well get, as gorgeously dressed men and women will wander by regularly and engage you in conversation, convincing children like my Gullible Big Brother (when he was much younger) that they have just met the queen.
And, of course, there are places like the outdoor re-enactments at Beamish Open Air Museum, Ironbridge Gorge, and the Ulster American Folk Park, where that sort of immersive experience is taken to a new level, where visitors are invited to take part, alongside the actors, in the experience of recreating life in a particular place, at a particular time. Whole towns have been rebuilt! There are working candle makers! A printers! Steam trains! A foundry! Pit ponies (plus attached pit)! A sweet shop! And a fairground!
Even commercially-driven enterprises like the London Dungeons have something to recommend them in that, while Mama would say that while they are going for the wow factor than having any true educational value, they certainly do fire up enthusiasm for the dry and dusty subject that wrong-headed people make history out to be. Or in the case of the Dungeons, as it does things like splash warm ‘blood’ in your face in the French Revolution room just as the guillotine goes down, impress with the ghoulish yuck factor.
It’s this, not the popularism, that means that Mama will not be taking us there, or to Lenin’s Mausoleum, any time soon. Spoilsport.
All of which brings us to the new Russia My History pavilion in VDNH. All you really need to know about it is that it has been billed as a multimedia history park, and that the building it is in is huge, as well as the fact that, all the gods be praised, they have a hefty pre-twentieth century focus, and you can imagine Mama’s excitement when she heard about it.
Would she sail the Baltic Sea with Peter I? Would she sit in on pelmeni making on a traditional clay oven? Would she see Ivan the Terrible slaughter his son? Would she get caught up in the duel of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin? Would she drink tea from a samovar in a merchant’s middle class house? Would she meet Catherine the Great walking her dog in the grounds of a palace? Would she take part in a village zemstvo council meeting? She didn’t know but she’s been really looking forward to finding out.
Even so, it was only this last weekend, when the weather took a turn for the worse (no, worse than that there was SNOW on the ground. In May! Yes, I know!), that we actually went. We even took both Papa AND Babushka, it was going to be that good.
We got there – VDNH is less fabulous than normal in the driving sleet, but luckily the new minibus service from Botanicheskiy Sad metro/ central circle line station takes you practically to the back door of Russia My History – acquired our tickets, put our coats in the cloakroom, went to the loo, paused to take our photos with the cardboard cut out medieval bogatyr knights, and gamboled happily into to the first room of the Romanov’s section.
Which consisted of text heavy explanatory FUCKING placards (expletives Mama’s) projected onto the walls, illustrated by a few pictures and flickering flames (we had entered during a war) and…
… nothing else. Except some touchscreens.
With more expository text. On every panel. With a few pictures to illustrate. Some of those spun slowly round and round, admittedly. But that was it. Except…
… the noise of flames.
Papa frowned a bit and disappeared round the corner to see what happened next, while we idly played with stabbing at the computer screens to see if they got more interesting (no).
A few minutes later he was back, with a somewhat horrified look on his face. ‘It’s all like this,’ he said.
And so it was. Rooms and rooms of it, although there were some videos you could watch too. Three minute loops of auditory explanatory FUCKING placards (expletives Mama’s), accompanying a slide show. The voice was very dramatic. The content…
But it was all very well-lit.
We carried on round, and eventually made it into the early 20th century expo.
Where the pictures on the explanatory FUCKING placards (expletives Mama’s) were now joined by the occasional film clip of, I dunno, marching soldiers or people waving banners. But the format otherwise remained unchanged.
Although there were a lot of flickering candles to represent people who died. The early 20th Century seems to have been a difficult time for a lot of people.
Although I noticed that Mama had a very raised eyebrow over the fact that an awful lot of them apart from this family seemed to be priests.
It says something when the most thrilling thing about the place were the beanbags in the room with the endless parade of heads of famous Russians of the Soviet period…
…and the discovery of an actual game on one of the touchscreens. You had to drag bits of a tank onto the outline of a tank to make a tank!
Yes, that was the entirety of the whole thing, except that you could also do it with planes, guns and other bits of military hardware.
Now obviously, from Mama’s point of view, it really didn’t help that everything was in Russian. But quite who though that this is what a multimedia history park should consist of she does not know. Especially a multimedia history park which has been extensively advertised and which, being called Russia My History, promises to at the very least get you all fired up and excited about your national story.
Although the advertising hasn’t been quite so extensive recently, Mama notes. Not now that actual people have been inside and seen what’s there. She should have realised when it was sleeting outside on a major national holiday and the place was still largely empty that it was not really going to be as much fun as she had through it would be.
Or any fun at all.
For her or Papa and Babushka. Who, y’know, do read Russian.
I say you make your own fun, and the place was large, the opportunities for dancing around a large space with dramatic colour themed glows and mildly amusing sound effects out of the bad weather endless (eeeeendddleessss says Mama). Plus, I am easily pleased by touchscreens. Stab, stab, stab, stab, on to the next one, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, on to the next one, stab, stab, stab stab, on to the next one, stab, stab, stab, stab. Never gets old. My Gullible Big Brother is less gullible in this way, but then he does like TV a lot, and so managed to hit every of the many many video clips as we went round, although his enthusiasm did wane as it became clear none of them were going to be about animals.
Still, I don’t know. Mama eventually gave in and read some of the text, and she found the ones about when new things were introduced to the country, like tomatoes, tea and peonies mildly interesting.
And there were Putin themed tea bags in the shop.
And TV in the cafe. Which apparently qualifies it to be called a Media Cafe.
But even that and the fact that they had both a free virtual reality experience and a handle the military equipment table in the foyer on the day we went (the national holiday was celebrating the end of World War Two. This isn’t normal), Mama is basically recommending that you go to the Russia My History multimedia history park only if you have been to all of the other museums, art galleries, science experiences, exhibitions, zoos, and aquariums in Moscow. So many times that you can’t face going to any of them again.
And if there is nothing on at the cinema. Or any of Moscow’s many theatres.
And the weather is really really bad, so the park is out, a walk in the forest is out, and you don’t want to go on a day trip to Sergeyev Possard. Or to the dacha.
All your friends are out of town.
You have some kind of aversion to hanging out in a restaurant for the afternoon.
And you don’t fancy using a shopping mall as the way to get out of the house for some exercise.
And even then, she’d probably just recommend seeing what’s on the telly instead.
Because there is overview history focusing on the great and the good, the wars, the turning points and the high culture, and then there is really really really boring.
So, no, she will not be going again to see the expositions she did not get to see because her ticket only gave her access to two of them at a time.
Unless someone tells her they have installed a giant anamatronic Lenin fighting Rurik for Tolstoy’s last pirogi or something. In which case she might reconsider.
The history park’s website (if you must).
This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about history as a form of knowledge.
Address: Really? Are you sure?
Opening: Tuesday through Sunday 10 – 20.45. Closed Monday. Go on a Monday.
Admission: 300 roubles for one exhibition, and 500 roubles for two exhibitions. This, Mama would like to point out, is a steep entrance price for a museum in Moscow and isn’t letting you look at the whole thing. It’s a bit cheaper for OAPs and school kids, and free for the under 7s. You can get unlimited access for 1250 roubles. Don’t buy that one.
Getting there: Get off at VDNH metro (orange line) and walk up through VDNH to the bit near the back with the full sized rocket. Or get off at Botonicheskiy Sad (orange line and the central circle line and take the 33 minibus route to the Russia My History stop (or walk it). Veer straight past the building and go to one of the other things you can do and see in VDNH instead.
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