Mama spent rather more of her first visit to the Museum of Moscow wondering if it is housed in a former garage than she was expecting to when she saw the outside.
For Mama wondered this not because the building resembles some brutal constructivist concrete box, which in any case Mama, coming from Stevenage and never quite escaping her upbringing, is resigned to finding increasingly attractive as she gets older. No, the Museum of Moscow’s shell is 19th Century and classically inspired all the way.
She wondered this because to get from one exposed painted brickwork and exposed air-conditioning ducts themed floor to another, you travel up and round the sort of concrete ramps you usually only find in multi-story car parks.
Was it really a place to park cars? Or a design statement? Or possibly a nod towards accessibility for all, despite the fact the incline is pretty steep? Mama found it distracting in a space which is not supposed to house modern art.
So it was nice to find out through the power of Google, that in fact the answer is…
…the building was actually used as a military garage for many years. Nice to get that cleared up then.
Particularly as the Museum of Moscow’s permanent galleries are mostly about the capital’s origin story, and so stuck in the middle ages. It is chiefly memorable for the intricate table top models of Moscow in various stages of being built up. They’re great. I was extremely disgruntled to discover I would not be allowed to play with them.
Of course, it’s tricky to find your niche when you are the museum of the capital of a country which has many many museums in the same city dedicated to exhaustively documenting most of the other highlights of Russia’s history. Especially when they cover Moscow’s place prominently in each of them.
Instead, the Museum of Moscow has decided to rock its relatively small size and less established status by using the rest of its space to have regular quirky little exhibitions devoted to other eras or other aspects of the city. We’ve been to three of these now and they seem to be characterised by a desire not to be comprehensive, and possibly not even representative, but to spotlight the everyday rather than the epic.
They do this through really attractive, interesting or iconic objects, the use of historical film footage you might actually want to watch rather than suffer through in an attempt to be informed, genuinely interesting photography, challenging installations set so that you walk through them or skirt closely around them, with the odd touching opportunity thrown in.
The Forgotten Factory
First there was the series of photographs taken in and around the abandoned factory of the legendary former Soviet automobile producer, ZiL.
Fascinating not just for fans of lovingly photographed urban decay, but also because a lot of the machinery was still in situ and was similarly gorgeously spotlit.
Mmmmmmmmmm, authentic industrial chic, says Mama.
But it was the human touches that made it memorable – the factory comes across as being abandoned much like the Marie Celeste, with the workers just downing tools one day and leaving their half drawn designs on the drawing board, their half drunk mugs of coffee scattered around the building and their half smoked packets of cigarettes stuck to the wall. Oddly compelling. Says Mama.
Then we saw the Museum of Moscow’s World War Two displays, which focused mostly on the people living though the war in the capital. As a Brit, Mama’s war story involving everyday people tends to revolve around London, air raids, evacuations, the mild inconveniences of rationing, Dad’s Army and bringing women into the workforce in both rural and urban areas.
Much of the Former Soviet Union has a more… dramatic version ( Mama prevaricates), but Moscow, unlike Stalingrad, say, was never actually invaded and raised to the ground by the fierce fighting from both sides to hold it, and unlike St Petersburg was not besieged for 872 days, causing mass starvation and football fields full of unmarked graves, so the exhibition was not quite as… traumatic as it might have been. But it was a shock to see the preparations the inhabitants had made for either of those possibilities, the very real part that children took in them.
Mama also thought the way the Museum of Moscow exhibition kicked off, with a table of glasses and bread to symbolise the tradition of setting places for fallen comrades when the news of their deaths came though was an appropriately sobering opening, and a statement that this was not primarily an exhibition about the glory aspect of the war (WE WON!!!!!!!!! LOOK AT OUR COOL TANKS!!!!!!!!!!).
People did carry on living during this time, however, and Mama and Papa both had a good nose at the typical living room reconstructed with keys as to why Muscovites were expected to have this or that bit of kit hanging about. Papa felt that the electronic equipment, billed as a radio for listening to the latest war announcements, was of a high enough quality to get you arrested for being a spy rather than being standard issue, mind.
The mock up of the very modest dining room from which the Soviet entry to the war was announced was also, to Mama, fascinating.
Cars! And Dresses!
The last exhibition we attended was one about cars and dresses. An interesting juxtaposition, particularly as Papa was very vocal in his pre visit estimation that ordinary Soviet people in the sixties, the era the exhibition was billed as focusing on most, had neither in any interesting quantities. As it turned out, it was more about the first half of the 20th century in its totality. Or rather the first half of the 20th Century with the Revolution, its aftermath and the World Wars left out, which Mama felt was quite some feat.
Probably this explained both the seeming juxtaposition of the first and last decades of the period and the limitation to personal transportation and clothing.
Unless the point was supposed to be about periods of relative prosperity.
It was difficult to tell and Mama never did decide whether this exhibition was a case of style over substance, or just ingenuity born of the determination to give every item in the Museum of Moscow’s storage its day in the sun. But she liked the cars on display, coveted some of the dresses, and again thought that the collection of photographs or people enjoying their leisure time around the capital in all weathers and over a number of decades were particularly interesting, all lacking in the usual Soviet symbols to tell you that this was the USSR instead of, for example, the USA.
Not everything has to be about ideology, Mama thinks.
Some things are about voyeurism.
That and the film clips. Silent movies in Russian being about her speed, linguistically speaking. We were less impressed, once we had realised that the oddly jerky on screen action notwithstanding, it was not going to turn into a cartoon. But we did enjoy giving Mama a heart attack when she rounded a corner having lingered in front of the silver screen and found us with our heads stuck deep inside an antique car after we had wrenched the door open for a better look inside.
Until we informed her that this was what everybody else had been doing before we tried it.
Look for the lack of the little rope barrier, I advise you. Quite why something made out of thin cheerfully coloured material at shin level provokes such fear in adults that they cannot cross it I am not sure, but if an object is in the middle of the floor and it doesn’t have a little rope barrier at the very least in Moscow, it means touching is ON! Mama thinks that there are a number of museums and art galleries in London that should take note of this useful signal for visitors.
However, the main reason we originally went to the Museum of Moscow wasn’t actually historical appreciation of the capital at all.
We were there for the Museum of Moscow’s occasional flea markets. We are big fans of car boot sales and somewhat disappointed that Russians have not, by and large, embraced this particular method of getting shot of the cuddly animal toys they no longer want but we can buy for 20p to take home and add to our alarmingly large collection.
As it turned out, this flea market had more of an antique flavour, which was disappointing for us if not for Papa given that there had been a pretty big queue to get inside.
Not that we were bothered as we got to mess around in the giant piles of snow next to the plaster of Paris replica sights of Moscow in the courtyard of the Museum of Moscow while we waited. Mama would have preferred to hang out in the onsite café, but someone had to stand in line.
Mind you, there was a children’s section, which saw kids taking tables and selling some of their well loved tat. Of course, we were horrified at the idea that Mama might suggest we join in and part with some of our most beloved possessions ourselves and couldn’t even be bothered to haggle.
There was also entertainment laid on. I particularly enjoyed the lindy hop amateur dancing display.
Mama was more interested in the refreshments. Retro soft drinks, soups and ice cream. Very hipster.
So all in all a fun atmosphere if you happen to like shiny old objects, but not really one for those looking for second-hand bits and bobs for your everyday life.
Basically, the Museum of Moscow is one for the locals, who would like something reasonably distracting to look round every now and again when they are in the vicinity of Gorky Park. The Cars and Dresses exhibition is on until 10th May and then the next upcoming one is Moskvovedy, which apparently celebrates the establishment of the history of Moscow as an actual thing. No, Mama doesn’t understand that either. But she has already decided to go anyway.
The Museum of Moscow also, unique among museums and galleries in Moscow so far in Mama’s experience, has a decent shop. Surely a direction that should be encouraged. So go.
Just be sure not to try to park your car on top of the interesting objects d’histoire.
The museum’s website (in Russian because the English bit is minimal. Google translate exists, people).
Address: 2 Zubovskiy Bulvar, Moscow
Opening: 10am – 8pm Tuesday to Sunday (except Thursday 11am – 9pm). Monday – CLOSED.
Admission: To access all the galleries and exhibitions – adults 400 roubles (£4), children over seven 200 roubles (£2). Individual exhibitions – adults 200 roubles, kids 100 roubles.
By public transport: The metro station Park Kultury (red line and brown circle line) is right opposite. The tolleybus б/ бк, which circles the centre of Moscow also stops right outside, as do other buses.
By car: The temptation might be too much for you…