Musing on Monuments at Muzeon Sculpture Park in Moscow

There were quite a lot of people about when the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Iron Felix, was torn down in 1991.

Dzerzhinsky was the man who set up the CHEKA, the forerunner of the KGB, and he was notorious. Consolidating the Revolution required the arrest and immediate execution without trial hundreds of thousands of potential threats to the imminent Communist paradise, and Felix was tireless in pursuing this most necessary work.

Not surprising, then, that after he died, from a heart attack following close on the impassioned denunciation of some of his rivals, he got a giant statue. A giant statue slap bang in front of the KGB headquarters in Moscow.

Not surprising, too, that this statue was one of the focal points of the pent up rage of the suddenly released Soviet population after the fall of Communism. It was first covered in graffiti, and then removed and dumped elsewhere. There is a monument to those who died in the Gulags there now, although it’s not half as big.

There were a lot fewer people to see Felix Dzerzhinsky put back on his feet again a few years later, but my Papa was one of them. If you ever unearth a picture of the historic moment, you will see a short man with a dandelion clock of floaty hair, and that will be him. Mama says. I dunno. He doesn’t seem to have much hair now. I suppose anything was possible in the 90s.

This event did not take place on a traffic island in Lubyanka, but in what was then a rather scrubby open space off to one side of the Central House of Artists and the New Tretyakovskaya Gallery, opposite Gorky Park, next to the Moscow River.

A number of monuments to fallen heroes had been collected here, and were being put back on display. Stalin, his nose bashed off, was erected, rather pointedly, in the midst of tortured, anguished forms, an installation to memorialise the victims of repression and terror.

Victims of Repression Monument Muzeon Park Moscow

But as for the rest, Carl Marx, Leonid Brezhnev, a number of Lenins, a giant hammer and sickle, some generals, a female worker and so on, were just dotted about here and there.

Mark Bust Muzeon Park MoscowLenin Bust Muzeon Park Moscow

And were soon joined by statues to perfectly innocuous people like circus bears…

Circus Bear Sculpture Muzeon Park Moscow

…a cloud…

Cloud Sculpture Muzeon Park Moscow

…and a bare-bottomed youth standing on his shoulders.

Youth Sculpture Muzeon Park Moscow

There’s even an Oriental section.

Oriental Sculptures Muzeon Park Moscow

And a whole square devoted to sculptures made from limestone.

Limestone Sculpture Square Muzeon Park Moscow

It’s all a bit random to be honest.

Especially the great big fuck off Peter the Great statue down by the Moscow River.

Peter the Great Statue Muzeon Park Moscow

But thus the sculpture park Muzeon came into existence and these days it is a rather trendy hangout.

You can wander around the statues, especially Felix, who is looking quite smart and has had his graffiti quite removed.

Felix Dzershinsky Statue Muzeon Park

You can admire the red squirrels Mama suspects have been specially bred to entertain visitors at Muzeon and Gorky Park.

Squirrel Muzeon Park Moscow

You can get coffee or some snacks from the plentiful little kiosks. You can even stroll down the river along the newly opened up embankment towards the Kremlin.

Nobody pays much attention to the statues to the dethroned Communist butchers. There’s no egg hurling, spitting, vigils, flags, respraying or chipping bits off now. Although you do sometimes find children wanting to climb on them (cough cough). And someone does seem to have left flowers at the feet of the defaced Stalin. Mama does very much hope this was in support of the 3 million people killed in the Gulags and the larger number killed by state-induced famine, but in 2017 it’s never wise to assume that sort of thing.

Stalin Statue Muzeon Park Moscow

Of course, if you are foreign like Mama, you will almost certainly be taking photos. One person’s symbol of oppression overcome is another person’s edgy selfie opportunity, after all.

So what has caused this feeling of creeping irrelevance? Time has passed, and times are different since the heady early days of post-Communist living. The promised land of milk, honey and wall to wall freeeeedom and the Russian way has not quite worked out as expected.

Or it might have something to do with the fact that Moscow today is hardly free from Communist busts, flags, hammer and sickles, and statues. The impact of gathering the statues of the unwanted in one place so people can come and point and laugh is somewhat lost when there’s a huge Lenin at the end of the road, arm outflung as if to show the way to Muzeon (or the road to Communist enlightenment, you take your pick).

This might be why almost from the moment that Papa wandered over on his tea break to see what all the unusual commotion with cranes was about, there have been noises about putting Dzerzhinsky back on his roundabout again. Was there any point to taking him down, the thinking presumably goes? Or possibly, do we really want to encourage more such acts of childish petulance aimed at our (former) glorious leaders?

Hasn’t happened yet, mind you, but anything’s possible.

Mama thinks this would be a mistake though. Just as every memorial ever put up says a lot more about the people and times that spawned them than it ever does about the person (or abstract concept) being remembered, so does the act of removing them.

The fallen monument section of the sculpture park in Muzeon is a reminder that the values our predecessors held definitely need critically reexamining sometimes, but you can never, and probably should never, ignore them.

And it helps us remember that sometimes the best you can hope for is that there will be some relatively blameless child able to eat ice cream and enjoy the sunshine in pleasant surroundings in the future.

More information

The park’s website (in Russian).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and Mama) has to say about First World War Memorials in the UK and their past and present significance.

Address: 10/4, Ulitsa Krymskiy Val at New Tretyakov GalleryMoscow, 119049

Opening: 8am to 10pm (winter) or 11pm (summer).

Admission: Free.

Getting there: From Oktabrskaya metro station (orange and brown lines) – turn right, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left away from the giant Lenin statue down the other massive seven million lane highway. From Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. Muzeon is opposite Gorky Park.

Alternatively, the trolleybus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way. It’s quite a fun way of getting to or from Muzeon.

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Muzeon Sculpture Park in Moscow is more than a home for fallen monuments of former heroes of Soviet history.

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How does Russia My History multimedia historical park compare to every other museum we have ever visited?

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, girl and woman, 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.

Russia My History Red Room

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…

… wasn’t.

But it was all very well-lit.

Russia My History Green Room

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.

Russia My History Imperial Family

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…

Russia My History Beanbags

…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.

Russia My History Blue Room

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.

Russia My History weapons handling table

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.

More information

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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How does Russia My History multimedia historical park compare to every other museum we have ever visited?

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Oregon Girl Around the World

The Museum of Moscow

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.

Museum of Moscow Provision Warehouses

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.

Museum of Moscow ramps

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.

Museum of Moscow medieval gallery

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.

Museum of Moscow ZiL factory automobiles

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.

Museum of Moscow ZiL factory equipment

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.

Museum of Moscow ZiL factory personal effects

Everyday War

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.

Museum of Moscow World War Two defence

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!!!!!!!!!!).

Museum of Moscow World War Two memorial

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.

Museum of Moscow World War Two living room

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.

Museum of Moscow dresses

Probably this explained both the seeming juxtaposition of the first and last decades of the period and the limitation to personal transportation and clothing.

Museum of Moscow white dress

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.

Museum of Moscow car and film

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.

Museum of Moscow moskvich

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.

Bargain Hunting

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.

Museum of Moscow flea market

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.

Museum of Moscow Courtyard

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.

Museum of Moscow lindy hop

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.

More Information

The museum’s website (in Russian because the English bit is minimal. Google translate exists, people).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about challenging a parking ticket issued in the UK.

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…

Wander Mum
Ersatz Expat

State Historical Museum, Moscow

Mama firmly believes it wasn’t the State Historical Museum in Moscow’s fault that the time we went there ended with my Imaginative Big Brother declaring it the WORST DAY OUT EVAH!

After all, it’s bang in the centre of Moscow, housed at the north end of Red Square in one of the most entertainingly decorated buildings of a city full of entertainingly decorated buildings. How could anticipation not be high when you spot what you are gamboling towards?

State Historical Museum Moscow
How cool is this?

Similarly, when the interior is also so worthy of the fact that you have schlepped both your and your little sister’s cameras along in your very own backpack, and when the museum assistants are so impressed and appreciative about your choice of soft toy companion for the visit, what’s not to like?

Ceiling State Historical Museum Moscow
Look up!

Plus, we may not be wildly enthusiastic about every last thing in a museum, but we can usually be persuaded to take at least a tepid interest in, I dunno, animal themed knick knacks, random fire extinguishers, or anything which is absolutely not supposed to be touched even if it is within touching distance, as long as Mama doesn’t insist on this happening for too long.

So what went wrong?

Mama, the trained historian with a passing interest in the pitfalls of teaching the subject to children, has a quiet determination (*cough* a bee in her bonnet) about making sure that we do not end up seeing history as a long story of inexorable progress towards the current pinnacle of civilization that exists today. Or rather, because Mama is now over 40 the pinnacle of civilization that existed about fifteen years in the past.

But in her quest to convince us that just because modern human beings have Apple watches it does not mean that we are inherently better than our ancestors, she may have overdone the emphasis on how utterly brilliant, how terribly skilled, how marvelously clever it was that people MORE THAN A MILLION YEARS AGO were already able to invent technology and improve on it in much the same way this generation has done with the humble digital watch, as exemplified by the vast collection of stone age tools and suchlike that kicks off the exhibition.

Flint tools State Historical Museum Moscow
Much much more impressive than a mere Apple watch

At which point, my Imaginative Big Brother demonstrated his admirably increasing awareness of deep time and got the collywobbles. MORE THAN A MILLION YEARS AGO being a lot of grandfathers back, and, and this is the point, representing a lot of dead and gone grandfathers.

An existential crisis not really helped by the fact that when we came to the intriguing stone cave-room painstakingly re-constructed in the halls of the State Historical Museum, Mama enthusiastically told us how many dead people had been found inside (700) and that really history, especially the history of very long ago, is mostly driven by finding caches like this and is therefore based on the stuff that was buried with the dead people.

Well, that and ancient rubbish tips, but by then it was too late for this kind of qualification. Too much information, Mama. We may never be happy about setting foot in a museum again, and certainly took the rest of this one at a fair clip while clutching Mama’s arms and blanching at the thought of ghosts and suchlike all the way round.

Not even the really cool shiny gold and silver items room could entirely placate us although Mama insisted on pausing for long enough to take a photo of the cup made by one of the Tsars himself. With his own two hands. The wooden bit now nearly obscured by layers of overwrought bling anyway.

Wooden and gold cup State Historical Museum Moscow
Someone should probably do this to the deformed clay pots and similar I bring home to Mama

This is the kind of thing the Historical Museum is good at. It’s not just a place which houses props to illustrate an age. Many of the items have historical significance, or at least historical curiosity value, in and of themselves. Non Russian readers may need to pick up the audio-guide to properly appreciate this, although the fact that Mama knows about the cup shows that English language labeling does certainly exist.

That said, some of the props are pretty cool. Mama thinks. The old fashioned carriage which has skis where the wheels should be was almost as entertaining to her as the pushchairs in the shops which have come up with the same engineering solution to the large amount of snow Moscow ought to be able to expect each winter.

Carriage sleigh State Historical Museum Moscow
Jingle bells, jingle bells..

Not that she has seen anyone out and about with one here yet, to her frustration and Instagram’s loss. Global warming has a lot to answer for.

Did such fabulous exoticism lifted us out of our doldrums though? No, of course not.

Neither did gawping the splendid collection of swords. Swords are for KILLING PEOPLE to make graves, to provide cannon fodder for GHOULS like Mama – it is possible that Mama should not have suggested that we look at the design of each one and consider how it might have been wielded.

swords State Historical Museum Moscow
When historical instruction goes wrong

In fact, the only thing that cheered my Imaginative Big Brother up in any way, was the hall of fashions and interiors, and that was only because one of the items on display was a hat with an actual dead bird splayed out in a jaunty manner on top. Actual dead birds, unlike hypothetically dead people, he is absolutely fine with. I was too far gone to even vaguely appreciate this, or the very princessy nature of the outfits. Which is unlike me.

Bird hat State Historical Museum Moscow
This dead bird hat is clearly the best thing in the State Historical Museum

But that’s because nothing in the State Historical Museum was really the reason why the day out so traumatized my Imaginative Big Brother. Even if you are having a determined sulk in front of the displays, there are still free doughnuts being handed out on the street, the richest cup of hot chocolate you have ever tasted round the corner, random architectural features to be climbed in the pedestrianised centre, and even pigeons to chase.

No, the reason why he was unhappy was that I hadn’t recovered as much as Mama thought after my epic two week ‘we’ve-moved-countries-and-bathed-in-foreign-germs-from two-different-schools’ virus extravaganza, and we overdid it in the afternoon by visiting the giant toy shop just up the road.

As a result I ended up screaming all the way home. Twenty minutes on the Metro with an inconsolable child. Another fifteen minutes of further transport hell. It would scar anyone.

So. Providing you do not make Mama’s parenting mistakes, the State Historical Museum is definitely worth a ramble around when you are in the vicinity of Red Square sometime. Stay away from the topics of generations of dead people, ensure your children are essentially snot-free and remember the crowd-pleasing designer taxidermy is just round the corner and you’ll be golden.

More Information

The museum’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Henderson Island and the prehistoric economy of feathers.

Address: 1 Red Square, Moscow,

Opening: Wednesday – Monday (CLOSED on Tuesdays) 10am to 6pm, with later opening on Friday and Saturday.

Admission: Adults: 350 roubles (3.5 GBP), children under 16: free.

By public transport: The connected Metro stations of Oxhotny Ryad (red line), Teatralnaya (green line) and Ploshad Revolutsii (dark blue line) all pop you out next to or nearby the State Historical Museum.

By other means: You’re joking, right?

MummyTravels
Packing my Suitcase

Museum of London

It’s eerie is walking though the streets to get to the Museum of London at the weekend. Whatever it’s like during the week, on a Sunday morning it’s practically empty with just the sound of ancient church bells on the wind to accompany the slog up from the river.

The London Wall at the Museum of London

The Museum of London, you see, is  very appropriately situated in the middle of the City of London. Right next to one of the last few pieces of the original wall marking what for a long time were its borders. If that doesn’t bring home to you just how large the place is now, then the very long bus journey from Saaf West Laandaan will. Well, that and the lengthy monologue about the history of agriculture (the whole history of agriculture. Yes, that’s right, *all* of it) Mama had entertained us with on the way.

Did I mention how long the ride was?

Quite why Mama thought farming methods were a good preparation for this museum I am not sure because, apart from the section about prehistoric London when the mammoths and sabre tooth tigers ruled, the history of London is, well, really not terribly rural.

Which is fine by us. We are second generation urbanites and capital city snobs if you ignore Mama’s contributiton our gene pool, which in this case we really really do.

The layout of the museum is chronological – you start at the beginning and progress through sections devoted to particular periods, like Roman times, medieval London, early modern, Victorian, and the sixties and so on, with occasional side forays in the Big London Events like the plague, the great fire and the world wars.

Each of these sections has its own feel and focuses on a different aspect of London life – whatever seems to have been in the ascendancy at the time (kings, commerce, dirt, religion, commerce, ruling the WORLD baby, commerce, commerce, commerce, fashion and the arts) – and is almost like a mini museum within a museum.

This constant rebooting keeps us interested, as does the opportunities for interaction which are not a main focus but present in every period and very varied from place to place from dressing up, to multimedia button pushing, cinematic experiences and interractive dioramas. Our favourites are the twisty luminous blue projection of the Thames where you can catch different symbols and turn them into words showcasing difficult town planning questions (at which point we lose interest a bit), and the one where you can attempt to purge the fetid Thames waters of poo (which doesn’t ever get old).

Some other highlights for us. The Roman area has had some revamping done by a group of teenagers, and is full of films bringing things like gladiatorial matches into the 20th Century, although Mama enjoyed looking into the cupboards and hearing about Roman cuisine best.

Roman living room at the Museum of London

The Victorian section is organised as a lifesized mock up of streets, with shops you can look into and sometimes enter and sometimes even TOUCH THE THINGS.

Not the toy shop though, which is a shame because we insisted on standing there with our noses pressed against the window longingly. But Mama says this is almost certainly what our family would have been doing at that time too, and so approved, from a historically accurate perspective. Good job, the Museum of London for an authentic Victorian childhood experience.

Victorian toy shop at the Museum of London

To prevent us getting too frustrated though, there is an area later where we can have a hands on play around with the sorts of toys and watch the sorts of TV shows that Mama and Granny and Grandad would remember. It is surprising, Mama thinks, that after hours and hours of all the shows that Cbeebies can offer to say nothing of our tablets, how popular Bill, Ben and the Weed are with us.

Mama’s favourite bit is the 18th Century Vauxhall pleasure gardens experience. You can stroll round, admiring the large-skirted high-haired mannequins and watching the little costumed playlettes projected on the walls around you. What she particularly likes is that the skits are not showing wildly dramatic narrative arcs but just designed to make you feel as though you are evesdropping on other visitors to the park as you yourself stroll around. We have to drag her out, usually.

This pales into comparison with the lifesize models of horses unencumbered by any kind of glass or rope barrier though. They are pulling some kind of fancy gold coach but this is not as interesting as being able to get up close and personal with my favourite animal, safe in the knowledge that if I run under their tummies, they will not kick or bite me.

The Museum of London is surprisingly good value for horse spotters, actually. Or at least surprising for someone who hasn’t taken the history of trying to slog your way around the city into account. This is one of Mama’s obsessions, of course. I think we’d better move on before she launches into the history of transport with a side rant about great traffic jams she has endured in the capital.

Horse sculpture at the Museum of London

And what better place to move on to than the café? Which is conveniently situated about two thirds of the way round in a nice large space with plenty of seating and excellent access to toilets and as a result almost impossible not to stop at (well played again the Museum of London).

It’s more of a cake, coffee and cocoa stop than a place for anything more substantial, but there is another one for that near the entrance, and a few, although not many, somewhat less pricy hot food emporiums in the walkways around. If you have bought sandwiches and womanfully resisted the call of the café, it should be possible to use what is otherwise the schools’ lunch room, as long as there aren’t any schools visiting that day of course.

All in all, the Museum of London is one of London’s fullest and most interesting museums for Mama, the history graduate, and luckily well set up for welcoming young people enthusiastically through its doors as well. It’s a tad off the tourist route but also close enough to places like St Paul’s, the Monument and the Tower of London that us Londoners who live in the modern suburbs could find out about our city’s older history and then go for a wander around it all in one day.

And the Museum of London is also an excellent place to take us kids on a rainy day.

This is not because the exhibits themselves are all undercover – although they are – or because the museum is large, and packed with interesting things which will keep us occupied for hours – although it is – but because it is part of the Barbican complex.

What this means is that you get an extensive network of covered walkways extending out around the museum which, once you have finished with history, you can canter joyfully around in relative comfort no matter how much water is falling out of the skies.

Some people might object to the brutalist concrete tower block scenery that forms the backdrop to this, but Mama’s secret ambition is to own a flat in this striking development, so she minds not one bit. She is from the New Town of Stevenage after all. This is the height of beauty for her. And she enjoys the contrast between the architecture here and the much older aesthetic we wandered past on our way in.

You can, of course, also visit the Barbican centre itself. As`well as whatever exhibitions they have on, Mama recommends the toilets on the first floor around lunch time. For some reason you can hear an orchestra practising really really well in there.

So you should visit, especially if you live anwhere in Britain. You only exist to support life in the capital, after all, so you probably should know more about it.

More Information

The Museum of London’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about Doctor Who’s guide to London landmarks.

Address: 150 London Wall, London, EC2Y 5HN

Opening: Monday to Sunday 10am to 6pm.

Admission: Free, although some special exhibitions will have an extra fee.

By tube: Barbican (Hammersmith and City, Bakerloo and Circle lines) or St Paul’s (Central line)

By train: Liverpool Street or Farringdon (also on the Hammersmith and City, Bakerloo and Circle lines) or the City Thameslink.

By bus: Routes 4, 8, 25, 56, 100, 172, 242, 521. The museum is on the London Wall at the junction with Aldersgate Street.

By car: If you are tired of London, trying to travel around it by car will not improve matters, and neither will trying to find a parking space you can afford. Or indeed any parking space. As Dr Johnson might have said.