A final report from the Museum of Everyday Life Philosophy Department in St. Petersburg: On Melancholy

At breakfast today in the Israeli restaurant just down the street, the waiter I’ve made friends with over this past month asked about what work I do, which led us into a very lengthy conversation. I told him about my residency, my investigations into museums and the work with Chto Delat, through which I had met such interesting, nice people. “Really?!” he asked, eyebrows raised in disbelief, “You have not met a lot of angry people here?”

Well, yes, I had to admit, I had met a lot of angry people. And curt, serious people. But this unsmiling moodiness is not without its charms. Perhaps I prefer this Russian crankiness to the ever-present American cheerfulness, which has a coercive, even oppressive aspect to it. The American cultural norm of service with a smile, the society’s general demand for positivity, the ubiquitous “it’s all good” that seems to pepper everyone’s speech in the States, all have a whiff of the sinister. This performance of cheerfulness can seem to dumbly buttress the status quo, discourage critique. Blanket good cheer bolsters the belief that we are the happiest, the luckiest, the most privileged, proudest nation on earth, that we are Number One! Some days I can’t think of anything that stinks more of hubris and falseness than happy American positivity. And so, in defiance, perhaps, of this jolly American happiness, in our final St. Petersburg meditation the Museum of Everyday Life turns its attention to Melancholia, as we have found it manifest in this city, particularly in the museums of St Petersburg.

What first comes to mind is the kind of melancholia that springs from the juxtaposition of things that are grossly at odds with each other. I have in mind a specific disorienting lack of obvious irony that exists in some of the museum displays I have encountered here. The feeling generated by the certain ambiguous, unselfconscious displays I have in mind might actually be best described, not in terms of melancholy, but perhaps more accurately as simply, well – creepy. The Zoological Museum of St. Petersburg, with its 14,000 specimens arranged somewhat arbitrarily in endless glass cases is rife with examples. First and foremost: the domestic dog display, which for no reason I could discern was located next to the gigantic whale skeleton marine display. When I came upon it, several families were in the process of grinning and posing in front of vitrines displaying stuffed and mounted domestic canines. The former pets were posed in life-like positions, small dogs playfully frolicking and larger breeds looking nobly out into the distance. All were gorgeous representatives of their kind, alarmingly calling to mind their roles as dear companions, yet obviously sacrificed by those same trusted humans, cut down in their prime, and encased in these vitrines forever. My feeling of unease was magnified tenfold not long afterwards, as I made my way past the exhaustive coral and starfish collections and was moving through aisles and aisles of large mammal displays, when I encountered a set of identical twin boys. They were dressed exactly the same, and their mother was insisting that they pose in front of many of the vitrines. Which they dutifully did, arms draped around each other’s shoulders, looking for all the world as if they should be in a glass case too. I could imagine the label: “Twins, human. Immature, approx seven years old. Collected 2016, Russia.”






         In the Kirov museum one also experiences a similar kind of juxtapositional dissonance. Here, the apartment of the head of the Party in Leningrad and Stalin’s right hand man (or main rival) has been reconstructed just as it was at the time of his death in 1934. (Kirov was murdered, perhaps at the instigation of Stalin himself, which served as the basis for a wave of purges in the party, thousands of arrests and executions.) The murder is mentioned briefly and the purges not at all in the explanatory texts, which focus mainly on the contents of the rooms. We are told, among other things, that the apartment is famous for being the first in the city to have an electric refrigerator. The wall text in the kitchen (available on paper translated into English) details at length Kirov’s eating habits. “His dinner usually included a pot of boiled buckwheat, baked potatoes and freshly salted cucumbers. He was also fond of Siberian ravioli and stewed meat.” We are told that Kirov enjoyed the service of only the best cooks, one of them “a former cook of a Grecian Queen.” Realistic-looking model food is spread on the kitchen table and visible through the half-open door of the famous refrigerator.

One only has to remember that from 1929 – 1935 (and then again during the war) food and consumer good rationing was in effect throughout the city, often making the acquisition of even the simplest staples for the kitchen impossible for many ordinary people. In the room next to the kitchen, the former maid’s room, museum visitors encounter the “Take What’s Given Game.” The players, as residents of Leningrad in the 1920s and 30s, can try to buy what rations they can afford depending on their status and the allowances available, and may “compare rations of workers, employees and leading employees, from the casts of baskets displayed on the shelves besides [sic] the game.” There is no mention of Kirov here, although we are in his apartment, and have just read at length about everything he enjoyed eating for dinner every night. Is the irony intentional, and understated, or simply absent? The fact that food rationing is presented in terms of a brightly colored game, and the room is decorated with the vibrant, persuasive propaganda posters of the time, creates an awful, chilling distance between the contemporary museum viewer and the actual suffering and sometimes starvation of scores of people in the past. If there is irony intended here (or perhaps some kind of dark humor ?), it is of the coldest kind.






            A very different kind of melancholy springs out of absence, rather than dissonance in museum arrangement and display strategies. The Kunstkammer is a truly haunted space in this respect. Although Peter the Great’s special collection of pickled fetuses and oddities deserves its own separate analysis, the melancholy of absence at issue here stems from the anthropological halls, filled to the brim with cultural artifacts. This part of the museum suffers from the affliction of most anthropological collections the world over: an uncomfortable, usually unspoken relationship to the brutality of the colonial project. In the Kunstkammer the sheer number of objects amplify the feeling: thousands and thousands of tools, bowls, plates, vases, combs, boxes, chests, figurines, rings, bracelets, dolls, hats, crowns, masks, shoes, continually recall the people who once touched and used them – these objects literally hold the shapes of thousands of absent hands now long gone. The high quality of the collection also feeds this intensity. These are some of the most stunning examples of human artistry and craftsmanship from  all over the globe. The ingenious human capacity for creativity on display here is breathtaking and moving. But the mind of the viewer inevitably returns to the maker of these wonders. One finds oneself asking: who on earth had the patience to embroider all of those fine details, string such tiny shells onto yards of fringe, whose fingers were delicate enough to create the intricate carvings, who had the skill to blow the weightless globes of glass, cast the filigreed bronze and gold? Of course, virtually nowhere are the makers of the objects identified by name. The circumstances under which these treasures passed from hand to hand and ended up here are totally obscure. The countless dresses, robes, pants, shirts, shrouds, and costumes now adorn motionless wax figures. They are clothes without bodies, posed in ways that outline what’s missing as starkly as the chalk outlines made by police at a crime scene. The Kunstkammer’s habit of sometimes organizing their displays not by peoples or cultures, but rather by Collectors and their collections also calls attention to the circumstances of their acquisition, which are never quite exactly described. Taken as a whole, the museum feels like a treasure chest stuffed with booty, the prize of conquerors and the violence that conquering inevitably involves. The Kunstkammer is of course not alone – this is the melancholy of anthropological display practices in most large state museums, unless exhibition is done with great care and attention to these problematics.

The melancholy of Absence took a very different turn when I stumbled across the Kresty Prison by accident. I had just been visiting the beautiful Museum of Bread on Ulitsa Mikhailova, when I turned right instead of left, and found myself by the Neva. It was cold and drizzling. Cars whizzed along the busy nab. Arsenalnaya, and no one on foot was about. I was drawn along the deserted sidewalk and soon realized I was walking past a looming, crumbling brick complex of buildings surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire. Some of the windows in some parts of the buildings looked broken or boarded up, other were intact, and looked perhaps recently replaced. All were covered with bars. I recognized it from photographs: Kresty prison, the place where countless people were taken and held during the Stalinist purges of the 1930’s, and where political prisoners in St. Petersburg continued to be taken into the 21st century. The prison, I learned, once housed a museum, now closed, in which visitors in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s could tour and take photographs of a mock solitary confinement cell, even as prisoners in other parts of the complex were simultaneously experiencing the realities of such confinement. Long notorious for overcrowding and a crumbling physical plant, widely publicized plans to finally move prisoners to a more modern and suitable facility were announced two years ago. An October 2014 article in the British Guardian newspaper displayed photos of a “new, modern” Kresty Prison being built, eerily with the exact same architectural design as the old one, minus the domed prison chapel in the center, and “the new buildings are double the height with eight floors instead of four.” However to date the new prison has yet to open and the old one is still in operation.

Along what was the “back” side of the prison, facing the Neva, I came across an entrance to a guard block, and almost passed by without noticing a small black plaque unceremoniously affixed to the wall. It caught my eye, however, and I took a closer look. It was inscribed with a small portrait of Anna Akhmatova, and it contained a section of verse. It was in Russian, without translation or explanation, but immediately I could guess that it might have been this part of her famous poem “Requiem” about the time she spent bringing packages and hoping to see her incarcerated son:


And if once, whenever in my native land,

They’d think of the raising up my monument,

I give my permission for such good a feast,

But with one condition – they have to place it

Not near the sea, where I once have been born –

All my warm connections with it had been torn,

Not in the tsar’s garden near that tree-stump, blessed,

Where I am looked for by the doleful shade,

But here, where three hundred long hours I stood for

And where was not opened for me the hard door.

Barely a monument, this plaque was a whisper of the past, in the location of a vanished museum, shrouded with the unfulfilled hopes of the prisoners within, that one day this place might be closed for good. When I turned my back to the prison and looked across the Neva I could see the golden spires of the what I guessed is the Tauride Palace, gleaming very dully, looking distant against the grey sky.





            But now I offer a counterpoint to all of this darkness. Because the often unsmiling countenance of this city is also of course, textured with a deep, nuanced, warmth and love. Countless museum encounters spring to mind. In the Pushkin House for example, an initially stern museum attendant scolded me at length about peering too closely at the vitrines (my breath fogged the glass), attempting to photograph the exhibits (despite my lack of flash), and leaving a paper cup on one of the display cases (it wasn’t mine I protested !– she didn’t care.) However, after my companions and I had been lingering and looking for a quarter of an hour or so, proving our sincere interest in the content perhaps, the same cranky museum attendant began to explain the exhibits to us one by one. She took us from case to case, and with increasing pride and detail she gave us accounts of the objects and their histories, told anecdotes about the featured writers, and encouraged me, finally to photograph a thing or two. And when I arrived after a trek through the rain at the luminous Vasily Dokuchaev Museum of Soil Science, a docent there touched my dripping hair and clasped my cold hands, insisted that I remove my cold things and gave me a sweater to wear as I looked at the museum. After I had spent an entrancing time admiring the exhibitions and was preparing to leave, we managed to have an engaged and lengthy conversation, despite the difficulties of very little shared language. And this kind of warmth and eagerness for  exchange of course was not limited to the realm of the museum but existed everywhere. In the communal banya, after initial hard stares and unintelligible (to me) scoldings by numerous old ladies, on my second and third trips the same group began to offer gentle encouragements and sign-language instruction, teaching me the fine points of wielding the venik and the proper order of sweating and scrubbing and soaking. Everywhere I felt strangers responding to my curiosity and shy friendliness with sincere warmth. Workers in the service sector seemed particularly moved by the readiness of my face to betray a gamut of emotion, and all sorts of waiters, shopkeepers, and cash register girls became kind friends, offering me advice, phone numbers, free cups of coffee and genuine interested conversation. What are you writing about? they wanted to know. What do you think about our city? What do you do at home? What is your family like? And they shared the same with me.

The artists that I met via the residency, and through the workshop I assisted at Chto Delat were remarkable for their generosity. The young students at the school were forthcoming, easily sharing their work and open to seeing what I was up to and trying new things. The mature, established artists who I met during my stay warmly invited me into their homes and studios, took time from very full and busy lives to share their work, and discussed their lives and struggles frankly and listened as I shared mine. Certainly there is a darkness here, as there is to every city. But there is also an extraordinary warmth that’s unique. It’s like the spectacular late afternoon light that slants across the wide open streets through breaks in the heavy clouds. Or like the way the grey chill of an October afternoon is dispelled by the steamy banya. As I prepare to leave St. Petersburg, what I’ll miss most is this mix of clouds and light, the tangle of darkness and deep warmth in this very special city.


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