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.


Scale: The Museum of Everyday Life Philosophy Department Encounters The Variable Properties of Big and Little

A few days ago I set out with clear intentions to cross the canal and make my way towards the Admiralty, my objective being the finale frontier of my museum-going adventures: the Hermitage, whose reputation generated a certain anxiety. “That place makes the Louvre look like a garage sale,” said a friend who spent a few months here. “You better give yourself more than a few days to see it.” I thought about that as I made my way through the city.

Things are big in St Petersburg. The width of the average street here is twice that of the common east coast American city. The blocks are improbably deep and streets are huge, broad, straight, and actually difficult to cross if you are in the wrong spot. Often you must walk the length of a (very) long block just to access a crosswalk. In this aspect they are inconvenient, but the sense of space that this openness and breadth affords is spectacular. A single person on foot becomes a dwarf, walking the streets of giants. It just doesn’t feel like walking down the street in, say, Chicago, where although a few streets are as wide and inexorably straight as in St Petersburg, the buildings are close to the street rather than set back, and they are tall. So even on the wide boulevards of Chicago the over-all effect is an emphasis on the skyline, the silhouette of buildings, rather than the sky itself. But here it’s all about the sky, maybe to remind all of us, the hapless population, of the ever-watchful eye of God (cue the gold-domed ubiquitous cathedral) or, ahem, of the ever-watchful State (cue the outsized palace on every corner, the Massive hulking state office buildings, cue the soaring monuments.)

In October, the wide dome of heaven is a heavy canopy of steel grey, and the biting damp air really penetrates when there’s nothing between you and the sky. With weather like this why on earth make these roads so wide and unsheltered? A helicopter passes overhead, and quickly a sinister answer comes to mind: I picture armies maneuvering easily in the wide streets, riot police controlling unruly mobs, stately troops parading in ceremonial dress. What State doesn’t love a wide avenue? And indeed there is “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide” here, even crossing the street in the wrong place means you are taking your life in your hands. But of course I allow that this isn’t the whole story. Because then, slightly to my surprise, I find myself inexplicably turning the wrong way, lured along the canal and before I knew it, heading towards the Summer Garden. (I think all along there had been something in the back of my mind about the Summer Palace, something maybe I had read a long time ago – that Peter the Great and his second wife Catherine had lived there while they were waiting for some other palace to be finished, and kept house there, chopping wood for the kitchen stove and tending to some animals and otherwise living the way ordinary people do??) In any case, some hazy notion of the everyday life of the Tsar was nudging me in that direction, and then suddenly there I am, standing at the entrance to the garden, golden oaks all in a row towering up in front of me. I step into the park and start down the path and immediately the magic starts to happen: despite the fact that every path in the garden is very broad, in the same outsized scale of everything else in this city, instead of feeling dwarfed and exposed the way I do on the street, I feel something different – the iron fences and hedges that line the walkways and the towering trees on both sides enclose and embrace me. In this garden the gigantic scale unexpectedly yields intimacy, protection!


Just a short journey down the walkway and I am transported out of the city and enveloped in another world. I’m still a dwarf, but a lucky one, who is wandering deeper and deeper into a theater stage set with green leafy set pieces that consecutively open up to reveal further layers of horizon. The ever-renewing surprise of the reveal works exactly because of the width of the walkways, their straightness, symmetry and the way each little fountain gives way to the next. It’s a weekday morning, it’s cold, and for the most part I feel as if I have the entire place to myself. But during the hour that I spend walking here, among the other people I see, on two separate occasions I pass two different middle-aged women, also walking alone, singing softly to themselves.The scale of the place allows for singing – the inconspicuous kind that goes unnoticed, the kind that floats gently up, accepted and absorbed into the sheltering vault of the trees.





Later the same day, in the museum of Printing, I have another encounter with St Petersburg’s extremes of scale, and the playful disorientation caused by juxtaposition of the Gigantic and the Miniature. I am ushered into the somewhat labyrinthine Museum through an unlikely door behind the counter of a bookshop. After an introductory room with displays about the city block in which the museum is housed, I am lead upstairs, across the hall into another apartment. Here I stand in the hallway and look into rooms that have been cordoned off, simulacra of how this exact apartment might have looked in the past. And partway down the hallway is a glass case containing a maquette of an apartment building much like this one, cut away to show how each floor of the building was arranged and decorated and how the floors were segregated by social class, with the poor inhabiting the attic and basement apartments, and the rich man (pictured seated at a vast table in lavish drawing room, being served a fine meal) occupying the middle floors. “You see – rich man, fat!” the lady museum attendant explains to me, pointing to the rich man. (I am the only visitor in the museum and she’s lavishing a lot of attention on me.) We laugh over the model of the apartment. “I would live up there!” I say, pointing to the poor people crammed up in the attic. “I – here!” she says giggling, pointing into the dark hovel of the basement. I feel the model inviting me to position myself – is this model showing this actual apartment building? I try to figure out where I am standing right now, but I am confused. It doesn’t seem to correspond. And the life-sized rooms seem to suggest one era, the decoration of the maquette a different one. In both the little and big versions I’m unclear about where I am in space and time.

My attendant friend leads me out and down some stairs, across a hall and through another door, which opens onto a strange cavernous room. One side of the room is completely empty. The other side has a rope barrier preventing the visitor from walking into it, and contains all kinds of old tools of the printing trade – platen presses, vandercook-style presses, cases of moveable type, guillotine paper-cutters and all of the rest, arranged in arbitrary order, one after the other, with just a little space between them. The room is otherwise unadorned, no informational texts, crumbling areas of the floor are marked by small red hazard cones. The grey afternoon light pours in through the windows. It feels as if someone just hauled all of this stuff in here when they were cleaning out the building, someone who didn’t know what to do with it but didn’t want to throw it all away. And incredibly, in a vitrine just in front of this display area, stands another maquette of this building, this time clearly including this exact room only in miniature! Initially I’m bemused. How funny to have the miniature directly next to the life-sized, the “real” thing! The museum attendant eagerly switches on the little lights inside the maquette so that I can see the detail. The miniature pressroom feels lively. There’s no human figures placed in the scene, but tiny rolls of paper unspool from the tiny press, and sheaves of loose newspaper pages and books are stacked untidily on one another, as if the workers have just stepped out for a moment. I can see past the little furniture pieces, through the little windows on the back wall of the model, through the back of the glass vitrine, the real, life-sized press hulking gigantically in the space “outside.” It’s as if the ghostly future of obsolescence hovers just outside the tiny living world, waiting to overcome it. In what way can I understand the reality of the different but parallel universes – the busy, productive miniature chamber of the model and the silent, unmoving life-sized printing press mausoleum? Then my cell phone rings. I bumble with my bag to grab it. As I fiddle with the buttons, trying to silence the ringing which is reverberating deafeningly in the half empty room, I suddenly see myself as if from above, a tiny figure in a maquette, enclosed in a vitrine, with the gigantic grey sky outside looking down on me, the broad future out there, the coming obsolescence of this age too, all of it shrunk down into a dollhouse that some future museum visitor might peer at, and laugh, recognizing something.



Recent Reflections from the Museum of Everyday Life’s Intrepid Philosophy Department: In Praise of The Diorama

It’s been a great pleasure to be able to get to know this city, and to have time enough to visit a number of the small and unusual museums here. After a marathon day of museum-going last week, I was moved to re-read Beth Lord’s great article, “Foucault’s Museum: Difference, Representation, and Geneology,” in which she describes the museum as a “heterotopia,” not only in terms of a space containing multiplicity of things belonging to different times and contexts, but also as a place for presenting, reflecting upon, and feeling the tensions in the relationship between ideas/interpretations and objects. Lord looks at Foucault’s discussion of museums as heterotopias and concludes:

Foucault’s definition of the museum as heterotopia is useful, firstly because it overcomes the problems of defining the museum exclusively in terms of objects, collecting practices, or methods of display that are historically contingent; it enables us instead to define it in terms of a philosophical problem that is part of the museum’s essence.

Thinking of the museum as a philosophical endeavor feels so appealing to me here in St Petersburg, this cold, stormy city (in October anyway), an improbable collage of different historical, cultural, and architectural layers upon layers. No doubt this sense of multiplicity is magnified because even the simplest street signs require of me a three-year old’s slow-motion phonetic deciphering of the cyrillic letters, giving me a more-often-than-anticipated thrill when the phonetic transliteration yields a word I recognize. (How surprised I was to discover words like “steakhouse,” “rive gauche” and “stress clinic” hidden underneath the unfamiliar shapes!)

My recent visits to Freud’s Dream Museum, The Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic, The Hygiene Museum, and the Anna Akhmatova Museum have provided lots of material for my jet-lagged brain to mash around in its groping, philosophical problem-exploration. I am drawn to Lord’s description of the gap that always opens up between the object and the idea: although museums are constantly in the business of assigning structures of meaning, logic, and hierarchy to objects, the museum by its very nature also draws attention to the space between the object and the assigned structure. Although Lord’s concerns are elsewhere, this interests me because it speaks to the peculiar properties of objects themselves, particularly their attributes as performers, characters with their own autonomous conjuring powers. I felt that I was encountering this over and over during my recent museum visits, particularly in relation to the use of the diorama.

The much-maligned natural history diorama has gotten some play recently in the news as certain aficionados and artists argue for their preservation and restoration, even as many American museums ditch their dioramas when updating their facilities or moving to new improved spaces. Dioramas, enjoying their heyday in the natural history museums of the 1920s and 30s, began falling out of favor many years ago, replaced by the interactive public-engagement displays of 1940’s-60’s as science museums tussled with natural history museums for position in the shaping of public discourse. But there are more kinds of dioramas than the natural history stuffed-animal variety, and there’s more to be said about them than simply their merits as works of art or nostalgic set pieces that “inspire wonder” in small children.

One of the young artists I met at a Chto Delat , when I tried to explain my interests, expressed skepticism that the “musty” display strategies of the “classical” museums have anything to offer someone thinking about contemporary, participatory, museum tactics. “What will you hope to see in these classical museums here?” he asked. Well, plenty, actually, starting with the diorama!

At the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic, dioramas pepper the exhibition halls on the first floor. But that’s not what caught my attention right away. Initially, I was struck by the contrast between the didactic aims of this museum vs the affective aims of what I had just seen previously. I visited the Arctic and Antarctic museum the morning after I had visited Freud’s Dream Museum, which got me thinking about the differences between a museum utterly devoted to Affect (the Dream Museum) versus one focused on the Didactic (the Arctic and Antarctic.) The Freud’s Dream Museum consists of two very small, elegant, rooms, one bright and one dark. The first room suggests the realm of the Conscious, delivering a minimum of information in orderly wall texts accompanied by photographs and one audio snippet of Freud giving a lecture played forwards and backwards in a loop. The second room draws the visitor down a long darkened passageway between two deep vitrines into the Unconscious realm of dreams, where dimly lit or eerily glowing objects only half-reveal themselves as you move inexorably towards a blank rectangle of light at the end of the passageway, a tabula rasa on which you can project whatever the dark room has inspired your mind to conjure. This is not a space whose aim is to teach you anything about Freud, or Psychoanalysis or even the interpretation of dreams. This is a space with all of its energy trained on creating an affective experience, encouraging the viewer to feel, experience, and become immersed in a state where language becomes merely a symbol linked to feelings (clearly you aren’t meant to be able to actually read the snippets of text on the scraps of notebook pages and old letters displayed in the vitrines of the dark room, and the phrases printed dimly on the glass front of those vitrines operate more as suggestive echos from the past than as carriers of information.) It’s all about textures and feelings at the Freud’s Dream Museum.

freuds-dream-museum[Freud’s Dream Museum: the edge of the bright room (Consciousness) leading into the dark room (the Unconscious)]

The Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic, however, is all about education, and its big, brightly lit rooms, neutral colored walls and orderly, sequential layout clearly reflected that. The bulk of the displays consist of clearly labeled artifacts in cases accompanied by large informational placards and graphics covering the walls. The placards were text heavy, with some exceptions, but even those included tables and charts conveying additional data about the explorers, the expeditions, the weather or environment.

info-photos-and-data-chart[Expedition photos with the ubiquitous data chart in the lower right hand corner.]

But in addition to the texts and information to be had everywhere, the exhibition halls are regularly punctuated with dioramas of varying scale. In some, tiny explorers stand on great snowy expanses next to little tents. In others, ships sit trapped by shelves of ice, or walruses sun themselves on rocks, or aquatic life swims and floats deep underneath thick layers of ice. The dioramas do not always seem to be directly related to the informational content surrounding them. Rather they serve as poetic visual breaks in the flow of text, immediately catching the eye and making clear the first undeniable property of a diorama: their story-telling power. Here each diorama is a theater containing a multiplicity of narratives. The plot-loving human brain can latch onto any of scores of details and start to construct a story – the way that figure is crouched there, perhaps he is about to go into to the tent? Why? Or is he peering into the crate of supplies next to the tent? What’s in the crate? Where are the tiny figures on skis in the distance going? What must it feel like to be cold all of the time?  Story after story suggests itself from the arrangement of figures in the enclosed three dimensional space. These stories don’t necessarily illustrate the information provided in the texts, but punctuate, interrupt, and enhance, by adding story to the parade of facts.

The miniature nature of all but one of the dioramas also quickly suggests another of the diorama’s charms: smallness invites us to lean in, to enter into the environment, the story, to be immersed in a sensory, tactile kind of way that informational text can’t always manage.





The Museum of Hygiene is another museum not of Affect but of Argument, but with a further lean deep into the territory of the Artifact. The bulk of the exhibits here are artifact-centered, and the clusters of objects in cases, vitrines, on walls, pedestals and tables are devoted to delivering their pedagogical message. The didactic aim is clear from the start, to promote improved understanding of health and healthy behaviors in the public. I was even issued a pair of plastic slippers that I was required to don, in order to keep the museum sanitary! (Ok, I think they really were to protect the beautiful floors, but I couldn’t help making the connection with the sterile shoe covers surgeons and nurses are required to wear in the operating room…)


This museum also contains dioramas, which function differently, but equally as powerfully as the ones in the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic. Unlike in the former museum, the dioramas in the Hygiene museum are not deployed throughout the exhibition halls, but displayed together in one spot on a series of shelves arranged vertically, reminiscent of a many-storied dollhouse. Each individual diorama addresses a particular health behavior. In one, a small doll stands at a sink washing her hands while an oversized fly hints at the possible pestilence she may have come in contact with. In another, a nude doll takes a shower. In another, a doll sleeps in a bed near a window (letting in some fresh air?) In another, a table is set with a balanced meal ready to eat. Unlike the arctic dioramas which functioned as individual stories, these Hygiene dioramas operate as a set, telling the single coherent story of a healthy lifestyle. And so cute! So pretty! Each “room” offers a colorful, inspiring vision with all the attractive powers of a talisman or good luck charm. They encourage the gaze of the viewer to move from one to next, gaining strength as they accumulate, almost like beads on a rosary. Here I felt the power of the miniature not only drawing me in, but stringing me along, following the story through to its inevitable goal: good health – simple! easy! achievable! The miniature a space that is endearing, manageable, possible, and thus inspirational.

(Yet I also really enjoyed their individually oddness, too. Why is that fly so big? Why is the balanced meal so forlornly without eaters ? )





taking a shower.jpg

balanced-mealIn contrast, the Akhmatova Museum, which consists of the preserved rooms of her apartment, plus an additional single room of display cases filled with miscellany – ID cards, first editions of her poetry collections, handwritten notes, photos, etc. But surprisingly, here again I immediately returned to the idea of the diorama, because walking through each room of the Akhmatova apartment really felt like walking through the frozen theater of a diorama display. It was as if I had been shrunk down toy-sized and allowed to walk through the front door of a dollhouse, take in the furniture, the details, and encounter the events about-to happen or having-just-happened suggested by the arrangement of objects. But all this as a stranger, unable to touch or manipulate or make any kind of mark of the living on the place. The tableaux (“recreations” of the rooms per photographs and the memories of interviewees who had visited there) were also set up in a way that magnified their diorama-ness. Each mise -en-scene was clustered rather lopsidedly on one side or the other of the room, usually cordoned-off by a piece of string to prevent the spectator from entering any particular “setting” too intimately.

I usually find “house” or “apartment” museums which turn famous people’s homes into tourist destinations disappointing; often the set-up is stiff and lifeless, the homes looking so like unlike homes – empty of any resonance. But at the Anna Akhmatova museum this eerie lifeless effect worked totally in its favor, making this (like the Freud’s Dream Museum) a museum of Affect more than anything else. Here the diorama of each room spoke to the history of mounting absences in Akhmatova’s life – of companions, family members, freedom – which became palpable in the haunted, lifeless but life-sized dollhouse rooms. In contrast to the endearing, attractive power of minitaturization at play in the Hygiene dioramas, each room of the Akhmatova enjoyed the magnifying supernaturalizing power of the gigantic. Here the autonomy and affective power of the objects were in full force. Insignificant things – an ashtray, a coat, a pile of books, a stack of suitcases and trunks – became engines of feeling because of their inevitable conjuring of what was missing: the body absent from the coat, the hands no longer holding a burning match at the edge of the ashtray, the manuscript in flames vanished, not even ashes left behind. I found it uncanny how at this scale, the objects in the “diorama” were performers of absence, loss, grief (and resistances, too).

On the other hand, perhaps as a puppeteer I am just more susceptible to objects, and vulnerable to their performative ability than most people. But as I lingered, photographing the front door of the apartment, I watched three young women in their twenties leave the museum, whispering together. They stopped to write something in the visitor’s notebook that sat on a little table in the stairwell, and one of them bit her lip, and wiped a tear away. So I think I’m ready to argue that there’s still something to be said for the musty old diorama, in all of its various forms.