Battleship games, sewing machines, stores, retreats, and Gautama Buddha: some museum reinvention strategies based in backyards or in a territory five times as big as Belgium.


Battleship games, sewing machines, stores, retreats, and Gautama Buddha: some museum reinvention strategies based in backyards or in a territory five times as big as Belgium.


In terms of bitterness, nothing beats the memories of my own proposals seven years ago. I went down the road of disillusionment.
—I am a museum custodian. I keep showing things and telling things. It was the funniest at the very start. We had this basement in the south-east of Moscow, which was open once a week, from 7.20 PM to 10 PM. And there would be people trying to reach us from Argentina and begging us to open on Tuesday because they had only two days in Moscow and the museum was on their bucket list. The night of the opening, we had exactly seven visitors, and two TV crews, Channel One and NTV, were competing to get them into the picture.

At first, I wanted to install the Battleship machine at home, but it was taking up too much space and there was no place left for a second device. So we used the garage and showed it to some friends. They said, "Wow, let’s play! Don’t stop!" But we felt awkward bringing friends to garage exhibitions, so we had to make a real museum.

The public that we had in mind were in their thirties or forties, people that had childhood experiences of the arcade machines and remembered them fondly. After three years, when we did a visitor study, we discovered that 70% of our core audience had never seen arcade machines before. And yet, people came to spend their time with us. Students, teenagers, young families, lots of international tourists. We wanted to treat them to a programme on innovative new technologies, because our museum is not about heritage, but rather about creative engineering. Forty years ago, these machines represented the pinnacle of engineering invention.
—Last year, we became involved with private museums. It was not our first priority to make a clear distinction between real museums and, to use the words of Tatyana Gafar, "pragmatic calculation and museum brand exploitation aimed at obtaining tangible benefits." At the initial stage, we were concerned with the people out there in the regions where some life was still flickering, people that all of a sudden decided to invest their earnings into projects of their own invention. Honestly, we did not care what they were doing. Our concern was with why they were doing it. Assumptions were voiced that museums were a lucrative business, "A friend of mine closed his vodka store and opened a museum, it must be worthwhile." Truth be told, museums are social businesses that imply no excess profits but do require acts of heroism. A seamstress that comes from a tailoring family sells her home, gets several bank loans, restores a historical building, sets up shop there and all of a sudden turns it into a museum because she has a hundred and fifty historical sewing machines. "I'll come through," she says. "Yes, I do have a loan to repay, but I am working, I still do sewing." "And are there any profits in the museum?" — "What are you talking about, it is pure joy!" There are several reasons combined: from the commonplace desire to be useful and make a difference to the wish to socialise a hobby. On top of that, there are family traditions, although this kind of heritage may well put people in trouble. With the father gone, the son is struggling, he has no idea about the enterprise that landed in his lap. And yet, he carries on and makes a sincere effort. Regional NGOs are always people-oriented, they think of benefits and solidarity. Culture is just a useful tool for them, and there is nothing wrong in this approach.
—Regional museums in Russia are giants with ten feet burdened with distant branches that take five hours to reach — the same amount of time it takes to cross all of Israel or five Belgiums. I might be wrong to bring in geography, but geography did not die after Jacques Paganel. It plays a big role in the work of administrative monsters, atavisms of Soviet museology such as local history museums. Our aim is to find a mode of sustainable, structural development that would enable our many branches to live together without stepping on each other’s feet. To put it bluntly, today we are like a fire brigade that has to extinguish troubles all the time.

On the other hand, museums are very conservative. A local history museum is a multi-specialty patchwork quilt made up from 40 collections and 640,000 storage units. I am not even sure any of them may be perceived as true collections in terms of conscious, representative selection of exhibits. The point is, what is it that we want to preserve and what are the criteria for acquisitions? Are we really accessible for researchers, and who are these researchers: scientists? Civil scientists? Local historians? Who has the access and the will to work with the items we store? We obviously represent an asset for society, but does it really need us? Who are we working for, if not for ourselves?

In Perm, the Museum of Contemporary Art plays the same role as the Yekaterinburg History Museum in a neighbouring city founded in the same year, 1723. It is a dynamic space that enables state-of-the-art communication on urgent, relevant issues, including those concerning the environment. It shapes the agenda and inspires a meaningful debate. As for us, having the floor space equal to five Belgiums, we are mostly focused on accumulating reports from forty three municipal museums that we are supposed to supervise methodologically. It is a big responsibility, supervising an entire region. We have to take care of many different audiences and find the opportunities for working with non-museum people.
—The best-case scenario is centred on consumer markets and services. If a compromise between the format-oriented technocracy and hypothetical museums is indeed possible, it will be located in the lobby. A store, an updated and expanded list of services and amenities, a client-oriented approach. This scenario implies an erosion of content and a transformation of museums into multifunctional centres of sorts, where an exhibition is just a variety of government service. Museums are getting absorbed by the education, healthcare and culture unit. We are growing increasingly similar to medical centres and schools, and museum workers are numbered among other public servants. It is nice and easy to think of museum visits as a variety of medical check-ups. This notion is translated into policy documents and executive orders. It would be nice to analyse their wording: how they dwell on services or customization. The trend is to make everything client-oriented, although the client in question is the supervisor, not the visitor. This is where the catch lies: whenever we are told to think more of the ordinary people, the real meaning is that we must be sensitive to the requests of the authorities and efficiently streamline the implementation of their ideas, as they have already seen a variety of museum lobbies in other countries. Top-down modernisation along the usual lines.
—I believe we have to cast aside the narrative of ‘mains' and ‘bests' to focus on meaningful diversity. On museum issues that matter for children and society in general, because children are a part of society. Eventually they will grow up and play a role.
—For the last thirty years, the Krasnoyarsk Museum Centre has been a relevant place for contemporary art in the region, and for the past four years this art has been busy linking to local contexts. Since 2016, we are more active locally, engaging with young art and young audiences. We are looking out for new people, new artists and new artistic lifestyles in the region of Krasnoyarsk.

We have long been working on the main exhibition, but today we are venturing out to explore the technical corridors, the inside of our Soviet-era building. We have even made a WWII exhibition in one of the technical corridors.

In the future, we are contemplating a return to the work patterns of the 1990s when everyone was in need of a shelter: the country had just collapsed, the future was unsure, and everyone who was slightly different, be they freaks or buddhists, found it especially hard to fit in. Well, in the museum they could sit on a bench, talk about Gautama Buddha or just think quietly. In the 2000s the scheme was revised: we focused on showcasing high-end art brought from the capital or from abroad. "We are coming to civilise the provinces, and you have to study Agamben or Deleuze before you come. If you haven’t read these works, this is not our problem." In the near future, there are going to be no blockbuster shows in regional museums because there is no money. Therefore, no queues at the entrance. I believe we have an opportunity to transform the museum into a place of care, a shelter from anxieties. The easiest way to do it is to allow free access.
—One of the recent trends is the notion of wellbeing, a subjective perception of life quality. My Facebook feed is full of art practices, psycho practices, and yoga practices. It seems to be the response to the restructuring of life and the relentless exploitation of precariat: whatever you do, you have to be available for it 12 to 14 hours a day, there is no quality family time left. Hence, the need for reboots, retreats and such like. When we first launched the Museum Retreat project, everyone was trolling me, and today people are setting up retreats in universities as well.
—A museum is a cool thing that enables you to shape the agenda while being anchored to something well-documented — not a myth, not an artificial construction, not an executive order or client brief. Something evidence-based. In science, they use experiments, and in museums the equivalent is in material or immaterial heritage. It is actually very nice to be a museum because you can rely on a credit of public trust. Everyone trusts a museum.
—I have been working in museums for twenty four years. And today, I see absolutely no point in it. I am very grateful for all the kind words I hear in private conversations, but it does not help. Without a central core, it is all just a load of crap. Consuming one kind of art with one set of messages and connotations, and then shaking hands with ogres and tucking into a different kind of art and connotations with the same gusto and smile. Because this is entertainment, and it has a clear set of criteria. I have to admit that I work in the service industry. Had I spent twenty four years in a school or university, it would have been much different. But alas.
Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines:
The Battleship machine (Morskoi Boi) is the most recognised of all children’s arcade games of the Soviet era. Read more on the museum website.
Tatyana Gafar is an art historian and museum manager, deputy director of the Tretyakov Gallery and board member of some of Russia’s top private foundations.
The Museum of Sewing Machines is a private enterprise combined with a textile shop that is based in a 1917 embroidery factory building in the historical town of Pereslavl-Zalessky: website.
About the exhibition:
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