June 16, 2019

Russian Museums Get a Reboot

Russian Museums Get a Reboot
Think this looks cool? Imagine it surrounding you in virtual reality.  The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center

As soon as I emerged from the 20-minute main exhibit at the Yekaterinburg History Museum, the older woman who checked our tickets rushed over to show us an electronic book. She proudly told us that there were only six like it in all of Russia, and flipped through it carefully for us. Each page lit up with animated scenes of the city’s past.

The woman was equally excited about showing us a 15-minute-film. The only problem was some technical difficulties; the next thing I knew, another older woman was up on a ladder messing with the projector, and we were invited to check out the special exhibits in the meantime. Once they got it working, they came to find us. “Please do not get up until the curtains open,” she said with a smile. “Everything works automatically.”

Yekaterinburg History Museum virtual map
The Yekaterinburg History Museum also features a panorama of the city that you control from a screen, with the option to toggle between historical and modern views. / TripAdvisor

Automatic, technologically advanced, multimedia: these are common themes in Russia’s modernizing museums.

The biggest example is a new chain of “museums,” with nearly-identical exhibits in 19 Russian cities, called “Россия – моя история (Russia Is My History).” Museums is in quotation marks because they actually call themselves “historical parks,” given the fact that the exhibits entirely consist of multimedia technology, without any artifacts or documents.

Russia Is My History has proved to be extremely popular. claims that. An announcement on the website claims that as of last April over 5.5 million people – that would be nearly one out of 25 Russian citizens – have already visited the parks since they first opened in Moscow in 2013. One of those visitors was Vladimir Putin, whose commentary is the first visitor review displayed on the website: “The exposition gives an objective picture of the history of our country, with all its victories, achievements and problems.”

Putin isn’t your average visitor for more reasons than just being the President of Russia. His administration is a direct partner of the project. As is clearly displayed on the website, so are institutions like Gazprom, the state-owned media outlet TASS, and the Russian Orthodox Church; the Patriarch Council for Culture actually came up with the idea for the original exhibit on the Romanovs. 

The museum is about as “objective” as you can probably imagine given partners like that. Think: egregiously incorrect statements like “After the fall of the USSR, Russia became the only [post-Soviet] country that was able to significantly speed up the growth of the economy.” By the way, English language speakers, you are out of luck; the only time I noticed the Latin alphabet in the 1945-2016 exhibit was in a display of “anti-Soviet propaganda.” Like Time Magazine.

Anti-soviet propaganda
Touch to reveal "anti-Soviet propaganda." Although for some reason it only works with the palm of your hand, and even then not so well. / Katrina Keegan

The technology aspect of it was just as disappointing. For starters, the touch screens on several of the interactive displays of the one I visited in Novosibirsk were not very sensitive, and it was difficult or impossible to get some information because of it. 

More significantly, the use of technology was repetitive and mundane. The About Us page of the website claims to transform history “from the category of a black-and-white textbook,” but actually the museum’s presentation was extraordinarily reminiscent of a life-sized textbook. Each hall started with a “what you will learn” section, and included predictable elements like timelines that you could swipe left and right on a screen, and topics you could click on to read paragraphs of information; there wasn’t even any audio in the 1945-2016 exhibit, aside from one video about Yeltsin and some vaguely patriotic background music.

Where to stand Russia is my history museum
The museum is even repetitive and controlling with its signs on the floor, indicating where exactly you must stand. / Katrina Keegan

Luckily, there are some amazing high-tech museums in Russia, albeit less politically expedient. New museums like the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow and the Yeltsin Museum in Yekaterinburg use multimedia not just to hold visitors’ attention for hours, but to help them understand the topics through immersive experiences.

The Jewish Museum, which opened in 2012, starts with an experience as immersive as modern technology gets: virtual reality. A scientist sends you to Solomon’s temple (the seats shake during the “journey”), where you can look all around in 3D at chatting, robed men (and pots) while listening to a historian.

Technology continues to enhance the museum through interactive maps, opportunities to listen to people tell their stories or give their opinion on tough questions, a huge curving screen that thrusts you into a documentary about the Holocaust, and even the opportunity to peek into a late-Soviet Jewish apartment, where holograms go about their lives. The Tolerance Center provides a large number of individual touchscreens with headphones, giving people an opportunity to think through what tolerance means to them.

Hologram Jewish Museum Moscow
Stepping into a quiet moment of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. / Katrina Keegan

The Yeltsin Museum, opened in 2015, also uses modern technology to great effect – most memorably to display video footage of the August 1991 coup on floor-to-ceiling screens behind a recreation of homemade barricades – but its best moments use low tech to recreate the atmosphere of the 1990s.

Yeltsin museum coup
The closest I will ever come to feeling like I was on the streets in August 1991. / Katrina Keegan

The same 1991 coup can also be experienced in a recreated Soviet apartment, with the notorious Swan Lake playing on TV to block the news, and an incessantly ringing turn-dial phone, which you can pick up to hear worried conversations. You can look at documents from the second term of Yeltsin’s presidency on blocky 90s-era computers loaded with the corresponding version of Windows. In the final room, you can watch Yeltsin’s famous December 31, 1999, resignation on an old TV in a recreation of the president’s office. (P.S.: Read more about the museum in the July 2016 issue of Russian Life.) 

Yeltsin museum resignation office
Sometimes, the less fancy the technology, the more impact it has. / Katrina Keegan

Far from every Russian museum has updated with high-tech elements, and of course it is easier to integrate it into brand-new, well-funded museums than to go back and include in every little local museum. However, given the popularity of “Russia Is My History,” and the possibilities explored by cutting-edge Jewish and Yeltsin Museums, I hope someday soon the woman at the Yekaterinburg History Museum will proudly say not “we have one of only six,” but “we were one of the first of many.” 

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