Tuesday, 15 November 2016




This installment of Musings Abroad finds yours truly finally escaping the heat (!) of southern Russia to visit the chilly and prim Saint Petersburg. It is the kind of city one would love to get lost in, and in fact one has no choice, because this city is a tangled web of imposing baroque, neoclassical and art nouveau structures flanking winding avenues. Wandering through the streets, you have the choice of either being spit out at the waterfront, or along Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main pedestrian artery. The city is a hipster paradise, although this is not a surprise as the city's founder, Peter the Great, was a bit of a hipster himself. But more on this another time.

After hours of deliberations, they decided not to help us. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016
If the Toronto subway is George R. R. Martin, stopping constantly to the consternation of millions, then the St. Petersburg subway is Hunter S. Thompson. After a few days of arriving at our destination exhilarated and dazed, we decided to look closer to home for a cultural experience. Happily, my fiancĂ© and I were staying a few days with his great aunt in a cozy apartment in the city. As we wolfed down home-made borscht, I thought about all that she had seen in her years growing up in the city, known then as Leningrad. My parents were Billy Joel fans, which probably explains a lot about me, so I already harboured half-formed notions of Leningrad, mostly involving vodka and clowns. Thankfully, I was about to be set straight. 

Ominous subway doors at Moscovskaya Station, Saint Petersburg. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016

The plans were set in Russian, so I didn't have much of an idea where we were going as we headed down Moskovskye Avenue. However, the obelisk of Victory Square is not hard to miss, and it was not long until we were upon the "Monument to Heroic Defenders of Leningrad", a memorial museum dedicated to the victims and survivors of the Siege of Leningrad, a 900-day ordeal that cost the lives of over a million Russians in the Second World War. The monument is imposing and beautiful- a towering obelisk at the foot of a shallow recess in the shape of a horseshoe. The recess is encircled by a jagged broken ring, symbolizing the breaking of the Siege in 1944. Around the ring, several eternal flames burn orange. Soft classical music plays. The effect is sobering, but the music is somehow reassuring rather than trying to evoke sorrow. The memorial is as much a testament to strength as it is to loss.

Inside the circular recess at the Memorial to the Defenders of the Siege of Leningrad. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016

The broken ring symbolizing the end of the Siege, with the obelisk in the background. The doorway on the right is the museum exit. The entrance is directly in front of the exit on the other side. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016
On each side of the horseshoe, visitors enter and descend a dark staircase lined with lights made from original shell casings recovered after the Siege. The interior is dark and forbidding, like a tomb. Adorable babushki (elderly women) liven the space up considerably, descending upon us from all directions and asking if we'd like to watch a video about the Siege. After the video was done, a woman approached us excitedly and asked if we'd like to watch another video. After that video, we were induced to watch a third. 

The staircase to the museum, lined with shell casing lights. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016

Shell casing lights with the 'hero-cities' listed underneath: the Russian cities that did not fall in the Second World War. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016
Seeing that things had gotten out of hand, we tried to get away but there was no use; our personal tour guide led us through the memorial, pointing out and explaining the significance of each artifact one by one. My companion dutifully translated everything to me: a gear pulled from a machine by starving and desperate citizens and boiled down for the pork fat used to lubricate the spokes; the diary of a little girl chronicling the death of each of her family members until she too faded away; the 125 gram piece of "bread" (a mix of inferior flours and a silicate filler) that served as the daily ration for citizens working upwards of 16 hours a day manufacturing shells in intolerably cold temperatures. I realized that some of the babushki could very well have been children during the Siege. It was incredible to learn about these tragic artifacts from these bubbly and utterly matter-of-fact guides. 

A helpful guide. Each marble pillar holds artifacts devoted to different aspects of war and civilian life during the Siege. Behind, a mural depicting life during the Siege. On the other side, a near-same mural depicts the liberation in 1944. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016

A wee piece of "bread" with weights equaling 125 grams. On the right, a rations card, necessary for survival. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016
It is rare to visit a memorial site of over a million victims, whose story is one of victory. Exiting the museum, one emerges behind the obelisk onto a square flanked by sculptures of victorious men and women raising their hands in the sky, cheering and holding each other in relief. It was impossible not to share a bit of their joy in that moment, as well.

Inside the museum, looking toward the Liberation mural. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016
As nations continue to slowly turn to face the dark aspects of their history, the line between memorial and museum is drawn by current affairs. Sometimes the only victory we have is our ability to tell our story through the darkness, and to be heard. To tell it and to be heard is an important and symbolic action of agency and the reclamation of power. Museums making an effort to include the stories of the marginalized and overlooked understand this. And yet, to tell and retell our experiences is also a sign of deep trauma; like the Ancient Mariner, the individual feels they must repeat the story, so convinced they are that no one is listening, or no one will believe them. How can we help people tell their stories as a path toward their healing, rather than in order to heal museums' reputations?

Men and women emerge from the underground, wondering what will come next. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016
Many of us might think that the trends adopted by progressive museums will have resounding, and perhaps even immediate and measurable effects. However, museums have taken their actions for granted before. The truth is, we have undertaken a great challenge to redefine the sector, and only the greatest understanding and courage will turn the boat around, so to speak. Therefore, emerging museum professionals, brace yourselves for the new chartered course. Expect delays. Get resourceful, imaginative and determined. If you aren't making waves, you are doing something wrong. Our museums of inclusiveness are still in their infancy, and unforeseen challenges are ahead. If we prevail, then when we are old, we too can speak excitedly of the past and the future.

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