Is there in today’s Minsk a museum so unique that it can compete with the collections of world famous museums? We can hardly expect a positive answer. Among European countries, Belarus suffered most in terms of war and plunder, thus there is a drastic lack not only of works of art by world famous artists, but even mere antiques.
So, is the appearance of unique, competitive collections conceivable in Belarus? Actually, it is, but not as a result of attempting to create another Louvre. No matter how much money and effort we invest, such an attempt would result not in a Louvre or a Hermitage but, at best, a bad provincial copy of a large imperial museum. An alternative could be to look for unique museum collections that would suit a universal format, but at the same time be rooted in the country’s historical landscape.
Ruzhany Palace, western Belarus, part of the country’s historical landscape. Photo: Ghirlandajo. Source:Wikimedia
A Sun City of Dreams, a unique urban ensemble of the communist epoch in Minsk, can be named as one of the most interesting objects in this country and was, a long time ago, given the status of a museum – an architectural reserve under the open sky. This phenomenon is not “communist”, but rather “capitalist”, a promising business project, which has every chance of becoming a famous tourist brand in Europe, assuming it is correctly promoted.
Unfortunately, in recent years, the opposite has happened: we are losing this object to chaotic downtown development; the integrity of the ensemble is being destroyed. However, despite the rise of the uncontrolled chaos, A Sun City of Dreams still potentially remains the most interesting museum-like object, a reliable and unique source of urban capital.
We do not have to commence giant construction works, but only to do two basic things: to save the city and to create a museum-disneyland on its territory. However, not another disneyland, similar to that in Europe, but the authentic, unique Disneyland. The city needs new museums and partial reconceptualization of those that already exist.
Let us mentally reformat Minsk’s museum map to make it match the tourist brand of A Sun City of Dreams. We should probably start with the country’s main museum.
The museum as a representation of power
We have inherited most contemporary Belarusian museums from the Soviet regime. Those few new institutions that arose during the time of independence merely became a continuation of the same Soviet discourse. If we put aside the ideological (communist, Marxist) components, the essence of the Soviet system of museums boils down to the colonial model.
Among these there are several strong imperial museums in St Petersburg (the Hermitage) and Moscow (the State Tretyakov Gallery, the State Historical Museum), which were inherited by the USSR from the Russian Empire. Then there are a large number of much less interesting clones in every big city of the Soviet Union. There is a network of ethnographic (local history) museums that, again, have a colonial function, as their goal was to explore ethnic groups and cultures captured by the empire, as well as a number of thematic museums that can be skipped, because of their lack of social significance. In this system, purely ideological museums (for example, the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow) can be seen as forming a separate group; they were reformatted or disappeared with the change of ideology. And then there are so-called museums of elegiac memory, where exhibitions are linked to the events of World War II.
The Big Imperial Museum is the main embodiment of the idea of what a museum is all about, as conceived in the mass consciousness, not only of post-Soviet countries, but also of the whole so-called “Old World”. Asking a random passer-by in Minsk what they consider to be an exemplary museum, you are likely to hear about the Louvre, the Prado, the Hermitage, the British Museum. These, the most famous collections in the world, were created in the metropolises of great empires and were essentially formed as a cabinet of curiosities, which stored valuable artefacts looted in numerous colonies.
Imperial museums did not only represent the power and majesty of the metropolis, but were also one of their essential attributes, not least as tangible evidence of territorial expansion. But the time of empires has passed. Societies have been reformatted. However, the imperial museums remain an obsolete relic of those times, having turned themselves into one huge artefact of colonial peoples’ past. The question of reformatting imperial museums, which is not possible without restitution, without returning the loot to descendants of former colonial peoples, is for obvious reasons not on the agenda and will hardly ever arise.
Western societies have been reformatted, but apparently not to the extent that they are prepared to voluntarily return certain treasures to their former owners. Rather, this issue is a headache for the former colonies themselves; however, it is a problem without any chance of being solved, even in the long run. There again, it is not the moral aspect of the existence of big imperial museums that is important for us here, but the fact that today, in western societies, the intellectual search has shifted towards museums of another type. Those old imperial monsters were to become the museum-disneyland for millions of tourists.
The museum as a representation of power – 2
How does the unreformed map of Belarusian museums look today? It fully duplicates the same colonial scheme. A big, but provincial clone of the imperial museum with many multifaceted (as many as 17!) collections, where the role of antiquity is performed by Chinese art of the nineteenth century (in the National Art Museum). The museum of local history and ethnography (the National History Museum), which is supposed to give an impression of the customs and the way of life of the local aborigines, nevertheless fails to fulfil this function. Beside the main exhibition, scattered between the floors, some smaller exhibitions able to cater to every taste have been created: ranging from that about “tiny green crocodiles” to another about “chocolate bears.”
We also have a large museum of “elegiac memory”, restored in the new building, (the Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War), a few smaller ones, and a lot of mysterious departmental museums, hidden somewhere in the city outskirts. Perhaps the most mysterious of them is the Ancient Belarusian Culture Museum, based on the collections of the National Academy of Sciences, which, judging by the stories of a few witnesses, hosts a fantastic collection of Belarusian art that an ordinary person has no chance of seeing.
If the country’s main museums concern the representation of power, then what power today does the National Art Museum represent, with its eclectic exhibition of a bizarre mix of Sarmatian portraits, porcelain figurines, socialist realist works of art, Ivan Shishkin’s landscapes and Peredvizhniki (“The Wanderers”) artists’ sketches. Speaking of power, we do not mean its personification, but ontological nature, that is, the concept of an independent country’s sovereign power.
Each power requires legitimization. The proto-museum actually emerged not as a collection of beautiful banknotes, but namely as one of the means of legitimizing power, a collection of material evidence of the sovereign’s rights to a particular territory. Each baron aspired to have such a proto-museum in the form of a family heirloom, as a gallery of ancestors’ portraits and other “holy relics”. For a monarch, the best legitimization was that granted to him by God. But even possessing “God’s patent”, he had to have tangible proof of his family tree, if not dating back to the ancient Romans, then at least to the Vikings.
Today, in most countries of the world, the people are sovereign, or this is at least claimed to be so. The main state museum still remains the necessary attribute of an independent country, the tangible evidence of its legitimacy. This does not necessarily have to contain a large and random collection of valuable antiques. A museum is a text, and in this case a sacred one, the materialization of collective memory and a message addressed to the descendants. The essence of this message does not have to claim that we too have the Russian artist Shishkin. Its goal is to witness the legitimacy of the sovereign (people), to bring its rights to certain areas, through historical artefacts that materialize his family tree – not to the seventh, but to a much earlier generation.
Without this material evidence, the sovereign’s (or the people’s) legitimacy will always remain questionable. Especially in the eyes of our eastern neighbour, for whom the Belarusians and the Ukrainians still lack the status of a people in their own right, with their territories seen as colonies. This is where the concept of an urgent need to reformat the country’s main museums comes from. Everything that has nothing to do with the main text should be omitted from it. All that contributes to sacralization and legitimization of the sovereign must be taken from the museum stores and be shown to create a clear readable message.
Through works of art, a path should trace the route from the Vikings, Krivichies and Yatvingians to the early Middle Ages, through the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to Rzeczpospolita, through the nineteenth century to Chaim Soutine and Marc Chagall. Only really worthwhile artefacts of the Soviet era should be left in the main body of the text, whereas the things that do not fit can become part of separate exhibitions (for example, in a foreign art gallery). If in this big “puzzle”, some individual elements are missing today, efforts should be made to get them.
Of course, Soutine’s or Chagall’s original works cost a lot. But it is a lot of money for an individual person, not for the state. The things that happen to be omitted from the main text can comprise a great collection of works of art, which are worth displaying in a separate exhibition, probably within the National Museum, in order to avoid arguments when dividing up property.
Speaking of the Soviet legacy, at the moment it does not represent power (the power of the country’s sovereign) at all, and even seen as a material substratum of collective memory, it can be considered as such only for the ageing generation. Nevertheless, these works have an indisputable value, albeit not so much for us, but for the viewer from abroad. In Belarus, unfortunately, there are only a few of Chagall’s works, but we possess really unique collections of the Soviet art, in which interest is steadily growing throughout the world. It would be foolish not to take advantage of this heritage and not to make a major separate exhibition out of it, to create a new museum – that of Socialist Realism.
Such a museum would not have any claim to the sacred memory, but be part of a larger business project, one of the most important elements of a touristic museum-disneyland. This is exactly what the new location of A Sun City of Dreams lacks so much. However, to render a tourist brand of A Sun City of Dreams effective, to make a person want to stay here not for a day, but longer, the city demands not two, but several unique museums. Let us try to take a walk across the first top-five museums of the imaginary Minsk Disneyland.
TOURISTIC MINSK: TOP MUSEUMS
© The National Art Museum modified
The displays cover a thousand-year history of Belarusian art from pagan stones to this day. Its function is to represent the country’s sovereign, to materialize people’s collective memory. Omitting most of the works of the Soviet classics and Russian Faberge eggs would make the main concept more obvious. For the guests of the Belarusian capital it would be much more interesting to see Uladzimir Cesler and Siarhiej Vojcanka’s Project of the Century. Reinforced by original Chagall paintings, the exposition of the museum would enjoy nothing but success.
© The Museum of Socialist Realism and Sots Art
The displays would be formed from the collections of the National Art Museum, the Memorial Museum-Studio of Z. Azgur and the M. Savitsky Art Gallery, together with works taken from other private and public collections (not necessarily Belarusian ones), monumental sculpture, architectural projects, posters and photographs of the Soviet epoch. Its function is that of a business project, the museum-disneyland which first of all targets a foreign audience. It would be important to enrich the collection with the works of the world famous non-Belarusian Soviet classics (Aleksandr Deyneka, Boris Ioganson, Dmitriy Nalbandyan, etc.). The final displays (for the purposes of creating a counterpoint) can show works of Sots Art from the 1980 and 1990s (Komar and Melamid, Ilya Kabakov, Dmitri Prigov, Alexander Kosolapov and others). Also, in addition to permanent displays, an important role can be played by large retrospective exhibitions of classics of both Socialist Realism and Sots Art.
© The Utopia Museum, or the Museum of Communism
An interactive exhibition would address about five hundred years of the evolution of the communist idea, from its appearance in Europe (Tommaso Campanella, Thomas Moore) to the present day. A separate section would be devoted to the attempt to implement the communist project in the Soviet Union. An important part would be the Gulag and repression in the Byelorussian SSR. The House of the 1st Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party could also become a part of the museum.
The Utopia Museum (Communism) would be an absolutely innovative institution not only in Belarus, but also in Europe. It would perform a number of functions: a place of collective memory (repressions, the GULAG) for Belarusians, a business project, a museum-disneyland (an illustrated, interactive encyclopaedia of the development of the communist idea) for a foreign audience and a large platform for discussions on social theories.
To bring it to life, in addition to permanent displays, the museum must have a special art centre utopia, with exhibition halls for presentations of various social practices in contemporary European art.
© The Museum of Belarusian Jews
A totally new institution of crucial importance to the renewal of collective memory about the significant role of Jews in the history of Belarus, as well as about the role of our country in the fate of the European Jews. An interesting solution for the museum’s localization can be found in the restoration of one of the city’s historic districts together with a former synagogue. In addition to the memorial functions, such a museum would be an important place for attracting foreign tourists.
© The Museum of the City
If the central element of the touristic “disneyland” were to be found in the architectural reserve of A Sun City of Dreams or the actual city itself, it would be important to have an exhibition explaining what underlies its uniqueness.
© The Museum of World War II
According to its functions, it would be a so-called museum of elegiac memory (War Museum, the Museum of the Holocaust), aimed at outlining taboo zones in collective memory, and establishing certain didactic markers. In fact, the goal of the displays would be to talk about the catastrophic consequences of violating the marked boundaries. However, in our time, taboo zones are increasingly becoming a part of popular culture and the museums of elegiac memory are taking on a role in the entertainment industry, which was initially not characteristic of them.
To tell the truth, each nation has its own historical trauma. The Holocaust would never become a part of the museum-disneyland for Jews. Just like the theme of World War II, in general any war will always be a zone of elegiac memory in the collective mind of Belarusians. But this topic can become an important part of the museum-disneyland for foreign tourists. However we choose to treat the installation on the Stalin Line, we must admit that today it enjoys a constant popularity among the guests of our country.
© The Historical Museum
The Historical Museum shares the function of the National Art Museum. It should legitimize the country’s sovereign not through art artefacts, but through a documentary narration. It is not an artistic, but a documentary text addressed to domestic, rather than to foreign, consumers.
However, within this museum, a separate large section might appear, even better – a museum that has a chance to become an important item in Minsk’s tourism infrastructure. I mean the exhibition dedicated to the theme of World War I. As you know, the Eastern Front in that war passed across the territory of Belarus. For Belarusians, World War I had no less disastrous consequences than World War II. Therefore, this topic deserves a separate, detailed exhibition. Moreover, it would perfectly fit the European context, too, so it is not only our internal issue, but would certainly be interesting to the viewer from Europe.
© The Museum of Chaim Soutine
From the financial point of view, this is the most complicated museum, since it would require the acquisition of the artist’s original works. However, Chaim Soutine is one of the world’s most famous artists born in Belarus, second only to Marc Chagall. In addition to the moral aspect – the return of the artist’s works home – the expense of purchasing the collections of Soutine’s works in the long term would certainly be covered by the profit obtained due to the increase in the attractiveness of Belarus to tourists.
© The Museum of Wooden Architecture in Strocycy
Even now, it is still one of the most appealing Belarusian museums. In the future, we would like to see its expansion. This may be done through the reconstruction of the site of a traditional Belarusian town, which would include a wooden cathedral, a church and a synagogue, as well as an old noble manor. The museum in Strocycy has a chance to become a place that can directly be called, without any quotes, a Belarusian disneyland. To do this, an architectural exhibition should be supplemented by the reconstruction of rites, folk festivals, traditional crafts workshops, which, together with the entertainment services (taverns, stables, festivals), would become a major attraction not only for tourists but also for Minsk residents.