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© Lily Idov

Moscow museums remain frozen in time

by Kevin O’Flynn at 09/07/2013 15:33

Relics by Lily Idov

Until July 14 at Triumf Gallery, triumph-gallery.ru

A crocodile stares out from a glass cage and to his right a bearded man looks as frozen as the stuffed beast. Nobody else is in the frame and it doesn't look as if anyone will appear anytime soon.

An elephant is tucked away in an alcove behind a bench as if playing hide and seek. For an elephant it's a pretty good hiding place. A woman sits nearby but shows little interest in either the elephant or the huge skeleton that is just behind her.

The photos at Relics, an exhibit by Lily Idov, captures what she calls the "dreamlike stasis" of the city's museums. Not the Pushkin or Tretyakov, the federal grandees with their plentiful funding and queues of visitors but the smaller ones, like the Zoological museum or the Mineralogy museum which have remained in another time.

Idov emigrated to the United States more than a decade ago but moved back to Moscow last year.

"I noticed that there were so many of them [museums] all over the central area and I started to get curious," she said in an interview at the gallery, "I'd just go in and I'd gradually start photographing them."

The thing she noticed was the lack of change. "They are still state funded and it looks as though they haven't moved in any direction in the last 30 years," she said. "Most of them are an interesting combination of the 19th century idea of a museum, the Soviet idea and complete stagnation after that."

She remembers going to such museums as a kid. "They were kind of ignored and abandoned even back then," she said.

Idov went to close to thirty museums and most of them are featured in her exhibit at Triumf gallery. Most have few visitors, some children, a few pensioners, crumbling interiors and the special quiet that a museum half asleep has.

The stars of the photos are the "watchers," almost always female, almost always of a senior age, who sit by works of art, zoological wonders or installations in the museums.

These women are often strict, quick of tongue but also knowledgeable of whatever they are guarding.

"They usually sit and guard the same rooms for years, they don't rotate, they don't have uniforms and we see how they start dressing in the colors of what they guard," she said, "They have plants and some personal objects and sometimes they have a cat that is around. For them, they are very lived in and personal places."

She remembers how one came up to her at the Zoological museum and said she should look at a moth.

"It was excellent, very menacing looking.'

Idov's interaction with the watchers was the most interesting part of the project.

"They are a little afraid and annoyed that I am breaking their routine and at the same time they are fascinated by somebody taking an interest," she said.

A video on show at the gallery focuses on these women. One scene shows a woman at the museum telling off a young boy for something he says about an exhibit "What are you listening to the Internet for? It's a bazaar. "

Getting access was not easy but also very simple.

"It's difficult to get a yes from anybody so they just try to send me to another person for a decision," Idov said, "So in most cases I just bought a photo ticket for an extra 100, 150 rubles and then surprised them with a big camera and a tripod."

The exhibit opened a few days before the shock departure of Irina Antonova from the Pushkin Museum after more than half a century in charge.

She was moved upwards to the post of president with Marina Loshak, from the Manezh museum, taking over. The museum will likely see great changes in the next few years.

"The Pushkin is well known, it is influential," said Idov, "Nobody is taking an interest in these places. Some things will change. I photographed at the Polytechnical museum and now it's closed for reconstruction."

"They are disintegrating, the displays are very old and the history has stopped at a certain point. Something has to be done about it."

"I love them I would keep most of them intact and throw funds at them, kind of as testaments to museums of the twentieth century but I understand that it is not practical," Idov said.

Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #26"
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