I had the privilege this week to work for the British Council in Moscow where I lectured at the Russian Museum Leadership School and explored a range of museums with 22 young museum curators/ educators from all over the country. I was delighted to be back in this fascinating city after many years and realised how blessed I am being able to earn a living doing things I really love. This trip was the perfect amalgamation of HVM’s commitment to public engagement and our background in museums/ galleries.
A lecture on museums engaging with local communities was followed by visits to the Bogorodskoye, a tiny gallery in a residential block in the most deprived and violent district of Moscow; and the Bulgakov Museum in a former communal house where the famous writer Bulgakov had lived for a few years. And a lecture on exhibition interpretation as a resource to draw in audiences was followed by a storytelling workshop by the wonderful Anastasia Rossinskaya and a visit to the refurbished Gulag History Museum
All three museums live and breathe community engagement and I was bowled over by the enthusiasm of the teams to connect objects/ places with the lived experience of people who used to own the objects or have (had) a stake in the space in other ways. The Bogorodskoye Gallery was impressive for the deep-rooted desire of the two members of staff to gradually show residents of all walks of life that culture is for everyone. The Bulgakov Museum equally so for proactively searching and finding former residents of the house and recording their stories. And the Gulag History Museum demonstrates bravery and a deep human interest in using storytelling and community engagement to bring to life what is the traumatic history of the system of labour camps under Stalin.
The visits and subsequent discussion with course participants demonstrated once again how relevant the role of museums is. This sentiment was reinforced by a panel discussion as part of the 360 Film Festival, where I had a chance to deliberate the future of (science) museums with Tim Boone, Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum in London and Ivan Bogantsev, Deputy Director at the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow in a discussion moderated by Anna Trapkova. It led me to the conclusion that in an age of fake news museums have a real opportunity to build on their reputation for trust and provide visitors with a platform to explore the present and future through objects of the past.
The big issues we deal with at HVM in our engagement projects are excellent examples for the role science museums can play in being a platform for dialogue. Science is advancing rapidly and topics such as the future of food and drink, genetic technologies or artificial intelligence all require the involvement of the widest possible segments of the public in considering which technologies should be embraced by society and under what circumstances. This trip reminded me of how ideally museums are placed to progress this debate.