|Angels with a kerykeion, or staff. |
I was definitely impressed by how polished and put-together the museum seems, even just on entering. In my experience, smaller museums tend to be more run-down and humble in their presentation, for the natural reason that small museums tend to have small budgets. I don't like to form snap judgements, but the spacious, clean galleries created a good first impression.
The Museum of Russian Icons has a beautiful collection, and clearly wants the visitors to engage with it. I loved that they provide magnifying glasses, hung on hooks throughout the galleries. Many of the icons are incredibly detailed -- some elements painted with a brush made of a single hair -- so the opportunity to take a closer look was especially welcome, but I think more museums could offer this simple strategy. The majority of the art is not covered in glass or plexiglass (very trusting) and the glass that covers some doesn't create glare or get in the way of the magnifier. The visitor experience starts at the bottom level with a video on how the icons were traditionally made. This was interesting and worthwhile, but I was a little distracted by my surroundings. The building was formerly a courthouse and jail, and the videos are in unlit former cells. It took me a minute to figure out that the audio wand was on the wall, and unhooking it would play the sound. The rest of the museum is well-lit, allowing light to reflect off of the gold leaf and other features that signify that the icons depict things not of this world.
The museum has a number of really nice touches in terms of explaining the history and culture of the icons and of Russia more generally. I liked the case that displayed materials used in the icons, from malachite and lapis lazuli for pigments to eggshells in a clay bowl because egg yolk is a binding agent in the paint. One corner of a gallery was arranged the way that icons were traditionally displayed in Russian homes, with a number of small icons grouped together and lit by a lamp. In other areas, several icons using the same motif were arranged together, with an explanation of that motif, which made it easier to understand what I saw in other icons. In a sense, the labels teach the viewer a little bit about how to "read" the icons.
|This is an example of a "Made Without Hands" icon, which depicts |
the story of Christ miraculously creating image of his face on a cloth
by pressing the cloth to his face. From museumofrussianicons.org
What fascinated me was the way that the museum seems to exist in a balance between looking at the icons as art and looking at them as religious objects. The labels seem written for an audience that is unfamiliar with Russian Orthodox culture and practice. I wonder what visiting the museum is like for people who are practicing Russian Orthodox; do the labels ring true to them? Since any religion is going to have variation and the significance of religious practices can be personal as well as cultural, I imagine that no descriptions work for everyone. On the other hand, as someone from outside of that culture, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to see a window in, in a space that's friendly to outsiders without a hint of proselytizing. The icons themselves are incredible works of art, but perhaps because the craft of making them was often quite standardized and the individual artist was not named, it's easy to view information about their technique as historical, rather than artistic critique.
I found myself assuming that the museum staff, board, and volunteers has a non-trivial number of people who are Russian Orthodox and Russian or Russian-American, because how could you have a museum like this without that kind of participation? However, Western museums have a long and troubled history of interpreting non-Western and Native religious artifacts without the input of anyone connected to their culture of origin. Russia's unique place between the East and West is relevant here. One would hope any museum of religious artifacts would include the appropriate input today, but there are definitely museums that don't. One small panel described the process of having the museum blessed by someone from the church, which I thought was very interesting... but the panel didn't say why it was blessed. Is the blessing necessary in order to display icons properly, or was this a choice? On a different level, I very much enjoyed being a visitor and essentially a tourist here, but what is it like for believers to see these icons out of their religious context? And if someone felt moved to pray in front of one of the icons in the museum gallery, would that be comfortable for them? Would it be appropriate?
|Man of Sorrows icon. From museumofrussianicons.org|
I do recommend the museum for people who are interested in learning more. They also have a temporary exhibit of nesting dolls up through late June (which was beautiful, if sparsely interpreted) and they will have a temporary exhibit of Tiffany windows opening in mid-July. One other note: the museum is currently involved in a situation involving repatriation (returning cultural property to its place of origin) of sixteen of its icons, but I don't know enough about the situation to make an informed comment.
PS. On a blogkeeping note, I am going to be visiting Salt Lake City later this month for a friend's wedding, and while I won't have much time for touristing, if I have the chance I will visit a local history or religious history museum out there. Consider that penciled in on my list.