Museology, Kazakh-style

The cover of A. Nakov's "Avant-garde," 1991, through which I'm currently making my way.

I spend at least one day a week at the State Museum of the Arts named after A. Kasteyev (a direct translation of the name from the Russian); in exchange for some translation work, the museum staff allow me to poke around their vaults and library. This is how I’ve been doing my art historical research.

What I love second-most about working in Almaty’s libraries and archives are the old Soviet books. First, there is the feel and look of the books. Like everything else, paper was scarce throughout the USSR, and no one had much spare money with which to buy books anyway. Therefore, books had to be made as cheap as possible by printing in small fonts, reducing the margins to all but nothing and using thin, poor-quality paper. Today, these books feel so light and so dry in my hands; if I turn a page too quickly, I’m libel to rip it; and in many books there is an overwhelming volume of teeny-tiny language squeezed onto each page.

Second, there is the language. Unfortunately, a majority of the books I’ve read – and this is true even of all but the best of post-Soviet publications – recycle ideas, arguments and vocabulary in a very formulaic and uninteresting way. However, every so often I stumble across incredible Soviet ideological tracts. Contemporary local art historians don’t even bother with these books anymore, disregarding them as Marxist-Leninist garbage. But to me, these are fascinating windows into how the Soviet system worked (or was at least meant to work, according to Moscow).

For example, I was reading Methodological Questions regarding the Planning of Exhibitions in Regional Art Museums (M. Gorelov, 1967) and found the following passage regarding how to “deal” with art from the Soviet 1920s (by way of brief background: Soviet art in the early 1920s was very radical and progressive. It became less so throughout the decade and, in the 1930s, was rejected as “formalist.” Art of the 1920s was subsequently almost never shown or researched, which is why Nakov’s 1991 book about the avant-garde was a breakthrough study, despite being 70 years late):

The question of whether it is necessary, in exhibitions of the 1920s, to show the works of the formalist school alongside the fundamental creations of [Soviet] realism should be addressed. Such a question belongs in front of art historians. Before curators of this department [Soviet art] lies a different task: to realize mass aesthetic education about the world’s most pioneering and progressive art – that is, Soviet Socialist Realism.

This is entirely in keeping with the Soviet conception of the role of museums. They were buildings solely devoted to propagandistic education, and as such, had to answer all questions instead of asking them. To this end, museums couldn’t leave gaps. Another author relates that in the early 1930s, when many Soviet museums lacked sufficient holdings to cover all relevant events, the museums were instructed simply to resort to text to get the message across. That’d be like walking through a book.

For his part, Gorelov goes on to suggest that the space devoted to the 1920s in any chronological exhibition of Soviet art should be filled either with non-controversial forms of art, such as wartime propaganda posters, or with art from other decades by artists who “captured the sense” of the 1920s or “began to realize their potential” in that decade. He sums it up:

In this view, the date of a work’s creation may accent time in an exhibition, but should not pretend to be the only criteria by which one is permitted to divide artists by period.

Really? That is some contorted logic, although I guess it should come as no surprise that Soviet museums were big on re-writing history in their own vision.

The cover of "Methods," 1967.

You might be wondering what I love most about working in the museum. I offer you a description by way of explanation: last Friday I arrived, as usual, around 10am. I went straight the library and began to read. Around twelve-thirty, as usual, the library closed for lunch for an hour and a half. But don’t worry, I wasn’t left with nothing to do: upon going back to the room in which I have a desk, I discovered it was a co-worker’s birthday, and she was setting up a birthday lunch. Of course, I was invited to join, and within fifteen minutes we had a lot of food and drink on the table: savory pies, Korean salads, biscuits, tea – and wine and cognac.

As far as I know, it is obligatory at birthdays for everyone to toast the birthday boy or girl (man or woman) and then drink. Regardless of my protests that wine and cognac would put me to sleep, I was plied with both and scolded when I didn’t clean my cup after each toast. As the only man at the table, the women wouldn’t drink unless I was, and I didn’t want to spoil the birthday celebrations.

We finished the meal around three and washed up. I should say they cleaned up, though, because (again), as a man, I am not really permitted to clear or clean any of the dishes. Instead I went back to my desk and, unsurprisingly, fell asleep. I woke up about half an hour later, no one else appeared to be doing much work, so I decided it was time to leave. It was, after all, a Friday afternoon.

"The Reading Girl," by S. Kalmikov, 1940, in the Kasteyev's collection.

But this repeated itself on Monday…

I should note, however, that I have the utmost respect for many of the staff at the Kasteyev. They are grossly under-paid and manage an impressive collection with minimal resources (the museum doesn’t even have an electronic catalog). Despite holding PhDs in art history or theory, many of the staff also works at least one job outside of their full-time employment. On birthdays they drink not because they are lazy, but because, I suspect, at times the museum simply can’t fund more activity.

Clearly, I offer this as the “aspect I love most” about working at the museum ironically. The Kasteyev is probably my favorite place in Almaty both because of the people and it’s intellectual and artistic heritage. The history of the collection and those of almost each and every one of the paintings in it are fascinating. (I’m working on a longer piece about this for publication.) It is therefore sad to discover how besieged the museum is with financial and political problems, leading the staff to turn to drink…


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