On International Museum Day, we examine the integral component of any museum in Russia—the experienced guardians of Russian art—“museum babushkas.”
A few years ago, I came across the Guardians of Russian Art Museums project by the American photographer Andy Freeberg.
His project captured the likeness between museums guards and the halls in which they were working. He made a statement on his project: “In the art museums of Russia, women sit in the galleries and guard the collections. When you look at the paintings and sculptures, the presence of the women becomes an inherent part of viewing the artwork itself. I found the guards as intriguing to observe as the pieces they watch over.”
It was clear that Freeberg was asking for the women’s permission and that his interviews were staged. But I liked his idea a lot—visually and philosophically. I also had a personal connection to the photo project because my friends often joked that one day I would become a Hermitage babushka myself. I had studied for 3 years at the Hermitage museum when I was a kid and I always loved the arts.
At the time that I discovered Freeberg photos, I was working in a newspaper as an editor. I lived in Moscow and spent too much time in the office back then. Of course, I was still visiting some exhibitions and museums, but nowhere as much as I would have liked to.
Everything changed when I came back from the capital to St Petersburg. I realised that it was time to change my job and come back to school. I decided to work as a tour guide again (I tried it as a student, before being drawn into the world of mass media). I took a special course to become a licensed guide. We had quite an intense schedule and each week we went to one of the numerous St Petersburg museums to study there.
All these places became a constant source of inspiration for me, as I always paid attention to museum guards. I liked to watch how they guarded the exhibits, talked to visitors, sleep or just sat with an expression of pride and importance. It was clear that for some of them, their job was the only reason to wear makeup or have fancy hairdo. The majority of them really loved being in public and were happy to look after their exhibits.
I took all my photos by stealth, as a hunter. I didn’t want them to pose and look unnatural. I still have an even bigger project in mind, for which I would need permission from the museum and interviews. But so far, I just take photographs of them to post on instagram with the hashtag #museumbabushka.
The babushkas are different at each museum: those at the Hermitage are usually kind, helpful, and even warn visitors about pickpockets. The Peterhof babushkas are the most strict, and can become irritated if you take notes in your electronic devices, as they are afraid that you are secretly taking photos (photography is prohibited in the main Peterhof palace). As St Petersburg has more than 200 museums, I’m sure this can become my lifetime project. Right up until I post my own selfie from the Rembrandt Hall of the Hermitage Museum in about 30 years.