Discovering HSE and Russia. Excursions for the Active Spectator: A Short Guide to Moscow’s Museums

In addition to interviews with international faculty members The HSE Look launches a new format – a column on how they discover different cities and interesting venues in university and beyond. If you have an interesting experience to share, please, contact us at We present the column by Angelina Lucento, School of History (Department of Art History).

Excursions for the Active Spectator: A Short Guide to Moscow’s Museums

When you first arrived in Moscow, it probably did not take you long to realize that the city is home to many museums. From the world-class collections of European art at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, to the contemporary objects on display at Garage, to the tiny literary “house” museums devoted to authors such as Maxim Gorky, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Anton Chekhov, the city has something on display for everyone. Many newcomers do not realize, however, that radical approaches to museology, which were first introduced during the early Soviet period (1920s-1930s), continue to influence exhibition designs, education programmes, and even the way in which museum staff, particularly the legendary “smotretel’nitzy” who watch over visitors as they roam from room to room, interact with spectators. This “avant-garde” museology was designed both to educate spectators, not only about the history of the objects they encounter but also about their aesthetic and social potential. It was also designed to provoke direct reactions from the spectator and to encourage her to enunciate and record her thoughts in the ubiquitous “review books,” to voice them to museum staff, and in certain cases to engage in conversation with other spectators.

Most of Moscow’s museums continue to embrace these strategies, and in so doing encourage visitors to engage with the objects on display more actively than many museums in Western Europe and the United States. In conjunction with this imperative of active engagement, most also offer extensive children’s programmes, designed not only to educate children about art and cultural, but also to allow them to develop a hands-on understanding of the significance of visual aesthetics through the production of their own art objects. Below is a brief guide to some of Moscow’s most famous and most intriguing institutions of art and culture.

Two museums in Moscow possess excellent collections of art from the ancient world to the modern era. The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts on Volkhonka Street boasts a fine selection of objects, but its most important collection is its collection of modern art from Western Europe. Here you will find seminal works by Picasso, Matisse, and van Gogh unavailable anywhere here. Seeing the collection in its entirety requires multiple visits; it is a fine place to spend a leisurely afternoon taking in one group of the museum’s objects. The State Tret’iakov Gallery on Lavrushinsky Lane, on the other hand devotes itself to Russian art. It is an excellent destination for those interested in icons, as well as for those interested in court painting and late nineteenth century Russian art. Several works by the radical realist, Ilya Repin, are always on display, and deserve special attention.

For those interested in modern and contemporary art, Moscow boasts two museums devoted to the topic. The State Tret’iakov Gallery on Krymsky Val is housed in a mammoth Soviet modernist building. Over the past ten years, it has gone from being nearly empty to bustling with spectators seeking out both the newly installed collection of Russian avant-garde art (If you love Malevich THIS is the place for you!) and the museum’s groundbreaking temporary exhibitions. Much like the Pushkin Museum, it is difficult to take in the entire collection at once. Best to make several trips. Fortunately, the museum is free on Wednesdays and there are several excellent coffee shops positioned around the entrance. And for those interested in Soviet monuments, you can easily wander into the adjacent part MUSEON to look at statues of Lenin and the infamous monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky.

Moscow’s newest contemporary art venue is Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Situated in Gorky Park, this art museum is perhaps most like its Western counterparts than any other in Moscow. In addition to hosting a series of fascinating temporary exhibitions, films, and public discussions, the museum also has a very good café, which in itself is worthy of a visit. It is also an excellent place to get work done outside the confines of the office.

One of Moscow’s most interesting museums is not a traditional museum of art. The Multimedia Art Museum specializes in photography, works on paper, and digital art. Here you will find some of the most groundbreaking and intriguing temporary exhibitions of photography in the world. If the subject interests you greatly, it is best to go in with a camera and be prepared to photograph what you see. The museum rarely publishes catalogues from its exhibitions.

Read more articles in The HSE Look October 2017 issue