Polly's post on the subject of Ugly Americans, among other things, inspired me to share some wisdom in regards to visiting museums in Russia, should you be lucky enough to visit the country.
Let me start off with the positive: Russian museums are magnificent, often quirky and always interesting. The Treiteykov Gallery in Moscow, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg - these are simply world treasures.
However, they happen to be located in a country where 'customer service' is still something that is only now being explored, after decades of Communism during which you were lucky if there was food to buy - never mind asking for it to be sold with a smile.
Anywho... regardless of which Russian museum you will be visiting, there are a few simple rules that apply to one and all:
- As a foreigner, you will be charged more for museum entrance than a Russian. I know this sounds very unfair, but when you consider the fact that the average Russian salary is about $250 per month - you will feel less slighted. On occasion, I will try to be sneaky and purchase Russian tickets for Alex. Unfortunately this desire to save a few bucks has caused us quite a few embarrassing scenes - i.e. Russian museum guards (old Babushkas in bonnets) escorting Alex out of the museum, once by pulling his ear. Alex, you should know, looks extremely American - bright green Polo shirt, Birkenstock, big red back pack and all... On one occasion I instructed Alex to play 'slow' if spoken to in Russian - smile kindly and stare until i answer in his stead. Unfortunately, he got a little bit over zealous in his role and started making weird noises, which i guess sounded more like American noises than Russian noises. So that, and his polo, birks and backpack all came together to start the whole ear-pulling incident at the Moscow State Armory. So - do yourself a favor and just pay the few extra bucks even if you're in the company of Russian friends/guides.
- Don't trust guide books with opening/closing times. Here's the thing: The Metropolitan Museum in New York has had pretty much the same schedule for the past 20 years or so. Maybe longer. Also, most NYC museums have very similar, if not exactly the same schedules. Well - this does not, in any way shape or form, apply in Russia. They're still experimenting with all that 'organizational' type stuff there. Guide books are updated every couple of years, Russian museum schedules change every few months. Sometimes i think they do it just for fun, just to mess with us order-loving Americans, to confuse the Brits and so on. Every museum has its very own idiosyncratic hours of operation. Some are closed on Tuesdays, some on Mondays, some shut their doors whenever anyone rich enough rents out the entire space for an event. This past summer, Alex and I visited the majestic city of St. Petersburg. After diligently checking all available sources for hours of operation, we got a driver and ventured out to Tsarsoke Selo - the Czarist country estate. Upon our arrival, we were told that we could not enter the main palace because some prima-ballerina and her oligarch-ish fiance had rented out the entire thing for a wedding. On a Sunday. All the commoners were turned away. So. My advice to everyone is: do as much research ahead of time as you can, use your guide books only as very very general references. Check on-line. Decide which places are most interesting to you and base the rest around their opening times. Have a back up plan in case something is randomly closed. Also - if a museum says that it closes it 5pm - make sure to arrive by 4pm because often they stop letting in more guests after that.
- Don't mess with Babushkas in Bonnets - the Russian Museum guards. These old chicks are VERY, EXTREMELY, self-important. Being museum guards is the one thing in the entire world that lets them have control over anything in their lives. And they like to exercise it. They may not get their pensions on time, heck, they may not get their pensions at all, but at the museum, they rule the roost. Be nice to them, or they WILL pull you by the ear.
- Get the audio guide. English audio guides cost twice as much as Russian ones, but do try to swallow your indignation and get one anyway. First of all, do not expect name plates or explanations in English - they will be only in Cyrillic 90% of the time. Second, the audio guides are usually really really really well done and interesting. They are very much worth it.
- Check out the Icon collections. Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of religious art. However, Russian Orthodox icons are truly amazing masterpieces. At least walk by them and be prepared to be intimidated by angry looking Jesus - he used to stare down from the gates of every city wall to warn potential invaders that they will be struck down by the wrath of the holy.
- Ladies - bring your own toilet paper. I've spoken about this before.
- Be prepared for some of the most beautiful things you will ever see in your life - despite all the difficulties mentioned above, you will walk away feeling amazed. The Russian empire had so much wealth and the Russian dusha (soul) is so very melodramatic that the combined effect is awe-inspiring.
1. Winter Palace Lions
2. Winter Palace Italian Fountain Room
3. Hermitage Art Gallery Skylights
4. Peterhoff Palace - the Main Fountain
ps- are you impressed with my super-duper picture taking skills? I surely am...