The Ratnaya Palata gets a fresh start with new WWI museum

Russia sets sights on high-tech war museum without a Marxist-Leninist bias


St Petersburg

If all goes to plan, 100 years after Tsar Nicholas II mobilised his vast army for war with Germany and Austro-Hungary, Russia will open a First World War museum that is not dominated by a Marxist interpretation of history.

The Moscow office of the US-based design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates is in discussions with Russia’s ministry of culture to create a First World War museum at the Ratnaya Palata, a former military museum in Tsarskoye Selo, which was the country residence of the tsars. The ambitious project will require military precision to meet its planned opening date of 1 August 2014.

“The main thing is that the [war] museum is interesting, so that people who come will want to return with their friends and children,” said Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky. He was speaking in a meeting at the end of October, when concepts for the project were presented, the RIA Novosti news agency reported. Medinsky, the author of a bestselling 2011 book about the Second World War, has been a major proponent of the new museum.

Restoring the war’s legacy

Natalia Narochnitskaya, a historian who leads a foundation campaigning for projects to educate Russians about the First World War, says: “Throughout the Soviet period, [the conflict] was interpreted as imperial and unnecessary. How can one say that when it threatened our entire 300-year history?”

The Appelbaum-designed Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre opened in 2012 in Moscow’s landmark Constructivist bus depot, which was designed in 1927 by the avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov. The Jewish museum’s multimedia design attracted the attention of Russian officials, who see it as a way to draw younger audiences to the First World War museum.

The ministry has also set its sights on Star Media, a film and television production company that makes historical documentaries, romantic comedies and a Russian version of “Dancing with the Stars”. The aim is for the company to work with Appelbaum’s Russian-based team to create content for the museum and to restore the legacy of the war to Russia’s historical consciousness.

Nick Appelbaum, a partner of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, visited Moscow last month to meet officials from the ministry. He says: “I understand that there is an ideological component behind any government project. I can’t say to what extent that is driving this. I would say that everyone is looking to clearly say what happened and that’s what’s been missing. We’re seeing it in all the projects we are working on [in Russia].”

The construction of the Ratnaya Palata, or Military Chambers, began in 1913. The cornerstone was laid in the presence of Nicholas II and work was completed in 1917. Yelena Tretyakova, the widowed sister-in-law of Pavel Tretyakov, the founder of Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, was the military museum’s main benefactor. It was initially meant to be a museum of the history of Russia’s military forces, but, as events unfolded, it became a museum of the Great War. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the museum’s collection was dispersed among other museums or destroyed. The building was severely damaged during the Second World War.

Historical awareness

The Tsarskoye Selo State Museum-Preserve has been working on a concept for reviving the war museum since 2008. “We will turn over everything that we developed and collected, everything we prepared in terms of content, and it will all be adapted to the new concept,” says Iraida Bott, the deputy director of Tsarskoye Selo. “It will be more interactive. There will be some paintings; we don’t have a lot of paintings in our collection, and as it won’t be possible to make a convincing array from our collection, it is most likely that another [medium] will be used.”

There is a growing demand for exhibitions devoted to historical topics that were previously repressed or depicted through the prism of Soviet ideology. In November, a queue of visitors snaked past the Kremlin wall to get into the Manege exhibition hall for a Russian Orthodox Church-sponsored multimedia exhibition about the Romanov dynasty. A press statement about the show boasted of “350 multimedia carriers”, including touchscreens, 50in plasma screens, light boxes, tablet computers with interactive quizzes and educational apps developed specially for the exhibition.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Rush to remember 1914'