In Siberia, I always wondered how many visitors a year came to the museums we stopped by. More often than not, the group I traveled with was the only group in a museum, with docents available to give us private tours and their full attention. As I walked the halls listening to experts tell me about Decembrist history or the Trans-Siberian Railroad, I couldn’t help but wonder – how many days does no one come in at all? What must it be like, alone with all those exhibits? How quickly do they gather dust?
When we visited the Kyakhta Museum of Local Lore, we were told it was nicknamed “The Siberian Hermitage”. For a museum out in the middle of nowhere, in a former trading city that had declined to a shadow of its former self, the two-floor building turned out to be more like the Hermitage in St. Petersburg than I initially thought.
For one thing, there’s the sheer volume of exhibits in the museum. Just as the Hermitage dwarfs other St. Petersburg museums, the Kyakhta Museum boasts 120,000 pieces, with sixteen halls. Compared to other museums we visited, it was huge.
The Hermitage emulates the art style and architecture of the time it was built, and the restored rooms of old Winter Palace one of the main attractions of the building. The Kyakhta Museums is a monument to architecture in its own way, showing the style of the nineteenth century. Various rooms are furnished with decorations of the same period and artifacts from the era of the Tea Road. Maybe not as valuable as the table settings and chandeliers in a St. Petersburg palace, but interesting all the same.
What captured my interest in Kyakhta was the range of exhibits on display. One wing displayed the personal items of various scholars who had worked in Siberia, such as old journals, binoculars, or collections of minerals. Another wing was entirely dedicated to flora and fauna, with glass cases full of stuffed birds and beetles. Smaller rooms on the upper floor held orthodox icons, Soviet memorabilia, and Tibetan Buddhist masks. Like the Hermitage, I felt like I would have to make several trips to properly see everything.
Unlike the Hermitage, there were no crowds gathering in front of exhibits in front of me. Instead, there were several museum workers busy cleaning the displays as we browsed them. People vacuumed ahead of me as I stopped to look at specimens of double-headed cows and multi-legged sheep and heads floating in jars. Upstairs, museum workers were allowed to just reach into the cases of Soviet newspaper clippings and rearrange them with their bare hands. I had never really seen museum exhibits handled while I’ve been at a museum, let alone handled so casually.
I was also left wondering if our group was the cause of the spontaneous cleaning, or if this was a regular routine and our being there was just an afterthought. Regardless, the parallels to the Hermitage continued.
The Hermitage does its best to show off art from all over the world and from varying art movements, from French-influenced collections of impressionist paintings to original Renaissance works by Da Vinci and Raphael. The Kyakhta Museum also makes an attempt to put on displays from all corners of Siberia’s history, from Kyakhta’s founding in black-and-white photos to its varying religious influences, from Soviet posters to old chain mail.
There’s something to be said for exploring a museum without the crowd that comes with famous sightseeing locations. Although Siberia’s Hermitage was infinitely smaller, it caught and held my attention just as readily. And compared to the Hermitage, I’m betting less people in the world have gotten to see this.