Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Museum Visitor Books Tell a Lot about Soviet Society in the 1920s and 1930s, New Research Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 19 – After the Bolshevik revolution, museums were ordered to make an effort to have visitors record their impressions in visitor books. In the 1920s, these were used to guide the preparation of exhibits and to study the views of the population. But by the 1930s, they were yet another control mechanism to ensure uniformity among guides and the population.

            While perhaps not surprising, these conclusions, found in a new study about these books, show that there are many as yet untapped resources for tracking the development of Russian society that if used creatively can provide insights into both the attitudes of the population and the expectations and requirements of the Soviet regime.

            Elena Milanovskaya, a graduate student at the Higher School of Economics, does just that in a new study, “The Soviet Museum Visitor of the 1930” (in Russian; Kommunikatsii.Media.Dizayn 4:4 (2019): 67-88 at summarized at

            Before 1917, Russian museums had visitor books, but they seldom included much besides the name of the visitor, his or her group, and the date of the visit. In the 1920s, the Soviets, believing museums to be an integral part of the propaganda effort, encouraged people to write more so the authorities could make museums a more effective channel.

            The reactions recorded at that time were typically deeply personal and often highly critical of the museums and much else in Soviet life, but by the 1930s, Milanovskaya says, the answers had become more ideologically standardized and criticism was limited to guides or to art that Soviet citizens viewed as counter-revolutionary.

            Being a museum guide had never been risk free, but by the 1930s, it had become a truly dangerous occupation given the risk of ideological violations.  It is clear, the young scholar suggests, that the authorities used the notes visitors made in museum books to weed out guides who weren’t sufficiently correct ideologically.

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