Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths
May 12, 2017 esther

British Library, London, 28th April – 29th August 2017

“You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world”

The exhibition currently at the British Library marks the centenary of the October revolution in Russia and charts the before, the during and the after of this very turbulent moment in history. This exhibition shows us that through a vast array of printed material, including manifestos, letters and posters, we can get a deeper insight into both the revolutionary’s mind and how these ideas were received and projected beyond Russia. The cabinets are rich with printed ephemera and objects, from magazine articles reporting on the upheaval, to sketchbooks from El Lissitzky and his vision of post-revolutionary Russia.

The exhibition does a number of things well, although some aspects, in particular the wider issues of exhibition design, I felt to be less successful. The sheer volume of material that the British Library can draw upon helps provide a well-rounded view of the period, not only representing the vision of the revolutionary, but it also reveals the impact and response across Europe. What the objects show so pertinently, and reflected in the subtitle of the exhibition, is the notion of hope. The hope that reveals itself in the material culture is that the revolutionaries wanted to make Russia a fairer place; a place that had modernity at its core and that recognised the imbalance of the feudal system.

The visitor is taken through a period, which had so much ambition and hope but resulted in extreme loss of life and the catastrophic destabilisation of an entire continent through a bloody civil war. This hope led to unmanageable chaos, whilst also results in the formation of mythical characters and folklore that embedded itself into the Russian cultural history and psyche.

Having lived in the Former Soviet Union as a small child in 1981, I have always found the vernacular of this visual material to be familiar. The mythical characters of Lenin and Rasputin had become omnipotent in the visual culture of the cold war and communist state, even more so in the post-Olympic haze of Moscow in 1981. The image of the strident, physical, working man marching towards the future on propaganda posters is something that has been committed to my visual memory. That said, my knowledge of the history of the revolutionary period is rather basic and it was only with the concerted effort of reading all the exhibition’s contextual material did it improve. This leaves me questioning the extent to which the exhibition’s communication is successful. I have experienced this before, when a large collecting museum wants to find a way of rotating and displaying their artefacts especially when they tie in to, or mark, a key anniversary, but they don’t truly consider how to communicate to the audience.

One enters the exhibition through two drawn back red velvet curtains that stretch from floor to ceiling, down some marble steps and under a chandelier. This clever staging signifies insight and invitation into the regal and privileged societal structure that existed in Russia prior to the revolution, at the end of the nineteenth century. The mood immediately shifts on entering the gallery, gone are the sparkling surfaces – it is nearly too dark to see and suspended from the ceiling are framed, red duotone, abstract images of the period. The experience has become oppressive and isolating. The layered nature in which the images are hung from the ceiling in red metal framing, makes them uncomfortable to look at and difficult to read as informative objects. Around the perimeter walls are glass cabinets that effectively light the objects within. The walls are black, the ceiling high and it is only the gentle glow from the cabinets that provide the visitor with a subtle sense of navigation. In the background, there is the gentle audio of Russian classical music, reflecting the strident revolutionary as he pushes into the new beginning.

Unlike some other exhibitions in more mainstream venues, there is little more than a contextual note (albeit insightful) beside each object to anchor the material in the historical setting. On one level, we could ask why should there be any more signposting but conversely it became challenging to pull out the key historical moments, or to which of the themes of hope, tragedy and myth the objects referred to. On the other hand, the objects speak for themselves and it is our responsibility to enquire into their meaning and take responsibility for our engagement.

Without wanting to turn the gallery into a theme-park styled experience, I can’t help feeling that some sympathetic and subtle surface graphics around the walls, most obviously a timeline, would enhance the overall impact. As it was, the exhibition was lacking in its ability to be accessible; the chronology was unclear and there were missed opportunities to demonstrate visually, how the themes emerge or how the themes can compartmentalise the timeline and demonstrate the distinct phases of the period. On an exhibition design level what was most noticeable, was that the exhibition didn’t appear to know how to end itself. The visitor emerges from the dark main room into the second room which was laid out as a very standard exhibition space, which did not tie into the design of the first room and had a feel of “and here’s the rest of our stuff”.

As a society and thanks in part to developments in technology, our visual awareness has become highly sophisticated and aligns itself to multi-sensory experiences, making us more demanding as visitors to exhibitions. On display are fascinating objects clearly presented, with intelligently articulated supporting texts that are selected in connection to the themes and the time period, however I didn’t feel that themes were communicated explicitly enough. The curators have assumed that the visitor attends with a pre-existing interest and knowledge and there has been an academic approach to the display. The visitor would do well to attend with prior knowledge, but the descriptions adjacent to the objects do provide enough information and insight to find the exhibition engaging and informative.

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