Melodrama to thriller: A guide to the new exhibition at the Marina Tsvetaeva House Museum

August 10

In late July, the Marina Tsvetaeva House Museum opened an exhibition titled “There is Nothing Interesting behind the Door”, which focuses on museum curatorship. Each of its six sections has been given the name of a film genre, such as Detective, Fantasy, Drama, and more. Occasionally, being a curator does resemble the plot of a fascinating film.  After all, each item that joins a museum’s collection has a history of its own.

Here and the Mosgortour agency provide details on the exhibition’s concept and the main pieces on display at each of the sections.

Yevgenia Petlinskaya, exhibition curator

The Procedural

The name of the first section refers to TV series about the professional life of police officers and lawyers. It casts curators in the role of investigators, because making literary descriptions of articles that find their way to a museum collection is often akin to unravelling an intriguing court case. 

“There are hard-to-describe articles, such as artist Faitel Mulyar’s abstract images displayed at the exhibition.  A curator becomes engrossed in a painful process of word selection and is often at a loss to say what a particular element, structure or colour is all about,” curator Yevgenia Petlinskaya says.

An important exhibit in this section is connected with the name of the publisher, historian and collector Platon Beketov (1761–1836), known as the chairman of Russia’s first scholarly society engaged in the study and publication of documents on Russian history. He has also left behind a historical document – his own erotic diary – that no one has been able to decipher to date. What is mysterious about it is the writer’s atrocious scrawl rather than any sophisticated encoding system or the fact that he used French. Both museum personnel and visiting francophones tried hard to read it, but to no avail.    


An imprint on the back and an ex-libris with Beketov’s portrait are the only two details that betray the purpose and the owner of this artefact. “This article’s mystery will be inherited by the next keepers of Marina Tsvetaeva House Museum,” Yevgenia Petlinskaya says.


The museum’s collection has numerous household items with obscure backgrounds. The only thing known about them is the time of manufacture, whereas with their owners or histories we are on terra incognita. “In such cases, curators, motivated by personal interest or the desire to make their work somewhat easier, invent stories of their own.  Often they present them as a book, an animation cartoon, or a film,” she says.

The Melodrama section displays two letters someone called Grigory of Poltava wrote to an unknown Claudia. The young man declares his love and adds that he is jealous of his flame because she is mixing with university students. “You cannot even imagine what sort of people they were, but a story springs up of its own accord based on these letters,” Yevgenia Petlinskaya muses.  There is a screen flashing stills from early 20th-century mute films per each glass box with exhibits in this section. The items on display – a powder-box, a fan, a safety razor, and so on – come to life in the old movies as film characters in their own right.


Occasionally a new contribution sparks off an investigation that could be right out of a detective story. In 2012, the museum obtained a number of early 20th-century artefacts, including an electrified owl-shaped kerosene lamp that consisted of a bird-like metal base, a kerosene burner and electric fittings.

A thorough study of antique-trade catalogues revealed that the owl-shaped base had been manufactured in the United States somewhere between 1883 and 1895.

The next step was to identify the origin of the kerosene burner. A stamp on its wheel – two seahorses and the letters GE – suggested that the burner was made by the Ehrich & Graetz metalworks in Germany (something confirmed by trade catalogues from the late 19th and early 20th century). The firm had its offices in many countries, including the Russian Empire. By all indications, the burner was manufactured before 1922, when the factory changed its name to Graetz KG.

The lamp was electrified during the Soviet period, but the exact date of its modification is anyone’s guess.


And here is the door that the exhibition’s name refers to. Of course, there is something interesting behind it – the oddest and most unusual artefacts in the museum collection. But what is so unusual about them? It takes some time (and gumption) to understand why one or another display item has turned up at the Marina Tsvetaeva House Museum. You have to grasp the logic behind a curator’s decision to add relics to the collection. A diagram on the door will help in this pursuit.

“The collection has obvious things that Marina Tsvetaeva owned for certain, such as her own hand-written texts. There are things that are said to have belonged to the poet. They appear with her on photographs or are described in her texts. There are articles mentioned in the context of her life and work, but their relationship has not been authenticated. There are also a number of display items that are not directly related to Marina Tsvetaeva or her family, but they are evocative of her epoch and the early 20th-century artistic milieu,” Yevgenia Petlinskaya says.

The range of display pieces is very wide. The Fantasy section boasts a typewriter on which the mathematician Iuda Goldfain typed formulas for his Vector Analysis and the Field Theory; a blue sculptured portrait of Anna Akhmatova; booties of poet Margarita Ivensen-Shor’s little daughter; and books from the personal library of Marina’s sister, Anastasia, that demonstrate the scope of her interests, varying from Bees are the Winged Pharmacists to The Masons and the Revolution


Sometimes a curator comes into contact with articles that hold an immense emotional charge, often imbued with tragedy whose influence curators must work hard to defuse. The Drama section displays articles related to the life of Alexei Darinsky. In the summer of 1941, he, a little boy at the time, and his grandmother were evacuated from German-besieged Leningrad to the Kirov Region. But his mother, Varvara, remained in the city. She did not see her son for over three years and learned about his life from the letters that he wrote home.  

“My secund toot fell out,” little Alyosha reported in a letter dated August 1941.  “Thank you for the books. They are so nice. We will comes soon and lives together,” he thanked his mother in 1943. Reading the letters, Varvara saw her son grow up: his handwriting became firmer from message to message, his vocabulary richer, and there were fewer mistakes.

Alyosha’s parakeet-shaped rattle is also on display. He left the toy behind in Leningrad and it helped his mother to survive. Once, by sheer chance, she discovered that there were dried peas inside the rattle. So she went out and gave chase for all rattles of the same kind in the city and used whatever she could find as seeds for a kitchen garden on her windowsill.

There is a soft toy, a dog named Shulik, in the glass box next to the parakeet rattle. It used to belong to Alexei Darinsky’s wife, Natalya Beryozina, who stayed with her family in Leningrad throughout the blockade.  Shulik was by Natasha’s side this whole time, keeping her safe during the shelling and bombardment. 


The final section reveals the biggest fear of any museum curator. What can frighten them? Is it perhaps an item with a hair-raising story? Or a painting depicting an ominous scene? Oh, no! They fear most of all losing an item described in the accruals ledger somewhere in the collection’s expanses. And it is something small that is lost the easiest.

Thriller features a single item that can only be discerned if you come close to it. It is a French nib from an early 20th-century pen, one of the smallest artefacts in the collection. 

The “There is Nothing Interesting Behind the Door” exhibition will be open at the Marina Tsvetaeva House Museum until 18 April 2021.


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