Moscow Lights

Hugh Gatenby

I love museums. In any a new town, I always want to check out a local museum, and an Irish pub – if any. Failing the latter, any agreeable hostelry will do. Mustn’t digress – so back to museums. 

Of museums, I’ve always been drawn to the eccentric, the quirky, the left-field. The 2005 publication, the thoughtfully named ‘Bollocks to Alton Towers,’ a paean to such alternative places,  rightly became a minor travel bestseller. One of my Russian favourites is the Pereslavl-Zalyesski Museum of Irons, which displays huge, seductive exhibitions tracing the history of the domestic iron as we know it. Go there, and you’ll never find ironing a chore again. Of course, there’s nothing eccentric about the Moscow Museum of Street Lighting. Street lighting is a very serious business. When, during the Soviet period, electricity was to power all of Moscow’s street lighting, replacing its paraffin and gas predecessors, Lenin famously declared that “Communism is – Soviet Power plus the  electrification of the whole country.” Taking the example of my friend’s dacha, whose electricity supply is at best patchy – maybe Vladimir Ilych was setting himself up, along with the entire Soviet experiment, as a hostage to fortune.

The museum itself is housed in an ancient stone-built, extremely solid, two-storey ‘palata’ Moscow house, nestling among trees and shrubs (and appropriately, street lamps) in the rambling Armyanski Alley. It’s various rooms house not only displays of lighting from the time of the Napoleonic occupation (a very brief one, as the Russians torched their own capital – leading to some drastic changes of plan on the part of the occupiers) but these displays actually work. So, if you sign up for an excursion, you are actually experiencing the degree of artificial light – or rather lack of, on Moscow streets of the period. Following the advent of gas-powered lighting in the latter part of the 19th century, you become more sure-footed and stop bumping into other museum-goers. Fascinating are the displays and artefacts chronicling key moments – which include a backlit Joseph Stalin, for example.

The museum, under its tirelessly-campaigning director Natalia Potanova (grants and funding do not come easy) has developed excellent community links, and hosts many educational and children’s group visits – and their work adorns the project room on the first floor. 

Summing up – superb. A one million lumen beacon among the museums of Moscow. Go see.

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