Last May I spent two wonderful weeks in St. Petersburg, Russia, walking the streets and exploring the myriad museums, small and large, but especially the small. Near the hotel where I was staying, someone had affixed a large sculpture of a nose to the wall of an old building, to mark the spot where the main character of Gogol’s story “The Nose” supposedly lived. That gives one a sense of how literary fame and legend intersect with the streetscape of this poet-saturated cultural capital.
The city is particularly rich in small museums devoted to literary and artistic figures. We have similar sites in the United States, but not as densely woven into the living city, nor maintained quite so ardently as shrines. Our house museums tend to be educational, while in Russia the education they offer is a side effect along with the main purpose: worship. Let’s put it another way: Imagine what you could do, as a curator, if everyone entering your museum already knew a fair amount about the subject at hand.
I went to as many of these little museums–Rimsky-Korsakov, Chaliapin, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Nabokov–as I could in the time I spent there, and it was enormously satisfying and great fun. I wrote about the experience in this week’s The Washington Post.