David Gelsthorpe is Curator of Earth Science Collections at Manchester Museum. In 2014, he went on a research trip to St Petersburg and Moscow, organised by the British Council, to establish links and share best practice with some of Russia’s leading museums. In 2014, he co-curated the exhibition ‘Siberia – At the Edge of the World’. Here he shares some tips and information on working with Russian museums and borrowing objects from their collections.
- Russian museums funded by the central government tend to be properly resourced; they have a good range of curators, conservators, and visitor services staff, and the buildings and displays are well-maintained. In contrast, poorly funded museums have dated displays, small staff teams, and the buildings are in various states of disrepair. However, do not let this put you off: these museums still have high quality collections and in many cases I found that the staff were keen to develop international partners.
- Russian museums tend to be very hierarchical compared to those in the UK, particularly the larger institutions. Therefore, gaining the support from the museum director can help the loaning process move along.
- Not all Russian museums charge for loans, however some see it as a way to supplement their budget for running costs. Anyhow, in most cases the largest cost associated with loaning work from Russia is transportation and shipping.
- I found that some of the larger museums are very experienced in dealing with international loans. For example, the Zoological Museum, St Petersburg, offers a loan and courier package at a monthly rental price. However, most small museums are not set up for international loans, though they are keen to loan their collections internationally.
- Build on existing partnerships if possible. I was fortunate that my Manchester colleague, Dmitri Logunov, who co-curated the ‘Siberia’ exhibition, was originally from Russia. Dmitri brought a whole host of personal contacts and a thorough knowledge of the Russian museum sector. However, if you don’t have any existing partnerships or networks, the British Council have excellent contacts in the Russian museum sector and would be the best place to start. On a personal level, I found that Russian museum curators were very keen to help and were excited about raising the profile of their collections to an international audience.
- When working with a museum and securing loans, having a native speaker on hand is very important. Again, I was lucky to have my colleague Dmitri, who was able to translate enquiries and negotiations. Notably, the loan agreements for the ‘Siberia’ exhibition had to be signed off in both English and Russian, and therefore it was essential that we had a Russian translator to ensure we knew exactly what we were
- Think outside the box, as loans can be challenging. Have back up plans in case a loan falls through, e.g. use images and videos or even buy objects to display instead.