Sometimes you can find your favourite art in the most unexpected places.
Perhaps, the last thing you expect to happen during your trip to a museum in the old bus garage is to turn into a ghost. Regardless of what sense and logic commands you to believe about the afterlife, you should probably consider accepting your new non-refundable state and just walk it off. What if it’s a part of your trip?
This is possible if you visit a shtetl in the Jewish Museum in Moscow. Shtetls were little market towns in Eastern Europe before their decline in the late 19th century and extermination during the Holocaust. Until this day, the word “shtetl” embodies traditional culture and the migrating lifestyle that Jewish people maintained for centuries.
Once visitors step inside the museum, they see it all: tiny houses, massive books, elegant pews, school benches with adjusted headphones, digitally set kosher meals on wooden dining tables, barrels with interactive lids that turn pictures of apples into black-and-white photos of people at the wave of your hand – all under the industrial rooftop of the dimly lit bus garage that stretches as far away as a football field.
Despite all the computerised wonders offered by the museum, the exhibition that made the most magical impression on me was entirely physical. They were clay-white statues of a cloaked pair, an old man and a boy holding hands on their way to cheder (the elementary school for learning Hebrew and the fundamentals of Judaism). That moment from their life, as it was for the other clay-white people, was frozen by the icy lightning. They caught the eye like diamonds when they shimmer on black velvet. I’d like to state that I was pretty unknowledgeable on the matter on the day of my visit, so I had to rely on the text plates and educated guides in order to understand the display.
"Despite all the computerised wonders offered by the museum, the exhibition that made the most magical impression on me was entirely physical."
Now that I remember it three months later, manoeuvring between stumpy houses with preoccupied locals once more would be akin to prying into the lively chaos of Kasrilovka, a shtetl from the stories of Sholem Aleichem (the pseudonym of writer Solomon Rabinovich) about small people with tremendous dreams. Frankly, those tales were as good as history textbooks because you’re inevitably running into history by reading them.
Though there were other clay-white figures, the thing about those three serious-looking gentlemen was that they were all playing instruments: a trombone, a tuba, a clarinet, and a violin. Your brain looks at them expecting to be deafened by a passionately improvised orchestra, yet the trio stands in dead silence.
"Your brain looks at them expecting to be deafened by a passionately improvised orchestra, yet the trio stands in dead silence."
Other citizens – tradeswomen, a praying man in the synagogue, an old man and a boy – their lives appeared frozen in the moment, waiting for the next note. The most curious detail is that the music still exists in their times. Alas, for the museum visitors who are but ghosts to them, it is impossible to hear. This is when I concluded that the street musicians aren’t really silent; they’re paused here, in our present, but leap back a few centuries earlier and they’ll begin moving, dancing, and coming back to life.
In my opinion, what’s fascinating about it is that installations like these prove that sometimes, art is best when it’s unintentional. I went to learn about history, but instead history was waiting for me to see how I was doing. It wasn’t trying to impress me or make me think about it in a certain way. It simply shared the story, leaving the impression up to me. The only drawback was the hunger I felt when I sat at the digital dining table, but that’s something all ghosts are probably dealing with anyway.
Even though the reality is that shtetls no longer exist, their history is still with us. As for the clay-white musicians and other dwellers, their colours might be gone with the culture that they symbolise, but that only makes them shine brighter in the sun today.
Built in 1927, Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage in Moscow began as an improved storage for transport, designed with elements of industrialism and the avant-garde. Since 2012, it has housed the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre, in which the historical shtetl can be found.
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