Is science important in organising a museum exhibition? Director of the Manege Central Exhibition Hall speaks about her work in the largest exhibition space of St Petersburg and her studies at St Petersburg University
In February 2023, Anna Yalova, a graduate of St Petersburg University who had completed her master’s degree with honours, was appointed Director of the Manege Central Exhibition Hall. She spoke about her experience of pursuing a Master’s degree later than her peers, current trends in museum exhibition preparation, and the role of a good mentor in becoming a competent and sought-after professional.
You graduated from St Petersburg University with a degree in Museology and Conservation of Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites. Could you please tell us how the knowledge gained influenced your career path?
"The Big University" has always been a dream of mine, so, being 34 years old and quite an adult and conscious person, I became a student of its master’s programme taught by the Department of Museum Management and Historical Monuments Preservation. I was very excited to be a student there. Firstly, because I had an amazing chance to repeat the experience of being a student, attending lectures, and communicating with classmates. Secondly, the educational process itself was very inspiring, so I wanted to plunge into a new and unusual activity for me. In one way or another, in my professional environment I am actively applying my knowledge of many subjects, such as: Fundamentals of Visual and Digital Technologies Used in a Museum; Intercultural Communication: History and Theory; and Museum Design Techniques.
What was the most important thing you learned during your studies?
I was passionate about studying, and the University allowed me to realise that in any process, including work and education, interest was one of the most important factors influencing the desire to develop, learn new things, and achieve goals. Interest is the most important motivator of our activities. When I hire new people, I need to feel that they are excited about what they are about to do. The success of lectures or educational programme events organised at the Manege is also determined by the interest of the audience and the desire to ask follow-up questions.
The Manege Central Exhibition Hall is the largest exhibition space in St Petersburg.
Which of your teachers has had the greatest influence on you as a professional or served as an example?
Not every person has an influence on your professional path, because a career is largely something that we define for ourselves. But for the formation of my personality and the correct attitude to both museology and significant areas of life, I am very thankful to Antonina Nikonova, my academic supervisor. She is truly dedicated to her profession. She fosters love and respect for the museum, its exhibits, and the learning process. She is able to formulate a task phenomenally clearly. Our career development paths do not intersect. She is mostly involved in teaching, and I pursue a more managerial career. However, her principles and absolute faith in the museum, in its idea, value and mission are transmitted to the students. For me, she is much more than just a teacher. I consider her a mentor in my life and personal development. We are still on very friendly terms.
In 2017, the work of St Petersburg University in creating museums and exhibitions of cultural and natural heritage objects was recognised as one of the full-fledged activities of the University by the Government of the Russian Federation. St Petersburg University has the richest museum and academic archives. They include over three million items. The University is conducting many museum activities such as: organising exhibition projects; holding lectures and master classes; and implementing partnerships with various cultural organisations of Russia. The University’s collections are regularly replenished, and by its 300th anniversary, St Petersburg University hopes to sign a cooperation agreement with the Manege Central Exhibition Hall to present part of the University’s collections in this large exhibition space.
Your master’s thesis was devoted to the analysis of the main current trends in the design of museum exhibitions and exhibition halls. How important is the scientific component in the organisation of a museum exhibition?
Every exhibition begins with an idea that must be substantiated. When there is a scientific component to what we are going to show, this becomes a litmus test for the project. We constantly ask ourselves various questions, such as: are we able to select a subject line based on the concept?; or can we argue for this or that position or the author’s view of things? Science is an integral part of organising any exhibition.
Have trends in the creation of exhibition space changed over the past six years and, if they have, what are the changes?
Museums are quite inert, so it is quite difficult to say that something fundamentally new has appeared that has never happened before. However, it is worth noting that the use of additional means that allow you to create the desired emotion has now become widespread. Theatrical techniques, digital technologies, and music are actively used in exhibition spaces, and artificial intelligence has also begun to be introduced.
Over the past six years, I have noticed that museum exhibitions have become much more interactive, and the museum visitor has changed as such. Now this is not just a person to whom we transmit information, but an active user of the museum product, who perceives reality in a completely different way. At the Manege, educational and lecture programmes have become much more popular than before. Our visitor comes not only to get acquainted with the exhibition objects, but also to spend time, meet friends, and learn something interesting from the performances. Video programmes, film screenings, music, and dance performances expand the space of a cultural object and give the audience new opportunities to come into contact with the world of art.
Today’s museum is an institution with a very broad functionality, and not just a mere exhibition space, yet I would not talk globally about any significant revolution. Ideas that seemed innovative six years ago are now widely and actively used.
What kind of exhibition should there be today that allows visitors to get the most complete experience of interacting with art?
It seems to me that a good exhibition is one that evokes a reaction in the viewer. Now it is important to use different communication channels, not only visual, but also auditory, such as music, video technology or smells. They help reveal the essence of museum objects and the very idea of the exhibition. The "First Position. Russian Ballet" project has been recently organised at the Manege. And music was not a background, but an essential part of this exhibition project. It is quite strange to talk about choreography and the history of ballet in Russia and not hear music from this ballet. This kind of innovation was perceived differently by the audience, but the good thing about the Manege is that each new exhibition is different from the previous one. Today we speak one language with the audience, and the next project will use completely different tools. Being different is extremely important.
Is the use of digital technology a tribute to fashion or has it already become an integral element of museum design?
I would exclude the expression "a tribute to fashion" from museum activities. To follow something means to be the same as everyone else, while each museum is unique in its collections and approaches to exhibition activities. The use of new technologies is just a tool that should most fully reveal the potential of a theme or of a museum object. And if digital innovation does not overshadow the work of art, but is a way of transmitting new information, then the museum should accept such technologies. It is more about following the progress and the emergence of new tools.
Fashion is very fleeting. It may dictate some trends, but in museum life it certainly does not become a criterion for measuring the success of exhibitions or the exhibition space as such. If museums follow fashion, they are doomed to lose face.
Recently, a Museum and Architectural Clinic has been established at St Petersburg University. It is a place where students studying museology, environmental design and restoration will be able to acquire practical skills by interacting with institutions in the field of culture. How else, in your opinion, can future specialists get prepared for their professional career?
The opening ceremony of the Museum and Architectural Clinic of St Petersburg University took place on World Heritage Day.
I believe that professional practice should be fully organised not only for those who decide to take part in the project activities of the clinic, but also for other students who have chosen museology or environmental design as their profession. In two or three weeks, students do not have enough time to immerse themselves into the life of the museum, understand the processes of exhibition preparation, or become fully involved in the work on museum products. In my opinion, a practice or internship should last at least two months, for students to get to know everyone who works in the museum and be assigned a voluminous task that can really be completed within this period.
The Manege Central Exhibition Hall holds group exhibitions in collaboration with various Russian museums. Could it launch a joint project with St Petersburg University, which has over three million exhibits in its collections? What topics might be of interest to you?
In order to want something, you need to understand WHAT to want. We are, of course, open to any contacts and partnerships, but the primary task is to determine the subject of our cooperation.
Would you like to share your accumulated experience in museology with students?
When I was a student myself, Antonina Nikonova invited me to engage in teaching and convinced me that it was useful for both me and the students. At St Petersburg University, I teach Museum Design as part of the bachelor’s programme "Museology and Conservation of Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites." Being an employee at the Manege, a space where exhibitions are constantly being prepared and changing, I see how they are formed. It seems very important to me to tell students about this part of museum life. Using the example of the Manege’s activities, I explain how the concept becomes fundamental not only for the selection of objects from various museums, but also for the architectural design and appearance of the exhibition. It is reflected in graphic design, in posters for the exhibition, and in the development of fonts and layout of catalogues. All of this is interconnected and interesting. I always feel positive from communicating with the younger generation. I would like to believe that my knowledge and experience will be of use to my students.