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Guardians of The Hermitage

BY Julia Shimf / Saint Petersburg State University | 28-Oct-2016
Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens… After two years of “guardianship”, Galina has every name of the Old Masters’ on her tongue, navigating a flock of tourists around the Hermitage as skillfully as any GPS-system.
#Hermitage #Guardian #SaintPetersburg #art #museum
“Some people perceive us as not so important, but guardians actually might be the most significant job in museums today.” – Galina, ex-cashier at a supermarket and currently a full-time guardian.
Photo credit: Julia Shimf
The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg looks like a luxurious airport — long queues, guided tours, cafes and souvenir shops. In this 21st century Babel Tower where French, Japanese, English, and Russian are spoken simultaneously, you can easily spot them — guardians, or babushkas (grannies) as people like to call them. These ladies are walking slowly in their dark green uniforms — a shade that Italian architect Francesco Rastrelli chose to adorn the Winter Palace with exactly 250 years ago.

Tourists are flocking to see the throne room as if entering Narnia; guardians are literally at edge of their seats: “Our job is to guard, watch and dust,” says Galina dully, as if a walk through an old wardrobe into a magical Winter Palace is just like any other day. “If anything goes wrong with a showcase, we must react and report to the museum curators.”

Lost in Translation

A slew of foreign tourists crowds into the museum galleries daily. Korean couples are listening to their guides while inverting their view to the art in order to extend a selfie stick high into the air. Turkish men are touring around the French gallery, speaking boldly and brash as they wander through paintings of Jean-Baptiste Greuze. But all of this foreign gibberish is meaningless to museum guardians. They just stick the label “foreigners” to anyone who fails to speak Russian.

Despite this banal branding, museum guardian Galina finds foreign tourists to be very polite: “They always say sorry and have a knack at using maps because they travel a lot. If someone gets lost, we try to show them the way. In English, I know how to say: upstairs, downstairs, go ahead, left and right. I’ve never learned English before, and my pronunciation is lame, but people can understand it and they always say thank you.” Apart from good manners, Galina depicts European tourists as appreciative and competent connoisseurs of art. “Once, French visitors were clutching their heads in disbelief when they saw the Limoges enamel. I feared that one man was having a stroke, but in fact he was quite opposite, ecstatic even.”

“Wow-effects” are very common in the Winter Palace. It is so huge that if tourists from all over the world spend one minute on every exhibit in the Hermitage, it would take up to 11 years to see the entire collection. For Nadezhda, who’s been guarding for over a decade, it’s far from mission impossible. She can spot every scratch on the wall and tiny fingerprints on the pillars. This lady is like a professional watchdog — she’s talking to you, but her eyes are following six other people as they move through the art collections. As a retired engineer from the Russian defence industry, Nadezhda is a total “we”-person — echoing explicit instructions as a nostalgic roll-play of her former duties: “We are not supposed to tell historical facts or help visitors with taking photos. When foreigners come to Russia, they should book a guided tour to get more information. We can point to the map, and we are good at it, but speaking foreign languages is none of our business. We must stay focused and wide-awake.”

With daily foot traffic in the thousands, anything can happen in the Winter Palace. Each gallery is equipped with surveillance cameras with security making rounds once in awhile, but it doesn’t help that much. Galina spotted many times when someone would peel off the group and make a dash to the throne in St. George’s Hall. “The alarm goes off, but before security comes, you have the chance to take a seat [on the throne] at least a dozen times. Last summer, however, the guards caught a foreign guy, and he had to pay a penalty of 20 thousands rubles [about 295 euro - Editor],” Galina said as she shook her head. If security had always been there in time, the Gold Room wouldn’t have ‘Vasya was here’ scratched on the wall.

Tales of the Russo Turisto

By Vasyas, guardians mean “our soviet people”. Natalya, a sweet, soft-spoken lady with 10 years experience, admits that some Russians often show lack of culture: “One day a group came to the gallery. They parked themselves on a sofa, got their sandwiches and drinks out, and dug in. To my objection they replied: ‘Show me any restrictive sign! Who said that food is not allowed?’”

The Hermitage is actually a museum, not a restaurant. But should guardian babushkas give somebody a good talking-to? Probably. But like anyone getting scolded, the visitors become irritated. Once, one of the guardians even found a gum in her hair. “No matter what happens, a guardian is the one to blame,” complains Natalya. “Because, you know, we ‘must have reprimanded someone in a wrong way’,” she says sarcastically. “But what am I supposed to do when people are breaking the cabinet pull? It happens over and over again and it’s not just a prank, it’s a brutal act of vandalism.”

Cultural heritage is the biggest concern for Galina. In a preachy manner, she muses how Russian Tsars must have possessed a good sense of ‘honor’: “They built palaces to show foreign ambassadors the power of Russia, not to enjoy their luxury lifestyle. And this is our heritage now, but what will we leave to our descendants?”

Working Bees in the Museum Industry

Guardianship positions are mostly filled with women in their sixties. Nadezhda joined the team when she realised that her pension money was tight, and a friend prompted her to apply for the Hermitage. “Most guardians pulled their strings to get this job,” Nadezhda explains. “Outsiders rarely get the job. We don’t make much money here – six thousands rubles [about 90 euro - Editor] per month plus bonuses.” But standing indoors and parroting all day is extremely strenuous for Nadezhda and her colleagues. So why do they do that?

Many seniors in Russia want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. Guardianship is a routine, yet nourishing activity that gives women like Galina, Nadezhda and Natalya a sense of daily purpose. Museum babushkas spend their time socialising with visitors and learning about the arts, even when they’re not supposed to: “Sometimes I feel grumpy in the morning and don’t really want to talk,” says Galina. “But then I just give up and start advising the visitors. What if people come to the city for their first and last time? I want to make their visit one to remember”.

For many guardians, the whole Hermitage experience began when they first took their children to the museum. “My daughter was keen on French and Italian art, and we followed every program in the Hermitage with season tickets,” recalls Natalya. “After retirement, I felt the urge to come here and enjoy the museum’s atmosphere. Late at night, when kids are taking their art classes at the Hermitage, the galleries are empty. You can walk through the palace and hear the echo of your steps. This is something very special,” she adds calmly.

For some people it’s just a job — work for the sake of working. But for these babushkas, it’s a waltz - a dancing distraction that ignites meaning into their lives.”