Works and Days

Presidents Summer Fellowship 2015, Orla O'Sullivan, Impressions from Saint Petersburg

Orla O'Sullivan, '16 Russian major, is diving deep into the extensive collections at the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, conducting research on visual culture and responses to controversial exhibitions for her President's Summer Fellowship. 

I was shocked to learn recently that pieces frequently go missing at the Hermitage Museum, which probably surprises no Russian person, but it did surprise me. No one is, as far as I can tell, fired (either the theft is hard to trace, or not much effort to trace it is exerted). There is media buzz for a few weeks and then that’s the end of it. I am as equally mesmerized by the Winter Palaces’ halls and the General Staff Building’s sheer scale, as I am amazed that this institution functions as well as it does. The archeological department on the fourth floor, for instance, is filled – and this is no hyperbolical statement – with at least thirty years of books. At least. There are books and quills and pens and more books and articles and stray papers and presentations and various Russian shtukis (“thingies”) all piled on the tables and floors – just everywhere. So it shouldn’t be any wonder that items go missing, although, the museum boasts both antiquated and cutting-edge conservation facilities. 

On my first day interning, I spent 2 hours (literally) trying to find the door, and then, once I found it, was asked, would I please assist a three-day conference on virtual archeology, where I met some fascinating people, including an archeaometrist (someone who applies physics to archeology), an architect specializing in computer program semantics, and the archeology department director (who happens to be the cousin of the museum director).  Since then, it has been a whirlwind: Attending an international congress on Peter the Great; planning a museum celebration of the European Union; labeling Old Russian rock fragments with quills and ink; translating documents from Russian into English; and, most recently, working on a presentation for an exhibition closing ceremony on Monday. There is no written or printed schedule – everything just seems to happen on a whim – and practically each day brings a new, completely unforeseen, project.

I am, in short, having a wonderful time, but anyone who’s traveled knows that, while traveling, one does not just have a wonderful time. To utter such a summary is almost always a lie, so I’ll re-phrase: I’m having an impressionable time. I’m filled with so many images, sounds, and smells. I’ve attached a rather stylized, dazhe (even) stereotypically-stylized photograph. To be sure, such image frames do surround me as I move through the city, but there are also much grittier, less elegant ones, which I think must be considered, because these are the frames – juxtaposed with the pastry-cream onion domes and 19th century mansions – that might pose some interesting questions to the viewers. In my photograph, you cannot see the mass of people walking down Nevsky Prospekt at 9 pm; you cannot see or hear the people with megaphones advertising canal tours, nor can you see the people in cartoon-ish onesies handing out various advertisements that few people take; you can neither see the lone drunk, homeless man staggering around, nor the invisible, but ever-present pickpockets; and you certainly cannot see the tourist stalls selling “xot dog” and ecclesiastical accouterments and what-have-you’s around the church.

Still, the city imbues me with a sense of magnificence and grandeur, and I think that the photograph retains a little of this sense and an additional sense of spontaneity. For those still unaccustomed to the city, it is an endless labyrinth, which reposes (and hides) hundreds of architectural, sculptural, and cultural monuments – imperial, Soviet, and contemporary. A massive bronze Lenin, with one arm outstretched and his crippled one stowed, beckons to me every morning and evening as I walk to and from the metro, surrounded sometimes by babushki (NOT: ba-bOOshki, but rather bA-booshki) selling peonies (my favorite flowers) from their dachas. Inside the station, another optimistic marble-white Lenin (surrounded by placidly joyful proletarians) beneath a stucco hammer and axe on the ceiling greets me as I ride the Narvskaya escalator.

On the train, after the recording rather chirpily says, “Ostarozhno, dver’i zakrivayutsa” (“Be careful, the doors are closing.”), a whole host of things might happen: For one, the train might just be crowded and stiflingly hot (because the trains don’t have air conditioning – here, it seems to be called okno, i.e. a window). Another possibility could bring college musicians on board, and yet another, could bring a crumpled child with a cane who hobbles the length of the train imploring – so shrilly – for passengers to spare a little change.

I will not pretend to know very much about the world in which those children live, though I know that there are few public services tailored to their specific needs. The economic crisis does, moreover, seem to be palpable, and it frequently seems to contrast with the splendor architecturally invoked, but then again, the fact that many of these buildings were built at the expense of other, usually poorer people is hardly lost on me, and so I have to ponder the function and situation of the architectural history. To what extent is this history retained within an intellectual memory and, likewise, to what extent is it conserved within the sensorial impressions and visual orders it imprints?

Tags: presidents summer fellowship, psf, russia, art, visual culture, archive, curation