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Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery has declared war on ‘illegal’ tours, and now they’re booting out ordinary groups of people

Source: Meduza
Sergey Pyatakov / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

A group of historians from Moscow State University came to the Tretyakov Gallery with their students. They were accused of leading an “illegal” tour, and told to leave.

On June 15, Oleg Airapetov, Maxim Shevchenko, and Fyodor Gaida — all historians at Moscow State University — attended an exhibition of Vasily Vereschagin's works at the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val, bringing along several of their undergraduate and graduate students. The scholars say they were studying the artwork and discussing it between themselves when a security guard walked up and informed them that “unaccredited tours” aren’t permitted in the museum. The historians say they explained that they weren’t leading a tour and started speaking only in whispers, to avoid any further conflict.

In a public letter to Russia’s Culture Ministry, the historians say they asked a museum employee what constitutes a tour, but they got no response. Later, when leaving the gallery, a “senior lieutenant in the Federal Emergency Management Agency” and a woman who worked at the museum approached them and said their visit constituted an “illegal” tour. The woman said that any group “between one and 20 people” needs the gallery’s advance clearance to attend exhibitions. When asked, she could not explain what a “one-person group” is.

On June 19, Yuri Evtyukhin, head of the Culture Ministry’s Museum Department, wrote a letter to Zelfira Tregulova, the gallery’s director general, asking her to sort out the situation and inform the university professors of her decision.

This isn’t the first time the Tretyakov has booted out guests for talking with each other.

On June 20, Tim Ilyasov came to the Tretyakov on Lavrushinsky Lane with five friends. Ilyasov, who heads Fashionograph and lectures on history and the theory of fashion at the Higher School of Economics, told Meduza that he made a few remarks to his group, as they wandered through the museum. “Of course, I told them some stories, and made a few comments about the dresses and hats in the portraits,” he says. Not long after their arrival, Ilyasov says a gallery employee approached them and announced that only staff are permitted to conduct tours. “I asked them what kind of tour they were talking about,” he recalls, “since I was only chatting with my friends.” But there was no response, except for this: “We have no further information. This is not allowed.”

Ilyasov says he lowered his voice after this confrontation, but it wasn’t long before a security guard walked up to him and his friends and asked to see his guide badge, repeating the warning that unaccredited tours are prohibited. Was the small group expected to view the artwork in total silence? “Apparently, yes — that was the case,” says Ilyasov. “We were redirected to the museum’s administrators for further clarification.”

The strict policy has tested some people’s appreciation for Zelfira Tregulova, who’s widely credited with reviving the Tretyakov Gallery’s popularity. “I have great respect for Zelfira Tregulova,” says Ilyasov. “I like how she brought life back to the gallery, and what wonderful exhibitions have taken place there lately, but this policy against ‘illegal tours’ is a bit silly.”

On July 2, a Facebook user registered under the name “Tnargime Rǝnni” (who refused to identify himself to Meduza) published a story describing a similar incident at the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val. Visiting the Vereschagin exhibition with friends who were “unfamiliar with art,” he says he shared a little bit of background information about the painter. A curator quickly informed his group that unauthorized tours are banned at the museum, and a security guard soon followed, demanding to see a tour guide badge and then telling them to leave the gallery, when he couldn’t produce one.

The gallery says its zero-tolerance policy is intended to prevent outside guides from giving visitors inaccurate information.

Marina Elzesser, the Tretyakov Gallery’s deputy director, told Meduza that the new rule against unaccredited guides came into effect on May 15. The guidelines state that anyone talking to their companions about the artwork who isn’t a member of the museum staff is required to obtain a badge identifying them as a “guest guide.” These badges can cost money. At the gallery on Lavrushinsky Lane, a badge for a group of 20 people runs 5,310 rubles ($84), though it’s free at the Krymsky Val branch.

“I think it’s a necessary measure because we often receive complaints from visitors who say their guide misinformed them, and then the guide turns out to be just an ordinary guest,” Elzesser argues.

The deputy director also says she’s studied the surveillance footage of the visit by the Moscow State University historians. They were “bunched up in a tight group giving their students information about the paintings,” she says. “We have a wonderful relationship with the university’s history department, and its staff know perfectly well how to arrange such events properly. We were not informed about the lessons carried out on our premises [on June 15], and we believe that the teachers were holding a class and not just having a discussion, as they claim. That is why they should have registered their visit in advance on our website and made the necessary payment.”

Update: On July 5, Moscow State University’s History Department formally apologized to the museum for its faculty’s “incorrect behavior,” agreeing that its instructors should have obtained special badges before leading their students on the excursion.

Story by Irina Kravtsova, translation by Ivan Kh

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